Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

“The ‘honesty’ of documentary as compared with fiction film, the ‘perfection’ of the cinematic eye compared with human eye.”

‘Man with a Movie Camera’, directed by Dziga Vertov in 1929, is a Soviet experimental film that pushes the boundaries of how cinema was understood at the time. The film contains no plot, but, like ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ fifty years later, it uses apparently abstract imagery and a focus on cities, landscape and people, to unravel a complex political and social commentary. It’s a film with a manifesto, a documentary born out of a rigid and fervent view of what cinema, particularly cinema displaying the real world, should be. As in ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, the editing and juxtaposition of the images are crucial to the sense of pace, in the version I saw with a score by Michael Nyman from 2002, the music supported this feeling of progression and of reaching a climax. Unlike  ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, however, Vertov uses unconventional camera effects such as stop motion animation and reversed footage to give his documentary an almost Cocteau-like feeling of unreality. This is strange as the approach is otherwise pure with no intertitles, no narrative and only the presentation and placing of the images to tell the ‘story’. It’s a film that is clearly rich in meaning, but for someone like me who is unfamiliar with 1920s Soviet history, it is a challenge to unwrap. However, the focus on the means of production, both of the way films are put together and on shots of shops and factories, is suggestive of a Marxist approach. Indeed, this film seems to me an (albeit unlikely) progenitor of films such as Fellini’s ‘8 ½’, Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’ and Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’. Each movie is about filmmaking, and each tackle the subject from the very particular and distinctive directorial standpoints. ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ is the same: a film about cinema that seeks to politicise as it seeks to create art.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s short but rich with detail and a complex form that will take multiple viewings to untangle. Watch in a double bill with ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ to see the bookends of a particular approach to documentary making.

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