Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov (1929, Soviet Union) is said to be the film that inspired modern documentary films. Man with a Movie Camera, as Vertov said in the long credits at the start of the film, is an experimental film for cinematic communication of real life events.
In filming a film about film, Vertov aimed to create a universal film which relied exclusively on film language to bring the message across. With no intertitles, dialogues, staging, or story, Vertov wished to inspire future filmmakers to use such film language to communicate. In Vertov’s case, he organized the shots in montage style to convey a theme which is the daily life of Soviet citizens and the role of a cameraman in that life.
This film was considered a breakthrough in film history mostly because of the unabashedly avant-garde style and the multiple film techniques employed in the film. The world saw one of the first uses of split screen, montage editing, and rapidly-filmed scenes. Vertov’s bold aesthetic experiment in documenting contemporary life influenced generations of filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Serra, and Steve McQueen. Vertov did not try to fit his film into any genres and but create his own, and by that, a new definition of the documentary genre surfaced. Vertov’s definition of documentary is slightly different John Grierson’s definition, “creative treatment of actuality”. Vertov defines documentary as “presenting life as it is” and “life caught unaware”. Vertov, unlike Hollywood which aims to promote romanticism of American history and values, looks forward to promoting the industrial era. This, perhaps, is the foundation of Vertov’s timeless body of work which he calls “factory of facts”.
Most of Vertov’s ideals and techniques can be seen in modern day films. The idea of the camera being a creative and manipulative tool to manipulate what the human eye sees is heavily coined in Vertov’s film. The camera only frames what it wants to show the world but in fact, the human eye is capable of much more. However, the human eye fails to look at different perspective which the camera is able to capture. The different techniques and camera angles, or Vertov calls “film language”, definitely inspired and influenced many generations of filmmakers to employ it to enhance the beauty of the narrative.
“Vertov’s film can be seen as an extension of how development in 19th century French art and photography renewed a new version of the oldest conflict in art: whether art should represent beauty or truth, the ideal or the real.” Vertov’s experimental film served to explore the concept of “film-truth” which is a concept that educated the people in that age that camera serves to manipulate images and that films can be contrived as fiction.
In Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov exposed the workings of a camera and editor, revealing the truth about film and forcing the viewers to break free of the illusion that cinema showed unaltered reality.
Aside from that, Vertov also portrayed humans as equals to machines. By giving machines the same amount of space, camera angles, and special effects, Vertov is trying to, once again, promote industrialization by showing that machines are equal to human in terms of rest, work, and purpose. For example, the film juxtaposes machines’ pure shape and function against shots of laundry and washing while scenes of maintenance where men oils and polishes the machines conceptual cooperation between man and machine.
Furthermore, Vertov’s inclination towards feminism was shown in his film. At work, in leisure or sports, and at social activities, women are given equal, if not more space than men. He films women in every possible way in every major life events – from childhood to labour, from weddings to divorces, from factories to spa or beauty salons, from sleep to motion. Vertov declaims conservative damsels while emphasizing and appreciating the enthusiasm of women at work. This counterbalances the elements of masculinity and crumbles the stereotypes of women, which promotes the social and industrial revolution.
By doing so, Vertov watched his ideal society being created – a world where man and machine collaborate to form a new classless society, where genders are equal, where athleticism is celebrated, and where work is as important as leisure.
The aesthetic components of Man with a Movie Camera lie mainly on the range of cinematic techniques – but not just the techniques alone. Vertov employs the techniques carefully and effectively: fast panning or cutting to evoke high pace (work, progress, and development), slow motion to understand the human body in motion, stopping, tracking and handheld movement. Vertov implied that his film as equivalent to magic when he filmed the shots of a magician doing tricks and the children’s fascinated faces and edited it alongside his editor editing the film. Using the camera to its fullest potential consistently, Vertov layers, crosscuts and tilts the film to create special effects while sticking to his “film-truth”, the creative and manipulative possibilities of film, even in documentary film making.
Vertov’s usage of double exposure and ‘hidden’ cameras made the film appear to be more of a dreamlike montage rather than a linear motion picture. It also enhanced the overall speed of the film and made it more captivating. What’s even more appealing in the film was how Vertov juxtaposes events like weddings and divorces and uses cinematic techniques to imply something like how he uses slow motion on the shots of athletes to imply relaxation and leisure.
Vertov is a filmmaker of rare breed who rejects the conventional fiction film genres and fake romanticism. Instead, he draws on the values of realism. Influenced by futurism and Russian avant-garde, Vertov became one of the keystones in film history, all while staying true to his values as a filmmaker.
About the author:
Lester is an aspiring writer who has a knack for writing stories with strong visuals, and is exploring the different writing platforms.
Barsam, Richard M (1973) Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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