March 11, 2006

Kino Eyes and Agit Trains

Kino Eyes and Agit Trains


In spite the continuing civil war, severe shortages and material discomfort, the years after the 1917 Revolution were ones of intense, almost euphoric, artistic creativity in the newly created Soviet Union. The overthrow of the old order gave license to iconoclasm, experi­mentation and re-evaluation in all the arts, but particularly in cinema, which for the first time in its short life was taken seriously by intellectuals, politicians and artists.

The -Soviets considered film the most 'modern' and 'objective' art form and the least encumbered with bourgeoisie associations. 'Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important,' Lenin asserted in 1919. As if in response, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Alexander Dovzhenko (amongst many others) turned from the traditional arts of theatre, poetry and painting respectively, to work with celluloid.

Lenin's statement was not primarily an aesthetic judgement - would he even have recognized such a thing? - but a measure of the significance he attached to cinema as a tool for communication and propaganda. The Soviet Union was a vast, heterogeneous country, peopled by predominantly illiterate peasants who spoke dozens of different dialects and languages. Educating them in the basic tenets of communism, and setting in motion the enormous socio-political changes of the Revolution was a massive job - for which cinema was ideally suited. The flourishing, state-sponsored Soviet cinema of the 19ZOS and 1930s should be viewed in this light: as essentially a cinema of propaganda.

From the outset film-makers debated whether factual or fiction films were best suited to this task of re-education and 'agitation*. Some believed that fiction could carry a message most effectively, because an often bitter pill could be coated in a sugary coating of entertainment. Others, influenced by constructivists like Mayakovsky and Rodchenko, espoused an 'art of facts', believing that fiction films were merely another opiate of the masses and should be banned from the Soviet Union. To resolve the argument Lenin instituted die so-called 'Leninist Film Proportion’, which specified that a certain percentage of all film production should be factual.

In the two decades immediately after the Revolution Soviet non-fiction film received unprecedented government support. The result was ' a gloriously fecund period of technical and formal experimentation that opened up a whole new area of possibilities for the documentary. At the forefront of these new ideas was a remarkable individual called Dziga Vertov.

Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Camera

Dziga Vertov was born Denis Kaufman in Bialystock (now Poland, then Russia) in January 1896, the eldest of three brothers who all left their mark on world cinema. The middle brother, Mikhail (1897-1981), became a renowned Soviet documentary director in his own right and was cameraman on most of Vertov's films, including the celebrated Man With A Movie Camera. The youngest of the three, Boris (1906-1980), was separated from his siblings during the Revolution and educated in Paris. There he photographed all of Jean Vigo's films before emigrating to America and becoming the cinematographer of choice for both Elia Kazan and: Sidney Lumet.

Of the brothers, however, it was Vertov
1 who has had the most notable and lasting influence on cinema history.

Emerging from the Constructivist melee around Mayakovsky, Vertov began editing revolutionary newsreels during and after the Civil War, including Kino-Pravda ('Film-Truth'), a film equivalent to the Commu­nist party newspaper, Pravda. Throughout his career, thereafter, he never strayed from an absolute belief in the revelatory capacity of unscripted documentary footage. What did develop were his complex ideas on montage and filming technique which were most fully expressed in a series of 'documentaries' in the late 192,0s and early 1930s: The Eleventh Year (1928), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Enthusiasm (1931) and Three Songs of Lenin (1934). For all their experimental form, Vertov insisted that his films had a clear purpose. 'The important thing,' he said, 'is not [to] separate form from content. The secret lies in unity of form and content.'

Vertov theorized relentlessly, and wrote numerous articles and manifestos expounding his ideas. For all the complexity of their appearance (not helped by the peculiar layouts and typefaces he characteristically adopted), they are relatively straightforward. He and his associates (whom he dubbed 'The Kinoks') believed that fiction cinema was an irrevocably bourgeois art form and should be abandoned. In its place they posited a cinema of facts, made up of documentary footage of real people in real situations, if possible filmed unawares. Central to his theories is a kind of idolization of the camera. Vcrtov believed that the camera (which, in combination with the editing process, he called the 'kino-eye') was in many respects superior to the human eye, able as it was to sec at long distances, to film in slow or fast motion, etc. Moreover, in the editing process, scenes from different times and places could be cut together, the same scene viewed from several different angles, impressions of speed and energy given by fast cutting . . . The kino-eye was liberated from the confines of time, space and normal causation. A kino-eye film was able, Vertov believed, to reveal a deeper level of truth in the world than was normally perceived by the 'imperfect human eye'.

Watching Vertov's films today what is most impressive is their no-holds-barred willingness to explore every technical capability the cinema has at its disposal. Vertov and his kinoks did everything and anything: used freeze frames, multiple frames, animation, telescopic and microscopic lenses, multiple-exposures, 'subliminal* cuts of one or two frames, slow motion, fast motion, cameras in planes, cameras hand-held and cameras in cars.

Vertov's ideas on sound film were also prescient and were expounded several years before the process became technically feasible. He believed in using a combination of 'direct sound*, music and effects. He did not think sound should be used naturalistically, but wanted it to create a tension with the image, by turns counterpointing and underscoring it. His own first sound film, Enthusiasm (including probably the first use of 'direct sound' in a documentary) was a masterpiece. Charlie Chaplin, who at the time was similarly preoccupied with how to use sound anti-naturalistically in his films, wrote: 'I regard the film Enthusiasm as one of the most moving symphonies I have ever heard. Dziga Vertov is a musician. Professors should learn from him instead of arguing with him.'

Not surprisingly, Vertov's radical ideas about the superiority of factual film were unpopular with the Soviet Union's fiction directors, particularly Sergei Eisenstein, who publicly lambasted them (although he had started his film career working for Vertov). Perhaps it was inevitable that as the renown of the fiction directors increased in the 1930s, Vertov's influence would wane. Even more problematic was the increasingly hostile interference of Stalin's bureaucratic regime, which insisted that all films should have a detailed script for perusal prior to shooting. Vertov, whose films rested on the very idea of spontaneity and the rejection of scripts, was crippled. He refused to compromise and fell under ideological suspicion. His position was not helped by an insistence that it was the documentary film-makers duty to show 'life-as-it-is* — not to show the ideal the apparatchiks wanted to see. He got into particular trouble for filming the great Soviet famines of the early 192.0s and 1930s.

Vertov was largely forgotten in the West and reviled in Russia by the time of his death in I9S4- However, his influence revived in the early 1960s with the rise of cinema verite — the very term being a French translation of his Kino-Pravda (sec p. 2.49).

The first of these extracts is from Vertov's manifesto The Council of Three (192.3) and the second from Provisional Instructions to Kino-eye Groups (1927).

The Council of Three

1. Upon observing the films that have arrived from America and the West and taking into account available information on work and artistic experimentation at home and abroad, I arrive at the following conclusion:
The death sentence passed in 1919 by the kinoks [the name given by Vertov to his collaborators] on all films, with no exceptions, holds for the present as well. The most scrupulous examination does not reveal a single film, a single artistic experiment, properly directed to the emancipation of the camera, which is reduced to a state of pitiable slavery, of subordination to the imperfections and the short-sightedness of the human eye.

We do not object to cinema's undermining of literature and the theatre; we wholly approve of the use of cinema in every branch of knowledge, but we define these functions as accessory, as secondary offshoots of cinema.

The main and essential thing is:
The sensory exploration of the world through film.

We therefore take as the point of departure the use of the camera as a kino-eye, more perfect than the human eye, for the exploration of the chaos of visual phenomena that fills space.

The kino-eye lives and moves in time and space; it gathers and records impressions in a manner wholly different from that of the human eye. The position of our bodies while observing or our perception of a certain number of features of a visual phenomenon in a given instant are by no means obligatory limitations for the camera which, since it is perfected, perceives more and better.
We cannot improve the making of our eyes, but we can endlessly perfect the camera.

Until now many a cameraman has been criticized for having filmed a running horse moving with unnatural slowness on the screen (rapid cranking of the camera) - or for the opposite, a tractor ploughing a field too swiftly (slow cranking of the camera), and the like.

These are chance occurrences, of course, but we are preparing a system, a deliberate system of such occurrences, a system of seeming irregularities to investigate and organize phenomena.

Until now, we have violated the movie camera and forced it to copy the work of our eye. And the better the copy, the better the shooting was thought to be. Starting today we are liberating the camera and making it work in the opposite direction - away from copying.

The weakness of the human eye is manifest. We affirm the kino-eye, discovering within the chaos of movement the result of the kino-eye's own movement; we affirm the kino-eye with its own dimensions of time and space, growing in strength and potential to the point of self-affirmation.

2. I make the viewer see in the manner best suited to my presentation of this or that visual phenomenon. The eye submits to the will of the camera and is directed by it to those successive points of the action that, most succinctly and vividly, bring the film phrase to the height or depth of resolution.

Example; shooting a boxing match, not from the point of view of a spectator present, but shooting the successive movements {the blows) of the contenders.

Example: the filming of a group of dancers, not from the point of view of a spectator sitting in the auditorium with a ballet on the stage before him.

After all, the spectator at a ballet follows, in confusion, now the combined group of dancers, now random individual figures, now someone's legs — a series of scattered perceptions, different for each spectator.

One can't present this to the film viewer. A system of successive movements requires the filming of dancers or boxers in the order of their actions, one after another. . . by forceful transfer of the viewer's eye to tin: successive derails that must be seen.

The camera 'carries' the film viewer's eyes from arms to legs, from legs to eyes and so on, in the most advantageous sequence, and organizes the details into an orderly montage study.

3. ... I am kino-eye.

From one person I take the hands, the strongest and most dextrous; from another I take the legs, the swiftest and most shapely; from a third, the most beautiful and expressive head - and through montage I Create a new, perfect man.

I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it.

Now and forever, I free myself from human immobility, I am in constant motion, I draw near, then away from objects, I crawl under, I climb on to them. I move apace with the muzzle o: a galloping horse, I plunge full speed into a crowd, I outstrip running .soldiers, I fall on my back, I ascend with an aeroplane, I plunge and soar together with plunging and soaring bodies. Now I, a camera, fling myself along their resultant, maneuvering in the chaos of movement, recording move­ment, starting with movements composed of the most complex combinations.

Free of the limits of time and space, I put together any given points in the universe, no matter where I've recorded them.

My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you.

Source: Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, edited by Annette Michelson, University of California Press, Berkley, 1984.

Esther Shub and the Art of Compilation

'It is amazing how many unexpected solutions come up when you hold film stock in your hands. Just like letters: they are born on the top of the pen.’

Esther (or Esfir) Shub (1899-1959) was perhaps the most outstanding woman film-maker of the silent period. Bringing her genius as an editor to bear on old news and home movie footage, which no one before her had bothered to give a second thought to, let alone looked after, she constructed a series of brilliant compilation films which told the story of Russia from the turn of the century to her own time: The Fall of The Romanov Dynasty, The Great Road (both 1927) and The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy {1928). Almost incidentally, Shub single-handedly brought about a world-wide awareness of the cultural and material value of 'archive footage*, setting in motion the principles which would lead to the establishment of the first film archives.

Compilation films like Charles Urban's The Battle of The Somme (1916) and Vertov's Anniversary of The Revolution (1919) had, of course, been made before, but they were little more than a series of (more or less) evocative shots strung together with titles. What Shub did was bring a firm narrative sense and the creative montage techniques which she had learned from Vcrtov and Eisenstein, to bear on the material. Shub had an enormous talent for expressing her own viewpoint without distorting the authentic impact of the selected footage. Her films arc fascinating cinematic essays, which for all their radical political purpose, are suffused with a sense of sympathy and humanity.

Although Shub was essentially a disciple of Vcrtov - believing like him in the pre-eminent value of filmed facts - she managed to stay friends with Vertov's arch rival, Eisenstein. As mentioned in the following extract she gave Eisenstein his first film job, as her editing assistant. Their influence on one another did not stop there. She was inspired by Eisenstein's montage in Potemkin (1916), while he in turn admitted that his staging of the events of the July revolt in October (1927) - one of that film's most effective sequence:; - was based on the impressions he had gained of the same event watching it unfold in factual footage on Shub's editing bench.

In addition to her early historical films, Shub edited or compiled numerous documentaries, including the powerful testament to the Spanish Civil War, Spain (1939)- Unfortunately one of her most intriguing projects, Women, a history of Russian women from 1914 through to the mid 1930s, remained unrealized.

This piece is from Jay Leyda's history of the compilation film, Films Beget Films.

In 1912, as the Civil War and intervention ended and as NEP began
2, Esther Shub entered the distribution office of Goskino [the main Soviet film company, her work to be editing and titling foreign and pre-revolutionary Russian films for Soviet audiences. A friend of Mayakovsky and Eisenstein in the Meyerhold group, she brought intelligence, taste and a sense of social responsibility into this generally despised employment. The first jobs given her were to adapt American serials -with Eddie Polo, Ruth Roland, Pearl White. When she discovered that the faithful Russian audiences did not need the usual swift resumes given at the start of each new chapter of a serial thriller, Shub took these discards to the cutting table she kept in her home, and evenings were spent with film friends there making film jokes with the scraps. (One of her friends was Lev Kuleshov [theoretician of montage and mentor to Eisenstein and Pudovkin], who had experienced a serious variant of this pastime when he edited news reels of the Civil War.) Sometimes she would be handed such scraps - without title, subtitles, or any indication of order - to be transformed into a film that could be released; thus Chaplin's Carmen landed on her table in the form of a hundred confused little rolls. It was clearly intended as a parody on Bizet's opera, so she supplied it with titles in the same spirit, and she remembered its reception (it may have been Chaplin's introduction to Russian audiences) as gratifyingly hilarious.

More difficult was the transformation of the two-part German thriller, Doctor Mabuse, with its lengthy time-and-metre consuming titles and an involved tangle of plots, into a single film that could be followed with less dependence on titles. This required a study of each shot's content and composition, a close examination of each actor's movements and expressions, unattached to the old titles. Rhythm and tempo — of each shot and in relation one to another - became vital factors that could not be ignored, as its director, Fritz Lang, had seemed to ignore them in his original cutting. Shub learned the power of scissors and cement in relation to meaning, and Eisenstein, whose assistance on this job was his first film work, learned too.

When Russian directors saw Shub's value to their own productions, she was transferred to the Third Studio of Goskino to advise and cut new films by Tarich, Ivanov-Barkov, Froelich, Roshal, Mikhin and Molchanov. There were also two months of work with Eisenstein, at her home, on the shooting script of Strike.

Shub writes that it was the impression made upon her early in 192.6 by Potemkin that induced her to seek in newsreel material another film way to show the revolutionary past. She found lists of newsreels filmed in 1917, she learned that the Tsar had maintained his own court cameraman — and she felt sure that she could find enough footage to work with. But the Goskino director, Trainin, answered her every proposal and enthusiasm with 'No', and 'told me to go on editing fictional films — I might even get an opportunity to make my own film with actors.' She turned to the Sovkino Studio, where the livelier minds of Bliakhin and Shklovsky had some say in policy, and after several conferences they said 'Yes'.

• At the end of summer, 1926, I went to Leningrad. It was even tougher there. All the valuable negatives and positives of wartime and pre-revolutionary newsreels were kept in a damp cellar on Sergievsky Street. The cans were coated with rust. In many places the dampness had caused the emulsion to come away from the • celluloid base. Many shots that appeared on the lists had disappeared altogether. Not one metre of negative or positive on the February Revolution had been preserved, and I was even shown a document that declared that no film of that event could be found in Leningrad.

In spite of such assurances Shub persisted and some of that footage did come to light. An old newsreel worker, Khmelnitsky, who had helped her restore some of the damaged footage, brought her small cans of 'counter-revolutionary' film that turned out to be the private 'home movies' of Nikolai II that she had hoped would turn up some day. In her two months in Leningrad, Shub inspected 60,000 meters of film, from which she chose 5,100 meters to take back to work on in Moscow. She spent all her free time in wandering about Leningrad, a new city for her, to feel at home with its geography and appearance in the 1917 shots. Before leaving she supervised the filming of various documents, newspapers and items associated with the events she was reconstruct­ing.

In the montage I tried to avoid looking at die newsreel material for its own sake, and to maintain the principle of its documentary quality. All was subordinated to the theme. This gave me the . possibility, in spite of the known limitations of the photographed events and facts, to link the meanings of the material so that it evoked the pre-revolutionary period and the February days.

After the first private screening (where the section on 'World War' was particularly admired) the release title was decided: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. The only credit on the posters was 'Work by E. I. Shub'. In March 192.7, as her first 'work' was released, Shub began her second. The Great Road was to use all Soviet newsreels for the ten years since the October Revolution, beginning (hopefully) with whatever could be found of the Revolution itself. She learned that newsreels of the recent past had been kept just as carelessly, if not more so, than had the oldest Russian newsreels unearthed for her first film. Identification of place and time of shooting was an unforeseen obstacle, but the several living cameramen of the Civil War helped her here. She had more to inspect (150,000 meters) than for the older film, but after 1921-12 the material grew thinner:

From that date newsreels were shot without much plan and quickly put aside with little comprehension of their historic value, which of course increased with each passing year. Even worse is their change of tone after the Civil War; suddenly the concentration was on parades, meetings, arrivals, departures, delegates, and such - and almost no record was kept of how we transformed the country to a new political economy — or of the resulting construction.

Some precious footage had been sold abroad, without any master copies or negatives having been kept at home— too little raw film in those years to think of such niceties, or of the future. A quantity of early reels had been sent to the United States, as thanks for the work of the American Relief Association during the months of famine. This had fallen into private hands, yet Shub traced this footage and arranged through Amtorg (the Soviet trade office in the United States) for its purchase, for $6,000. (It was cannily copied before the sale, for a future interesting use against the Soviet Union!)

In this lot I found material of the imperialist war, of the funeral of victims of the February Revolution, and six completely unfamiliar shots of Lenin [filmed in 1920 by an American cameraman]. Soviet audiences saw these intimate scenes of Lenin for the first time in The Great Road.
The new film was intended for the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution — in early November. But the new film form discovered and perfected by Shub was not yet on secure ground. Her right as an 'author' of these films was challenged, and it was Mayakovsky who publicly ridiculed those who tried in any way to belittle the value of this extremely important work.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty had used newsreel material of 191 z—17; The Great Road continued through the archives of 1917. In her searches Shub had found a tempting lot of Russian newsreel from 1896 through 191 z, and the Tolstoy centenary to come in 19z8 offered her an opportunity to employ it. Her first Tolstoy hope was to depend on the considerable footage that had been filmed of him, but she found only about 100 feet of this — a fifth as much as the footage of his funeral! She decided to place her actual Tolstoy footage in a larger frame of Russia since the turn of the century. The result was The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy:

This montage must serve as an eloquent illustration of the fact that any available acting method for the historical film, no matter how good or talented, has only an ephemeral value in comparison with the chronicle film, which possesses a conviction that can never pale and can never age.

... In Shub's first three precedent-forming films her cutting ideas usually combined a forcefully simple logic with a minute study of the formal elements in the available footage; the ideas were often built on contrasts that may seem obvious now — but it took imagination to dig them from her raw material. Here is an example, in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, of one of her direct poster juxtapositions:

A crowd of elegant idlers are dancing
(a mazurka on the awninged deck of a yacht}.
The dancing tires some of them. They drink wine.
TITLE: 'It made me sweat.'
And again they dance.
title: ' . . . sweat.*
A peasant, exhausted by his work, ploughs a furrow.

Source: Films Beget Films by Jay Leyda, Allen and Unwin, London, 1964.

Agit Trains and Mobile Laboratories

Agit or Kine Trains (and sometimes boats) were a peculiarly Soviet invention: trains which traveled the country disseminating propaganda and 'agitating' the populace. Brightly painted with revolutionary slogans and scenes, on board they had a printing press that produced pamphlets, posters and newspapers, a theatre company, a cinema, film processing laboratory and cameramen. The first Agit Train was sent to the Eastern Front of the Civil War in 1918 - with Vertov on board, acting as an editor — but they were at their most popular in the 1910s.

This piece was written by Roman Karmen (1906—1978), who was a renowned documentary cameraman specializing in combat footage. His work includes Moscow (1933), Spain (1937), China Defends Herself (1938) and numerous films on Vietnam and Cuba.

Among the most noteworthy innovations in our work were the traveling film editorial laboratories sent to each of the major construction enterprises in various parts of our country. This is how it was done: units of documentary film workers - several cameramen, the director, the editor, the cutter and the laboratory assistant - went to an important construction, established themselves there, having organized a small laboratory, cutting room and printing machine for the titles. The task of these mobile laboratories was to give the workers on the construction active help by issuing film magazines regularly. These films were devoted to the most vital interests of the construction itself. They propagandized the latest methods of building, laying concrete, assembling equipment. They showed the achievements of individual pioneers,

and mercilessly exposed the failures and delays observed in one or other of the departments. In these magazines you could see film reporting of the most different kinds: the feuilleton, brief notice, leading article, character study, portrait, satire. By adopting this new method the news reel-makers were putting into practice Lenin's famous words about newspapers. He said: 'The newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and agitator, it is also a collective organizer.' The mobile cutting rooms had a great influence on the history of our actuality film. While performing the role of 'collective organizer', they played another important part - that of systematically recording all the stages of the country's construction. This was the beginning of organized historical recording in film. The record now consists of millions of meters of film. In this history, arranged on shelves in film vaults, are the 'biographies' of such giants as the Magnitogorsk metallurgical combine and the Dnieper hydroelectric station. These are biographies in the real meaning of the word - from the day of the giant's birth, from the first explosions of ammonite on the barren shores of the Dnieper to the exciting moment when the grandiose turbines were first set in motion and the meter indicator recorded its first tremor - from the first prospecting parties, camping in a tent at the foot of Magnitny Mountain, and the people digging the first excavations in frost and snowstorms to the first piece of metal obtained and the aerial panorama showing the greatest metallurgical combine in the world, surrounded by a town which, only a few year:; ago, was not marked on any map.

The mobile laboratories, fully justified in practice, served as a stimulus for a new experimental enterprise — the kine-train. This was a film studio on wheels. The coaches were equipped with film laboratories, cutting tables, projection room, a typography and a photographic laboratory. Two of the coaches had compartments, which were the living-quarters of the directors, laboratory assistants and cameramen. There were also a kitchen and dining room. For several years, this original documentary film studio made expeditions all over the country. The train would arrive on the scene of a major construction, stay there for a long period and perform the same task as the traveling newsreel laboratories. In addition to film magazines, the unit issued a newspaper and an illustrated gazette. The workers from the construction would come to the projection room to see the documentaries produced in .the train. After completing an important job of cultural propaganda in one district, the train would go on to do the same work at the other end of the country. The material filmed by this kine-train, its various shorts and magazines, now have exceptional historical value.

Source: Soviet Documentary by Roman Karmen in Experiment in the Film, ed. Roger Manvell, Grey Walls Press, London, 1949.

A Kinok Speaks

In Dziga Vertov's most famous film, The Man with a Movie Camera, the actual man with the camera was his brother, Mikhail Kaufman — whose idea the film originally was.

Kaufman's practical nature was vital to the success of his more theoretical brother. An energetic innovator, he invented many new pieces of apparatus for his camera and developed several novel special-effects processes. Vertov's theories about 'capturing life unawares' were a response to Kaufman's experiences on location.

As a cameraman Kaufman's abilities were not just technical, he also had a remarkable facility for capturing striking, often poetic, images. Both Eisenstein and Dovzhenko, the two greatest Soviet fiction directors of the period, tried to get him photograph their films but he turned them down, declaring that he was committed to the documentary.

As a director Kaufman made several notable films of his own, including Moscow (1926), acknowledged as the first in the genre of City Symphonies and the little seen but greatly admired Spring (1919).

This rare interview appeared in the magazine October in 1979.

Kaufman: You could say that all of my work consisted in learning to film life in such a way that it could impress and influence one emotionally without the mediation of the artist or actor. To simply film, photograph life is to produce a chronicle. We actually went beyond the limits of the chronicle and began to create works of art — using the image> working on the image through every possible means: through camera angles, through photography. If you take someone's picture, you should make it an image, not simply a photograph. This doesn't mean that I have to compose the person into an image. Rather I catch the moment when reality becomes an image.

Ever since childhood Vertov had the ability to perceive things through images and to communicate them in poetic form. It's interesting, by the way, that even as a child I was attracted to different forms of representation than he. I studied photographs, I drew and since we're discussing the early stages of our collaboration, we can say that it began when our beloved Aunt Masha graduated from medical school. Vertov wrote a poem for her, and I drew a sort of congratulation picture of a dove in flight. There was already a certain . . .

October: Division of labour.

Kaufman: Division of labour, and a form of collaboration - even though I did not always feel that Vertov perceived the material I shot quite as I did, even when something was missing. He was perceptive, however, and he had a way of communicating the emotional impact of life in very simple and effective ways, in both A Sixth of the World (19Z6) and Kino-Glaz (19x4), where the material had the most immediate role. I feel that he collected footage for A Sixth of the World very well, very effectively. The sense of collaboration was also very strong in Kino-Glaz. It was not distorted in his diaries or by later theoretical interpretations.

Today it appears as though scenarios had always existed for Forward, Soviet! (iyz6) and Man with a Movie Camera {19Z9). Vertov wrote in his diaries that he would have liked to have created films based totally upon documentary footage. Having gone through the archives, he acquired the skill and the desire to work solely with documentary footage. He used found archival footage, probably shot by cameramen at the front, or footage that had been preserved in the archive for long periods of time. He made a wonderful film that was nor, however, from my point of view, a poetic achievement, since it was made primarily from dry material, descriptive photographs of the civil war. Here there was a synthesized image of the army and of military heroism, of an army that had been victorious in this kind of warfare. I still remember this film, and I recall with great pleasure each frame of the civil war, shot by cameramen chosen at random and used without regard for chronology, but for the expressiveness which lay within each frame. Even though that expressiveness was primitive, since the shooting had been very standard, it had been extracted from the facts. They were found facts - not like what you get in Esfir Shub's work, where you have things like Tolstoy on a stroll . . .

October: In The Great Way, however, it's no longer so simple.

Kaufman: Something-special does happen in The Great Way. Until then Shub had tried to tell things in a poetic manner... By the way, I have Vertov's review of The Romanov Dynasty. In it he describes with revulsion this method of using footage - and to a certain extent he's right. From the point of view of historical context, however, it is extremely interesting, even if in terms of interpretation, the way in which images and emotions are presented, it leaves a great deal to be desired. The footage can speak for itself; it doesn’t need the author's interpretation . . .

October: In The Great Way Shub uses much of the footage of Lenin's burial that is used in Leninist Kino-Pravda (192.4) and in Three Songs of Lenin (193 4). Would you say that the different editing styles are grounded in totally different conceptions of documentary cinema?

Kaufman: Absolutely. With Shub, you somehow still have a connected plot, an accessible story which develops gradually. Her work is closer to Pudovkin's. We felt that when working with documentary material one shouldn't follow a standard narrative; it was extremely important to piece facts together and to unite everything in a single thrust. Actually, we felt that the point of editing, in the full sense of the word, was not only to have an image in every frame, but to produce . . .

October: A collision of images?

Kaufman: No, an interpretation of images.

October: Do you feel this was more closely related to Eisenstein's principle?

Kaufman: Not at all, although Eisenstein felt that he learned a lot from us. He came from the theatre; in the theatre one directs dramas, one strings beads. But he immediately realized, like an intelligent man with a good eye, that in cinema one needs a fresh outlook.

I want to clarify the basis for our impulse to seek a new film language, and the way in which I fulfilled my task and tried to improve the film camera. At the very beginning there were no telephoto lenses whatsoever, to film people unawares, let's say. It's harder to film straight on; it's much better to observe from afar. We had to work out a system of possibilities, independently of what we wanted or needed to film. The special problem was filming people. After an argument between us, Vertov decided to publish a sort of ban ruling out the 'kinokina' and temporarily ruling out the subject as an object of filming because of His inability to behave in front of a camera. As if a subject absolutely has to know how to behave! At that time I put it as follows: in the narrative feature one has to know how to act; in the documentary cinema one has to know how not to act. To be able not to act — one will have to wait a long time until the subject is educated in such a way that he won't pay any attention to the fact that he is being filmed. There's no school like that yet, is there? So instead of waiting, I said to him: 'You've just reminded me of the first photographs I took as a child.' I shot all sorts of interesting occurrences - the neighbors, and in school. There was an incident when I was expelled from school because I had snapped a picture of a pupil passing an answer to someone. And I said to Vertov, 'There's a whole system to be worked out. We have to find this system.* Following that line of thought I constructed a sort of tent, something like a telephone booth, for Man with a Movie Camera. There has to be an observation point somewhere. So I made myself up as a telephone repairman. There weren't any special lenses, so I went out and bought a regular camera and removed the deep-focus lens. Standing off to the side I could still get things very close up, and that's why you saw those wonderful faces of the children and of the Chinese magician in Man with a Movie Camera. This method supplied us with material which was much more expressive. For instance, when I filmed 'the rescue,' the attempt to save the asphyxiated guard, the first-aid team left. Standing off to the side, I observed the display of emotions, and totally new and fresh material appeared.

Gradually all these methods were perfected, and the whole system as well. The- shooting process for 'life as it is' required that people's attention be distracted. But there was more to it than just the shooting. We had to organize an environment in which we could work comfortably, one in which we could bathe as one would in oil. For example, when I filmed a threshing competition, nobody knew what was going to happen. I just promised that the one who could thresh the most would have his picture taken. At that time a photo was still worth a lot. They worked as hard as they could, and I observed from off to the side and filmed something that was reckless, wonderful fun, and an interesting work process. A wonderfully interesting episode came out of the threshing incident.

I also want to describe a series of devices, which we succeeded in working out and which Vertov included in his memoirs. We worked on them daily. Every day we thought of something new in the way of shooting methods: for example, shooting while in motion, which finally led to the motorcycle and the racing car. I would take part in races - not for the prize, but simply to observe, which didn't bother anybody. It worked splendidly; the steering wheel was used to keep the objects in front of one all the time. One didn't even have to look through the camera. Everything was set automatically. Before it was automatic I had to crank the camera by hand. Those were the devices, which then became the crane. At that time even narrative feature films didn't have cranes, the magnetic crane to cover a wide range. We had to use high look-out points, when these existed. There weren't any helicopters. One should really have climbed out on top of a chimney, because then one gets a sense of the whole layout, as well as a very unusual view of life. And I climbed on to the crane in front of millions of people.
Source: October Winter 1979, No.11.

1Denis Kaufman adopted the psuedonym Dziga Vertov after the Revolution. It has constructivist association; ant translates roundly as 'spinning at great speed'.

2NEP was Lenin's New Economic Policy, which permitted limited private enterprise - an emergency step to prevent total economic collapse after the civil war.


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