Un(der)seen Cinema: Man with a Movie Camera

In the twenties, everyone had a manifesto. The most famous filmmaker of the Russian Revolution, Sergei Eisenstein, had a film-theoretical program called the Kino-Fist (Kino = Film), in which a narrative film would be a weapon in mass-revolutionary struggle, would feature no protagonist but the working class itself, and in which the dialectic would be reproduced in montage. But his contemporary, Dziga Vertov, had a different and competing principle: the Kino-eye.

Vertov, who came to cinema through news-reel production, saw cinema as a tool of demystification, education and the production of solidarity. Documentary, Vertov argued, is the only truly revolutionary film form. But many of his documentaries more resemble what we would call avant-garde cinema. Vertov saw the camera as capable of literally overcoming time and space, of creating cyborg fusings of worker and machine via overlapping imagery and creating time travelers through montage. Vertov saw the work of revolutionary cinema to show life “as it really is”, but for him, life as it really was was revolutionarily destabilized and moving into a strange and powerful future.

For Vertov, everyone could and should make films, and his written texts explaining to the public simple ways to start making movies outnumber his theoretical ones. Within his films he always works to demystify the process of their making, to close the gap between “artist” and public: his masterwork Man with a Movie Camera features both internal instructions and demonstrations of how the film itself was made and futuristic cinematic experiments. Critics, both at the time and today, claim that this wild experimentation goes against his claims to documentary verity, but it is they who are hung up on bourgeois notions of truth, rather than seeing the way his camera captured a revolutionary reality.

If Eisenstein saw film as a tool for spreading revolution, for Vertov it was a tool for deepening it, for revolutionizing our subjectivities and re-conceiving our everyday lives. Vertov thought the cinema should reveal how revolution reshaped the world, and in reflecting that revolutionary world, intensify it.

The above version features the score written for the film by Michael Nyman. The version below features a score by the Alloy Orchestra.