Comparing two masters of the documentary: Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov
Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov are both considered founders in the history of the documentary film. They both had a tremendous faith in the powers of the documentary movie, still then a new form (the first Lumière brothers film was in 1895). “Film is the great pencil of the modern world. . . . Film has given mankind its first universal language”, wrote Flaherty at the end of his life (Flaherty 215). Vertov’s enthusiasm for the film form was high from the start : he enthusiastically embraced the Leninist proclamation that cinema was “the most important art”, and looked for “KinoPravda”, the cinematographic truth. Both their works were very different from what had been previously done. Flaherty’s Nanook was very different from the increasingly stifled “documentaries”, more and more devoted to the royalties and powerful of the world, and from the travelogue that reflected the colonial mentality, and depicted the natives as charming, quaint and mysterious. Vertov’s movies were highly experimental, very distant from other Russian movies of the time, and completely alienated from the official propaganda movies the Stalinian ideology expected. Flaherty and Vertov were artists and they contributed to establish the documentary as an artistic form that could also “raise profound truths about the nature of reality and the interconnections of human life” (Boyle 2010).
Yet, Nanook of the North and The Man with the Movie Camera set up two very different tracks for the documentary: what could be encapsulated by realism for Flaherty, and formalism for Vertov. Nanook established the tradition of the character-driven documentary movie, borrowing a lot from the fiction grammar, whereas The Man with the Movie Camera features no characters and is a groundbreaking formal and meta-filmic experimentation. These divergent approaches are far from being only the product of particular artistic sensibilities. They resulted from a variety of much broader factors, which differed for Flaherty and Vertov.
Firstly, Vertov and Flaherty had very different political beliefs, and belonged to different ideological spheres. Vertov was a fervent Communist from the start (he learned editing while working for the Bolsheviks during the war), more radical than the Soviet state: he advocated full nationalization and socialization of the economy. A convinced Marxist, he saw society in terms of class, and deeply believed in the Communist classless project. On the other hand, if Flaherty’s intimate political convictions are not as clear, he belonged to the capitalist world, and worked for it. The son of a mine owner, he first worked for a mine company – exploring the Far North in search of metals. He was painfully aware that he belonged to a world that would soon forever destroy the traditional Eskimo culture. His very presence amongst the Eskimo with a camera was an unmistakable sign of a turn of times.
These two very different political backgrounds entailed two very different relations to modernity. Vertov was decidedly turned towards the future, as was the young Sovietist State. With the growing industrialization and the establishment of the classless society, the future could only bring great possibilities for mankind. As most artists of his time (he was greatly influenced by the Formalists poetry), Vertov fully embraced modernity and its values: mechanic age, speed, motion. “Dziga Vertov”, Denis Kaufman’s pseudonym, means “spinning top”. The Man with the Movie Camera features numerous aesthetic shots of machines, factories, and hands working. The technical devices used throughout the movie: split screens, fast editing, slow or fast motion… reflect this love of modernity. The very fast pace conveys the sense of exhilaration and enthusiasm Vertov felt for this new world he thought was coming. He saw documentary movies as “a scientific tool of revolution, what he called a “Communist decoder”(Aufderheide 39). Indeed, The Man with a Movie Camera is also a propaganda work, and aims at stirring up enthusiasm for industry as well as Communist society.
On the other hand, Flaherty’s view of modernity and mechanic age was very pessimistic, and he turned to an idealized vision of past and tradition, as a realm of authenticity and purity, irretrievably disappearing. Flaherty’s intellectual tradition can be traced to the “noble savage” ideology, that exalts the “primitive” man as being completely free from the flaws of the Western civilization. Coherently with this tradition, Flaherty took the problems at the individual level: “Nanook’s problem was how to live with nature. Our problem is how to live with our machines. Nanook found the solution of the problem in his own spirit, as the Polynesian did in theirs. But we have made for ourselves an environment that is difficult for the spirit to come to terms with”. (Aufderheide 29). He deliberately does not take the matter at a social scale. His vision is a romantic one. The following lines, written by Flaherty towards the end of his life, recalling the moment when he and his wife thought of the storyline, are emblematic: “What biography of any man could be more interesting? Here is a man who has fewer resources than any other man in the world. He lives in a desolation that no other race could possibly survive. His lie is a constant fight against starvation. Nothing grows. He must depend utterly on what he can kill. And all this against the most terrifying of tyrants – the bitter climate of the North, the bitterest climate in the world” (Flaherty, 216). The lavish use of superlatives and enthusiastic tone, decades after the making of Nanook, clearly shows Flaherty’s romanticism.
As Barnouw notes, Flaherty does not come to grips with his own contradiction: he just decides to erase the white man from the picture. “I am not going t make films about what the white man has made to primitive people… What I want to show is the former majesty and character of these people, while it is still possible – before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well”.
Marxism on the one hand, noble savage on the other, resulted in very different forms. Vertov’s movie reflects the dislike of Marxism for the individual alone, and the emphasis on society as a group that should be united. Like his previous movie One Sixth of the world, Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera emphasizes this unity of the people. The editing relates people and places from different classes and different places in Russia, and symbols or metaphors for linking abound in the movie (the most striking one being the sequence of the telephone wires, evoking both a city where people are connected to each other through new technologies, and the power of the editing as a means to unite people). Flaherty, conversely, focuses on a small and isolated social group, and follows one man and his family. Nanook stresses out the individual (which is different from individualism), and the warmth of interpersonal relationship within the circle of the family. He does not take it to the social scale: even if some sequences involve several men of the tribe (mostly the hunting scenes), the last half of the movie is entirely devoted to Nanook’s family.
These different ideological contexts also implied different conditions of production. After being fired from a previous Sovietist studio, Vertov was hired by the Ukraine State Studio to produce The Man with a Movie Camera. His film was commissioned: this gave him greater latitude for experimentation (even though the commissioners might have been unhappy by the results). On the other hand, Flaherty struggled for years before finding a private corporate sponsor, the French fur company Révillon Frères. After Nanook was finished, Flaherty had difficulties finding a studio to distribute it. It was refused by Paramount, and only reluctantly bought by the French Pathé Company. Flaherty’s sponsors expected benefits from Nanook: had he wanted to, Flaherty would not have been able to experiment as much as Vertov. The economical conditions of his production forced him to care more about the audience viewing habits and expectations.
Vertov and Flaherty held very different aesthetic views. One of their main divergences is their reaction vis-à-vis the fiction film, which was the main cinematic model at the time. Their views are also coherent with their ideological positions.
Flaherty greatly believed in the power of the story. He tells how the first time he looked at the rushes he had saved from a fire, he found them very boring: “It was utterly inept, simply a scene of this and a scene of that, no relation, no thread of a story or continuity whatever” (Flaherty 216). Thinking the problem over with his wife, they resorted to use a fictional common schema: the character-focused story. “Why not take . . . a typical Eskimo and his family, and make a biography of their lives through the year?” (Flaherty 216). He thus imported the fiction grammar to the documentary movie. The viewers had been accustomed by now decades of fiction films who had mostly chosen to mimic the viewer’s common perception of reality, to a certain cinematographic rendering of reality: viewing a scene from different angles, details being magnified by close-ups… Flaherty imported these “realist” techniques to the documentary, where they served to sustain the viewers attention and the impression they were shown “the truth”. So when he went back North to start over filming, Flaherty took great care to provide close-ups, reverse angles, few panoramic movements etc. When time came for editing, he had the material to build a movie along the lines of fiction. He carefully staged a dramatic plot: Nanook goes from morning to night, and the tension gradually builds in, culminating in the epic and mythical struggle of man and merciless nature. The smart intertitles also preserve the suspense and thus give the audience the pleasure of feeling like discoverers themselves: for example, in the igloo sequence, an intertitle says “now only one more thing is needed”, arousing the viewer’s curiosity, and leaving her wondering what Nanook is doing before explaining that they are carving a window. The success of Nanook owes probably a lot to these devices, who made the film “a dramatic story of survival against the elements” (Aufderheide 27).
On the contrary, Vertov strongly rejected fiction that he considered “opium for the people”. The new Communist world needed new forms. Vertov was concerned with finding that new form that could echo and translate the transformations the Russian revolution had brought along. The fiction schemas, inherited from theater and literature, were irrelevant and poor. They were only mimicking the real, instead of challenging it, proposing a new vision: “The most scrupulous examination does not reveal a single film, a single artistic experiment properly directed to the emancipation of the camera, which is reduced to a state of pitiable slavery, of subordination to the imperfections and the shortsightedness of the human eye” (Vertov, 14). The cinema’s true purpose was “the sensory exploration of the world through film”. Revolutionary filmmakers had to become “craftsmen of seeing – organizers of visible life”, armed with “maturing eye” (Barnouw). As we can read in the opening credits of the movie “This experimental work is directed towards the creation of a genuine, international purely cinematic language, entirely distinct from the language of the theatre and literature”.
Their position on fiction logically implied different views on what the audience response should be. Flaherty wanted viewers to be moved. “The urge I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them”. (Barnouw). Thus, Nanook emphasizes tenderness and human warmth, through close-ups on the kids playing, or during the little sequence when Nanook teaches his son to use the bow. The editing of the second part of the movie, that alternates images of the landscape swept by the fierce wind, and of the dogs barking covered in snow, with images of Nanook’s family struggling and finally finding shelter, deliberately aims at creating a feeling of empathy in the viewer. In order to do that, Flaherty uses elision editing, “that goes unnoticed by the conscious mind, so that your eye is tricked into thinking it is merely moving with the action” (Aufderheide 26), and paces the film so that it follows the viewer’s expectations for events in the natural world. Conversely, The Man with the Movie Camera purposely destroys any full immersion of the viewer. It constantly stresses the artificial nature of the film. By using split screens, very fast paced editing, or fast or slow motion, it contradicts any realism. The most striking examples are the sequences where Vertov actually shows the editing process, the crafting of the film. In the sequence of the horse-drawn carriage, the image suddenly stops, then turns to the physical film, and finally to Svilova, who is editing the movie. Vertov believed in the capacity of the movie to create a new way of seeing – and that implied that viewers would be constantly aware of watching an artefact, not the reality. He also believed that a revolutionary state needed lucid citizens, who would not get deceived by a movie.
As a result of all these factors, the “cinematic truth” that both Vertov and Flaherty were searching for was achieved by very different means.
Alongside with his selected vision of reality that avoided any reference to the modern world, Flaherty did not hesitate to intervene on reality. He assembles around Nanook, whose real name was Allakariallak, a fake nuclear family. He asked the Eskimos to hunt with techniques they had abandoned, and was later criticized for endangering some of his characters (notably during the seal hunting scene). The famous igloo was built in a way bigger way than usual, for the film’s purposes. He staged the high drama-hunt, for the uneventful actual pace of daily life would have been poor movie material. But on the other hand, he worked closely with the Eskimos and Nanook, screening them his dailies and being helped by them. They all took a great interest and participation in the making of the movie, and Nanook himself suggested some of the most dangerous scenes. As Barnouw sums it up, “Flaherty was intent of authenticity of result. That this might call for ingenious means did not disturb him. Film itself, and all its technology, were the products of ingenuity”.
Vertov, on the other hand, believed in a poetic film truth. He held the non-fiction movie as the greatest form. He wanted “life caught unaware”, and assembled many footages filmed in the city. Despite that, some of the scenes are obviously staged (the woman waking up or bathing).But his way of attaining truth was by creating a totally new and better vision of life: “not only to record society but to see and imagine it differently than deemed possible by mere human beings” (Aufderheide 42). Vertov’s Film-Eye method was aimed at revealing what was hidden beneath the apparent nature of reality. That necessitated to greatly depart from what viewers were (and still are!) used to call reality. The editing process was crucial in this, and Svilova, the female editor, can be credited for a lot of the power of the movie.
Realism and formalism did not have the same fate. Nanook was a huge commercial success, when The Man with the Movie Camera did not enthrall audiences, and diverged so greatly from Stalinist propaganda that it probably contributed to Vertov’s decline. Flaherty and Vertov opened the path for different, but still used today, ways of artistically representing reality. “Like Flaherty’s “innocent eye” of the artist . . . , Vertov’s claim to the editor’s right to organize the chaos of life into a communist truth was permission for the filmmaker to do exactly what he wanted. Each of them made radical claims for the truth value of their work, all the while portraying the maker of this truthful rendering as an artist who needed the freedom to create” (Aufderheide 40).
Aufderheide Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford UP, 2007
Barnouw Erik. Documentary: A History of Nonfiction Film rev. ed.by E.Barnouw, Oxford, 1993.
Flaherty Robert, “Nanook,” in The Documentary Tradition, edited by Lewis Jacobs (Norton, 1979).
Petric Vlada “Vertov’s Cinematic Transposition of Reality” Beyond Document, ed. Charles Warren, Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1996.
Sontag Susan. “Fascinating Fascism” in Movies and Methods, ed. by Bill Nichols, Univ. of California Press, 1976.
Tomasulo Frank. “The Mass Psychology of Fascist Films” in Documenting the Documentary ed. B.K. Grant & J. Sloniowski (Wayne State Univ. Press, 1998).
Vertov, Dziga “Selections from Kino-Eye, the Writings of Dziga Vertov” in Kino Eye ed. by Annette Michelson (Univ. of California Press, 1984).
Winston, Brian. “The Tradition of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary,” in Image Ethics ed. by Gross, Katz, Ruby (Oxford UP, 1993)