Almost every film course requires students to watch at least part of Man With a Movie Camera within the first week. Why? Because it illustrates so many different techniques of editing, from freeze-frame to double exposure to split screen. It is unabashedly avant-garde, and for a documentary it is quite surreal at times. Indeed some would argue that it can’t really be called a documentary because the view of everyday life in a Soviet city it presents is so manipulated, constructed and staged (but perhaps this also shows a certain reality about documentary-making).
The director is shown on-screen, taking his shots and also in the editing room. It has a propaganda aspect, showing an idealised and very artistic vision, although this style soon fell out of favour. Vertov ended his career as an editor rather than a film-maker.
This special Blu-Ray edition from BFI has a new score by Michael Kamen (well known for his scores for Peter Greenaway and for Jane Campion’s The Piano), which is the score more commonly used in the UK. There is also an Alloy Orchestra score, which can be found on the US Blu-Ray and the original BFI DVD.
That’s not the only special feature, of course: there is a commentary by Russian film scholar Yuri Tsivian and, most importantly, three more less frequently seen Vertov documentaries: Kino-Pravda No. 21, One-Sixth of the Globe, and Three Songs of Lenin. There is also additional commentary on Three Songs of Lenin, mostly related to its WH Auden connection.
The Blu-Ray transfer is the kind of quality you’d expect from BFI, and the film is unmissable. It is an astonishing snapshot of that time in Russia, and a document of how film techniques that are very commonly used today came into being. You can draw a straight line from this film to Brian De Palma’s famous use of split-screen techniques, the use of jump-cuts by Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave, and Martin Scorsese’s penchant for freeze-frames. Besides its educational value, it is also extremely enjoyable to watch, which isn’t always the case for silent films.
Documentary | Russia, 1929 | BFI | PG |27th July 2015 (UK) |dir.Dziga Vertov | Mikhail Kaufman | Buy: (Blu-ray)