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Vertov and Flaherty - two Branches of Documentary Cinematography. VICTOR LISTOV

So, we are going to watch the film "Nanook from the North" by R.Flaherty. I'd like to say a few words before the demonstration. As far as I know there are two branches of documentary cinematography. As far as I know, there are two branches of documentary: the first begins with Vertov and the other one with Flaherty. But I'm haunted by the idea of the similarity of these characters. I consider the XXth century to be viewed from two different points (through the) in the light of the creative work of the two artists. Let's regard the likeness of their biographies. At the beginning of the century when there was no cinematography education people came into the cinema world from different fields. Flaherty is known to start as a geologist, a mining engineer, a cartographer, taking an interest in what there is on the earth's surface. Flaherty went deeper and wider than he could observe. As a result it led him to cinematography.

As for Vertov, he came to cinematography through the psychoneurological institute in Petrograd where he was Bekhterev's student. Thus it was through the human soul and psychology. And later on their biographies coincide. Here are some examples. Flaherty left the U.S.A in the time of the Great Depression because he couldn't find a job. The same happened to Vertov who in the mid-twenties was forced to leave Moscow by the unbearable conditions of life. He had to emigrate to Ukraine where he created his great films. Vertov as well as Flaherty had to make films away from civilization twice in his life.

Once it happened in the beginning of 30s, when he was making his "Three Hymns to Lenin" in Central Asia and in the Caucasus. The second time it happened in Kazackhstan where he was working in the forties when in evacuation.

These coincidences are very important for our speculations. After watching the film "Nanook from the North" we'll continue our discussion.

The film that we have seen produces as great an impression as we are used to.

When I watch Vertov's films as well as Flaherty's films I always try to see them through the eyes of the people who lived at the beginning of the century. Because they were not exactly what they are today. By the end of the 19th century European or western civilization to be more exact was end off from its natural roots. The problem of the correlation of the advanced western culture with the world culture became rather acute.

The question how humanity was developing arose and we have not solved it by today. What is an exception and what is a rule P in the history of humanity? Old Europe and New America have always considered themselves to be the rule, the leaders of humanity. Nevertheless, it turned out that only a small part of mankind lived according to the laws of the western civilization. The face of the earth was not determined by the way of life that could be observed in the biggest western cities. And many people keenly felt the falsehood of this.

In my opinion Flaherty should be understood not only in the context of cinematography but also in the context of philosophical trends and views prevailing at the end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th century.

There appeared a book at that time which was not in my opinion, well known in Russia. I mean the book Marvellous Century. Positive and negative results of the 19th century by Alfred Russel Walles. It was translated into Russian many time and was in vogue in Russia in the first years of the century. Walles was a natural scientist and he developed the evolution theory even before Darwin. Being modest he didn't publish it.

So Walles tried to sum up the results of the 19th century. As he was a European (observed) he saw more positive aspects. He enumerated them all: a gramophone, railways, aeronautics and all the other things that we witnessed and that are developing today. Walles managed to understand that the 19th century had also negative consequences: great concentration of people in cities, decline of all moral norms in that human throng and complete loss of contact with their natural roots. Flaherty's outlook is mainly explained by his need to reveal the correlation between modern civilization and the milieu from which he came.

I'm convinced that neither Flaherty nor Vertov are ethnographers or Sweetbriers of exotics to the screen. Because there were many ethnographic and travel films before and after Flaherty and Vertov. There is smith different here. There is an attempt to understand the role of civilization in the global meaning. From this point of view it is still interesting today because the main problem remains.

Meditating on the experience of the two great producers of the 20th century I recall a sermon which is very important to me and which I once heard. It explains the heart of the matter precisely. It's a story about a good man who celebrates Christmas in the mountains. He is all by himself in a small hut. It is terribly frosty outside, birds froze in their flight, but he is warm. He lays the Christmas table for himself, puts candles. The man is very kind, he wants to save the birds freezing outside. He opens the door for the birds to fly in. But he fails because the birds don't understand where they should fly. They fly by and continue freezing.

And now the man understands that one must become a bird to be able to show the birds the way. Only then you will be understood and will be able to pave the way. At that moment the man realized why Cod had become a men, why Christ had come to the earth as a man. He came to show the way to people. And then the significance of the celebration of Christmas become evident to the man.

Something like that happens to our philosophers and artists. On my opinion they fall into two groups: those who are with the birds and those who are in the warm mounting hut. Philosophers at the beginning of the century can also be divided in the same way. People like L.Tolstoy, I. Geiden and A. Schweitser are those who are with the birds who share all their troubles, understand their problems and see all this as if from the inside.

People belonging to European civilization are the part of the world civilization. They judge humanely and with justice but to a certain extent they do it from the outside.

Comparing Vertov and Flaherty I think that Vertov is closer to the birds, that is he lives in the world reservation in some backward social structure and so he judges from the inside in he same way as Tolstoy and Geiden. As for Flaherty, he is one of those western humanists who are not aware of what the cold is but are very concerned about it.

Hemingway with his "The Old Man and the Sea" belongs to the some type. He come to my mind when we saw the seal being pulled out of the icehole.

Vertov and Flaherty seem to symbolize these two sides of the problem, these two views.

L. Tolstoy is probably the closest of all among the people well known to us, great European philosophers, to this marginal patriarchal structure. On the nineties he wrote in his diary that the most important thing in the world was the life of a peasant and perhaps it was the only serious thing in the world. Cinema is not likely to perceive this idea very soon. It has not come to it yet because the peasant view on the peasant problems from the inside has not been reflected on the screen. But when such philosophers as Vertov try to understand it on the screen, they pave the way to the future, and not only formally.

Let's take the U.S.A. We can say that Flaherty began to develop the ecological theme. "The Louisiana Story" is a film which shows how civilization intrudes into the natural patriarchal environment. But that's not exactly the point because we are speaking about an artist who will never fit in a philosophical concept, nor in any world outlook version. The question is about the patriarchal ethics which nourish the morals of civilization. As a result of what Flaherty had done (although I never tried to draw a parallel between the efforts of an artist and certain social consequences) there appeared a whole movement the so-called STOP group in the 60-s - 70-s in the U.S.A. Those were people who wanted to give up all the achievements of American civilization. They believed that all that man needed was invented in the 19th century. They tried to live as their forefathers lived. It was an artificial robinsonade. Nevertheless it was rather interesting. They had big problems with the sanitary inspection, with medical treatment and so on. They had a lot of ideas. Partially,it was Flaherty's fault. But for Flaherty it was all in the past, it was some marginal environment and he didn't consider Nanook and Moana to be the leaders of the human society to whom the future belongs. Like ethnographer Morgon he believes that he turns to the past. And probably he was right.

As far as Vertov is concerned the matter is far more complicated. Because shooting his film "The Sixth Part of the World" he thinks that he is sharing his impressions about the social vanguard of humanity. So everything is his future. There is nothing to do. It has to be reckoned with. The argument is still on and therefore. I cannot say that Flaherty was a hundred percent right. While Vertov who was captivated by the Marxist doctrine was certainly wrong.

You see history is not over and it will never be over. This or that facet of rightness will always be revealed either in this or that century.

Once I tried to comprehend it as regards the traditional character of Vertov's innovation. It was at the Vertov symposium several years ago when I tried to prove that Vertov was not an innovator in his philosophy. While reading Vertov's manifestos, beautiful, dynamic directed to the future as if reflecting the outlook of the non-existing at that time proletariat, we really and truly do not see anything new in the field of Russian thinking here. Because if you read for instance L.Tolstoy's view on art you will find much in common with Vertov's manifestoes.

As a matter of fact L. Tolstoy was the first to say that all art was to serve working people. And all that was not understood by a peasant should be banished from art. In his aggression against opera, ballet, modern painting the main features of Vertov's struggle against theatrical cinematography and all the "perversions" of art as he considered can be viewed. This genetic kinship is very interesting as it appears that not only L. Tolstoy but also Vertov (was on the position) took the stand of the main representatives of the Russian peasant community. No matter how much Vertov tried to prove that he spoke on behalf of the working people nevertheless the main features of this peasant rural communal-patriarchal ideology are strikingly revealed in his works.

Flaherty spoke about the marginal part of the human society with great compassion, consideration and interest. He is great humanist. And what does Vertov do? Vertov tells us about "The Sixth Part of the World" as a giant community where this communal equality prevails due to which everything collapses in the end. Vertov will not witness it. Nevertheless this is an attempt to show the way a person should live, to show a certain human ideal though marginal to some extent. Here there is probably one of the strange aspects of Vertov's creative work. Vertov is a man of integrity. He not only made pictures but tried to live as he preached. There was a blemish in his origin. His father was a corn-merchant and Vertov was brought up in the merchant, mercenary environment.

Have a look at what Vertov does. He makes an attempt to come in touch with that very working class but to be more exact with the patriarchal-marginal class that surrounds him to see the situation from the inside. He wants to be the bird we spoke about. To do this he takes very strange steps.

Let's say that all the creative career of Ilya Kopalin is based on the fact that he came to meet Vertov as a peasant and mobilized Red Army soldier. Vertov displayed great kindness towards him and helped him rise in the world making him his disciple. It was probably not because he was impressed by the brilliance of his talent, but because he wanted this rural "nanook" living under Moscow to partake of the best of civilization. Vertov goes on farther. He parts with his first wife, a student of a conservatory, who plays the piano, and marries Elizaveta Svilova whom he certainly loves but we'll notice for ourselves that she is from the proletariat, that is again he wants to become a bird. Among the papers left by Vertov we can find a film script fragment called "Liza's Family" in which he tries to describe in detail the life of the widow of a worker who was killed in the Civil War and their children. These are all Liza's relatives. Here is the some playing as in all the other fragments which we considered to be ethnographic. In fact this is not so much ethnography as an attempt to be on the level with his characters, on the level of that situation which seems to him noble and beautiful. This is certainly the artist's tragedy who is led in strange ways by a certain philosophy which be did not completely understand. I'm not however trying to explain the ways of Vertov and Flaherty through certain sociological concepts as artists do not fit in them. Nevertheless there is a certain aspect of truth in it. There are very many analogies here. All the left Soviet art of the 20-s is constructive enough but if cuts off what is supposedly incomprehensible to a working man but in fact it comes to the limit of incomprehensibility.

In this sense the two branches of documentary cinematography intersect speaking about the content but not the form only in the attempt to realize the marginal existence of the whole mankind and to show that European civilization is rather an exception than a rule.

I think that will do for the beginning of our discussion. You are welcome to put questions and speak out.

II. Leonid Gurevich

I think we must come to understanding about the terms. Victor Listov spoke about marginality but I understand this word in a bit different way. It seems to me that Flaherty did not study the psychology of a marginal or the life of a marginal. If we consider "Nanook" which we've just seen, Flaherty exactly turns to the eternal, to stable value but not marginal ones. These values originate from the European source and later on as every spirituality which absorbs the best from the foregoing take a new form and content. And this gain and rejection this labour and sweat in which the verifiability of human relationship lies which can be seen in children's smiles, in their relations with the parents, primary joy, primary melodrama these are the strong points of Flaherty's creative work. They are not at all marginal. In our discussion I support the idea that Vertov and Flaherty are total antipodes, as Vertov spared an effort to create the structures of marginality. Having lived up to now we, as fate has willed are convinced of this. For Vertov created his complicated compositions really trying to involve his complex of origin, his complex of rejection. Good heavens, nothing is so dreadful as the attempts of the intellectuals to join in the masses of people. And these attempts are visible. Vertov is speculative, Flaherty is natural. Vertov is constructive, Flaherty is destructive. Flaherty presents pictures of the world without making an effort. Vertov intensively and earnestly thrusts us into this or that situation the leads us with an iron hand, using all the arsenal of cinematographic devices. Flaherty is indifferent to devices, he avoids using them. In my opinion he is a man of a very deep essence, who understands that the things he shows with the maximum simplicity will reveal themselves mightily without his resorting to any contrivances of his profession. In my view these are two different in principle, two different ways of existence in the world: strained and natural, stubborn and floating. Of course we mystify Flaherty a little. He really began his career as an ethnographer. But the collection of his films taken together suddenly reveals in him that deep interest on which later on specialists in cinematography hatched an egg of his primordiality and absoluteness. Nevertheless in his approach to the world, in his craving for new impression of the world, in the way he admired the world he differs from Vertov who tried to create himself and who joined in marginal ideology. I cannot object to Victor's idea that this similarity can be in the fact that the civilization of the XXth century did not suit our two artists. It was not that one of them called back but he tried to stand up for some values and things that the civilization trampled upon while the other promoted the imaginary and the false, the truly marginal to replace all those values. Thank you.


I hope we will come back to our discussion I understand it very well that everything Leonid Gurevich talked about may be true. What should we meditate on? I wouldn't talk about the fact, that Vertov supported the marginal ideology. Unfortunately, this is not so easy though for the majority it isn't a problem nowadays. For example, in the XIX century the whole idea of Marx's theory was that there must be the progress of production, and the worker's interests. Coincide with production interests; that is if you don't feed, don't teach a worker, and don't provide him with the conditions for normal living, you will limit the progress of production. In this sense he probably was right and still is. The only thing that wasn't considered is the worker's understanding of his interests itself. Because, unfortunately, the representatives of this theory consider that they know the worker's (needs) better than he does. In this case the philosophy was really dangerous, but I can not call it marginal at all. Moreover, it is very successfully instilled in all the countries where  the parties of II International dominate. But we have to see the difference between Marxism and bolshevism. Vertov, who tries to take, some humanistic basis out of this theory is more likely to be wrong, but he has to be understood.

Thank you.