The Birth of Documentary from the Spirit of Journalism: Cine-Pravda, Cine Eye
Introduction: Russian Newsreel in 1918
In spring 1918 David Abelevich Kaufman,1
a Jewish student from Bialystok,2
joined the newsreel department of the Moscow Cinema Committee and became Dziga Vertov, the ‘spinning gypsy’ who was to revolutionise film.3
Russian newsreel at this time strove primarily to record. With few if any close-ups and minimal editing it was unable to exploit cinema’s power to articulate an argument. While Vertov and his circle tended to exaggerate the shortcomings of pre-Revolutionary newsreel,4
it was nevertheless true that it displayed little stylistic sophistication. Subject matter was similarly narrow, with a great deal of attention paid to chronicling the movements of the Russian and other royal families, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.5
World War I necessarily brought a new focus, but there was still little editing within a single theme, and an almost total reliance on the power of cinema to record, its evidential power. Typical of this is a series called Russian Military Newsreel
[Russkaia voennaia khronika], where a number of 1914 issues show towns taken by the Russian troops in Galicia, such as Lvov.6
The showing of the captured town in one or two barely recognisable long shots is assumed sufficient proof of the success of the Russian war effort. The unembellished claim is made in an intertitle and shots of the town are used purely as evidence. Images are not combined to construct an argument, and there are no expressive or telling details.7
Indeed, throughout these series, the only close-ups are portraits, usually of prominent generals, and serve not to intensify the action but simply to identify the individuals concerned.
The first newsreel series in which Vertov was involved, Cine Week
[Kinonedelia], initially displayed similar characteristics, including the same exclusive use of close-ups for portraits. Indeed, it has been argued that the concentration on personalities was a deliberate attempt literally to give the Soviet government a human face.8
However, from October 1918 Vertov himself became increasingly involved in selection and compilation.9
By December 1918 we begin to see editing employed to shape the material effectively, and a single theme being explored through a greater variety of shots. A good example of this is Cine Week
no. 27 (10 December 1918), where the breakdown in communications during the civil war is shown by cutting together travelling shots from a boat, shots of sunken barges and of goods waiting on the harbour front. Similarly, the next issue (no. 28, 17 December 1918) edits together various shots of people having their papers checked by Reds so as to argue that the secret police are doing a good job.10
Soon, however, Cine Week
too became a victim of war, and folded in July 1919. Over the next three years Vertov became involved with a range of documentary projects. He travelled to the front and for the first time supervised the filming of one of his projects, The Battle for Tsaritsyn
(1919). He also participated in mobile filming and screening trips, such as on an ‘agitprop’ train. When unable to obtain fresh footage, Vertov re-edited earlier Cine Week
newsreels into historical compilations, the most successful of which was The History of the Civil War
Here already images are manipulatively combined to articulate a marked point of view: an extended montage of the destruction perpetrated by the Whites is followed by shots of Trotsky speaking. In an intertitle he says: ‘We will respond to White terror with Red terror.’ Shots of battle follow. Already here Vertov is linking images to create a causality absent from the recorded material.12
It is convincing because the images seem to relate to each other.
It was in 1919 that Vertov first met Elizaveta Svilova, a working-class Russian girl who worked as an editor at the Moscow Cinema Committee. The other newsreel editors refused to edit the short segments of film for The Battle for Tsaritsyn
together with conventional longer shots in the innovative manner envisaged by Vertov, and simply discarded them as incomplete. Svilova took pity on the distraught Vertov and edited the film according to his instructions.13
Henceforth she alone edited his films. Thus began an incredible life-long creative partnership.14
It lay at the heart of the marriage that followed, in 1923, as it lay at the heart of every Vertov film. Joined the previous year by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman, fresh from the Red Army, the three began to collaborate on a more ambitious newsreel series Cine-Pravda
. It is with Cine-Pravda
that Vertov truly begins to realise cinema’s power to exhort in images. Cine-Pravda
no. 1 (June 1922) sets the tone for Vertov’s newsreels in its sharply rhetorical style, downplaying the registering of events and instead editing together shots taken at different times and places so as to construct an argument.
Save the Starving Children
[Shots of emaciated children]
The removal of Church valuables
[Shots of icons being destroyed]
Every pearl saves a child
[Shots of children being fed]
These images may or may not be causally related. The children fed may not be the children starving, the confiscation of Church property may not have funded the soup kitchen. The camera does not record an already existing causal relation, it creates it. Through the meaning-creating power of cinema the three sequences describe a problem and propose a solution. Vertov’s editing transforms non-fiction film from a means primarily of recording and informing into a powerful tool of persuasion and exhortation. Truly the genie of film ‘propaganda’ was out of the bottle. This transformation would have been unthinkable without Soviet journalism.
The Birth of Documentary from the Spirit of Journalism
This liberation of the ‘expository’15
potential of cinema was no chance discovery. Rather, it was the direct result of Vertov’s explicitly partisan approach to newsreel. His brother and his cameraman from 1922 to the end of the 1920s, Mikhail Kaufman, recalls that Vertov aspired not to ‘inform dispassionately’ but, rather, to ‘influence the mind in a certain direction’.16
Yet this attitude was not the brilliant innovation of a genius. It was a commonplace of Soviet journalism. Vertov’s most famous newsreels are called Cine Pravda
, and borrow more from the leading Bolshevik daily than the title alone. Vertov’s transformation of what was to become known as documentary cinema is inconceivable outside the context of the Bolshevik approach to journalism. Stylistically and in its approach to information, persuasion and communication, Vertov’s film-making of the 1920s extends the model of the Bolshevik newspaper.
The Bolshevik Conception of the Newspaper
The focal point of their political activity, the Bolsheviks had long considered the newspaper the most important of all means of processing and distributing factual material.17
For pre-Revolutionary Bolsheviks it had been a formative activity,18
and it has been argued that their privileging of propaganda generally and the newspaper in particular enabled them to win the civil war, thereby maintaining power.19
It is little surprise, then, that its example served to transform so many contemporary cultural forms: cinema, literature, photography, the poster, the wall newspaper and the acted or ‘live’ newspaper. All were either invented or revolutionised in this period, and the decisive influence was journalism. Yet, in order to understand the nature of this influence, we first need to grasp the specific nature of the Bolshevik newspaper.
The obvious place to start is with Bolshevism’s founder: ‘A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser.’20
Lenin’s often quoted view of the newspaper stresses its importance less as a means for informing people but more as a means of influencing (‘propagandist’ and ‘agitator’), and causing to act collectively (‘organiser’). In stark contrast to the liberal conception of journalism prevalent in the West, the Bolsheviks never considered objectivity, independence or freedom of the press to be a primary consideration.21
Consequently, despite the importance of persuasion in Soviet journalism, it is never in the context of free competition between different ideologies. This absence of free competition was crucial in determining the specific characteristics of the Soviet press.22
Some have argued the resulting vacuum meant Pravda
had no need of the techniques and methods of the popular press: certainly, it used few photographs, and its layout was dull. During the civil war, in particular, newspapers were distributed free, and readers had little choice. If they read anything, they still read Pravda
and other Bolshevik papers despite their shortcomings in presentation. Moreover, readers were not able to access an account of events that contradicted that of the Bolshevik press: their statements as to the facts could not be contrasted with opposing views.
Yet the part played by compulsion in Soviet journalism can be overstated, particularly in the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP).23
This approach fails to grasp that, for all the power of the Bolshevik state to ignore, censor and misrepresent oppositional opinion and inconvenient facts, there is still a considerable need to appeal to, attract and persuade the reading public, and, moreover, that misrepresenting the facts, even during the civil war, could potentially result in losing the trust of the reading public, since readily available eyewitness accounts of outside events, such as the approach of enemy armies, could prove them wrong. Bolshevik journalism took its distinctive form not solely from its lack of competition but, rather, from its goal of persuasion, and winning over with state support, in the absence of competition. Ultimately this enabled the Bolsheviks to refine the rhetorical side of their journalism, what has been called the interpretive sphere, even at the expense of information as document or reliable record.24
This approach, a combination of the Bolshevik attitude to culture and the accident of their political power, enabled them to perceive and realise the immense power of film as means of persuasion. Similarly, this downgrading of information in favour of interpretation led to the reinvigoration of the established pre-Revolutionary Russian journalistic techniques of persuasion particularly through the genres of the essay-like ocherk
and the feuilleton.
Soviet Journalism: A Tale of Two Genres
If Vertov transforms Soviet non-fiction film by subordinating the evidential power of newsreel to its discursive force, this shift is informed by the approach to information and persuasion of Soviet journalism. The character of this journalism is clearly illustrated in its dominant and most typical genres: the ocherk and the feuilleton. Both applied to journalism the methods of imaginative literature, engagingly reworking factual material in an attempt to reach out to as wide an audience as possible. These two genres represent two major tendencies in Soviet journalism: the tendency towards sharp juxtapositions, irony and a critical edge in the feuilleton, and the tendency towards description, praise and heroisation in the light of the ultimate goal of the ocherk. However, both tendencies can also be said to share a common attitude: they start from the fact, but elaborate on it so as to present it as powerfully and as engagingly as possible. Vertov too maintained a similar dual commitment, on the one hand to the capacity of cinema to record as a starting point, and on the other to exploring and unleashing its...