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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Russian & Soviet Documentary: A Historical Excursion (Part Two- Medvedkin, Yutkevich, the 1960s and Mikhail Romm)

The problem of writing a short piece on documentary is that a day later one regrets not mentioning this or that film or director. Well, in Chris Marker's extraordinary film about Alexander Medvedkin he mentions (towards the end) the discovery of a colour film made by Medvedkin in 1939. This film was made using chromide gelatine colour technology and recorded a physical culture parade on Red Square. Medvedkin had been planning a satirical film on 'the tragic fate of the Russian peasantry' but it never got made. Instead Medvedkin with the film 'Blossoming Youth' marked his permanent return to documentary.

Emma Widdis sees Medvedkin's return to documentary as essentially a tragic story given his hopes of continuing with the theme of his great masterpiece Happiness. For Widdis, Medvedkin never found the same voice again, and had to sing again 'in a different voice'. This voice was essentially a documentary voice and between 1959 &1989 he made eighteen documentary film 'essays' for the Central Studio of Documentary Film. Widdis goes on to categorize them as being essentially of a single strand in documentary

In all of them he used the same method: the re-editing of pre-existent footage from diverse sources in order to create his own montage, given structure and meaning by a voice-over, usually provided for by Medvedkin himself. His angry narrative aimed ... to leave 'no place for a second opinion' ... he brought the full weight of his substantial experience to bear.

Owing, perhaps, as much to content as to form Medvedkin's post-war films have rarely been shown and, although, the common view is that they are political pamphlets in many ways directed against 'easy targets' in the Soviet Union - the West, colonialism (or imperialism) and so on, some of these films of these films really do seem ahead of their time.  A Chronicle of Alarm, for example, denounced a new evil - that of crimes against the environment as well as animal experimentation. Ludmila Dzhulai in her book Documentary Illusion was to say about his anti-militaristic film Reason against Madness (1960) that his harsh, emotional narration plays a large role in this film of denunciation, yet cinematographic devices have an even greater effect. Medvedkin's documentary films are dismissed in most accounts as being too much in step with the Soviet ideology of the time and rarely shown, they may some day warrant a reappraisal in artistic terms. It is difficult to say from many accounts - Emma Widdis's two slight pages give a solely thematic account and even Chris Marker's sympathetic film Le Tombeau d'Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik) is a film (and a brilliant one at that) of its own time. Widdis all the same accepts that Medvedkin was utterly sincere about the documentary films he made concluding that As the world changed around him, Medvedkin held firm to his beliefs. Marker's final shot in his epistolary documentary also suggests that Medvedkin's complete reappraisal may be some time in the future.

The Day of the New World was one of the first attempts to portray the Soviet Union as an entire country on a single day. 97 cameramen worked in different parts of the country to capture a single day in the life of this country (that day being August 24th 1940). The film was headed by Roman Karmen and Mikhail Slutsky and based on a suggestion by the writer Maxim Gorky. The film had 200 separate episodes and somehow the complex editing of such a film did achieve a cogent narrative. The film form in fact would serve as an example to other similar projects such as Slutsky's A day of the war filmed in 1942 and A day of a victorious country. Other films like this would be made even in later post-war periods.

The immediate post-war years left, it seems, few documentary masterpieces. However there is one tantalising film little written about (and it seems hard to track down) edited by the great film-maker and theorist, Sergei Yutkevich named 'The Youth of Our Country' and made in 1946. A colour documentary film on a Physical Culture parade it was said to have been highly praised by Henri Matisse and would make a fascinating comparison with Medvdekin's 1939 film.

It wasn't until the 1960s that documentary film genuinely got back on its feet in the Soviet Union. yet strangely one could argue that the Thaw period feature film had become more documentary in its style (the mythical and myth-making era of Stalinism was over and there was a definite return to a more documentary-like realism in films generally). A fiercely argued over essay by Yutkevich in 1964 Thoughts on Cine-truths and on Cine-lies was to shake up the documentary world accused of inertia and, in many ways, served as a catalyst for a return to documentary in the late 1960s.

The Great Patriotic War continued to be, perhaps, the most significant theme in documentaries. One of the major films made and well-received at the time was Roman Karmen's The Great Patriotic - a large epic chronicle of the war.


Other films were made by Solvtsov on the siege of Leningrad and some would give a more personal or intimate take on the war. An artistically original film on the Battle of Stalingrad was made by the great Thaw director Grigory Chukhrai with his film Memory. He would later go on to make a documentary about the film director Mark Donskoi. The 1960s would also mark a search for new characters and a new emphasis on the human. Documentary was now seen, in many ways, as a study in the nature of humans or человековение. V.P. Lisakovich's Katiusha is said to be one of the prime examples of this new trend in documentary.

Yet few of these films reached an impact outside of the Soviet sphere. The single greatest documentary film of the 1960s was to be made by a director outside the documentary world. While Mikhail Romm's Ordinary Fascism was to run into extraordinary difficulties not being shown outside of film festivals like Oberhausen. It was said that the gray cardinal of the Politbureau Suslov asked Romm after watching the film 'Mikhail Ilich, why do you hate us so?' Yet as Evgeny Margolit so cogently argues in his essay on the film in his monumental study of Soviet Cinema, this film didn't try to make points about the identity of fascism and communism as revisionists in the 1990s so often tried to argue. Margolit states that "the former he passionately hated while he remained faithful to the latter to the end of his days". However, the film did have a definitely anti-Stalinist bent and the subtext of the film was certainly how Stalinism was entirely alien to any revolutionary ideals. Romm's film was no historical chronicle of Nazism and entirely alien to those films which had been made about Nazism either in the Soviet Union or abroad. Romm here was trying to show the soil on which fascism and Nazism grew. Picking his way through two and a half million metres of film and thousands of photographs to make this collage film, Romm emphasized his debt to the principle of silent montage feature films and to his master and teacher Eisenstein.

Yet, as Margolit argues, the single thing that makes this documentary a sensational artistic feat in itself was Romm's decision to use his own voice in the film. While during the Stalinist period the voice over was predominant, the voice of the film director was impossible, even in Margolit's words, under categorical prohibition. The voice over would be imposing and enunciated with steely precision whereas Romm's ironic, caustic intonation in his running commentary would undermine and break up the official and external meaning of each cadre. In many ways Romm's documentary was even an assault on himself and his own previous film-making experience during the Stalin years. Margolit's argument that Romm's film gave birth to Khutsiev's unique film on the aftermath of World War Two 'It was in the month of May' is a powerful one. Khutsiev's view of the war was a truly unique one. Khutsiev would be one of those (along with Elem Klimov) to finish Romm's follow up documentary (later entitled 'And nonetheless I believe...' which would look at contemporary issues.
Romm's humфnism, scientism and documentality of vision would be present even in his feature film Nine Days of One Year.



Other feature film-makers of a different generation would also make documentary films of some significance. One which had a particular significance for the development of his future career was the Georgian film-maker Otar Iosseliani's film on a cast iron factory Чугун where he worked 'undercover' (or at least unbeknown to his fellow workers) for a year. He debunked all the stereotypical images of Soviet labour as he was to do in his later masterpiece Листопад (Falling Leaves) one of the greatest films made in Soviet film in post-war years.

Before I turn to the perestroika years in post three of this series, two figures of exceptional relevance will be spoken of in a separate post. One is a key figure in the Thaw and Stagnation periods whose one documentary film has still yet to be granted the full significance that it truly merits. The other is an Armenian documentary film-maker who some regard as the only true successor to Dziga Vertov and montage cinema in the Soviet Union.

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