Tag Archives: documentary

Nikita Kino (2002)

Nikita Kino (2002)

In 1960, the father of experimental film maker, Vivian Ostrovsky, discovered that his siblings were still alive and living in Moscow. It had been forty years since they had last met. Although one died soon after the initial visit, a routine of annual travel was put in place where he would take his family from “carnival-crazy Brazil” to Russia to visit the extended family. It could only have been that way as the Russians were forbidden to leave the Soviet Union. Nikita Kino (2002, 40 mins) gathers together Ostrovsky’s collection of 8mm film footage of those visits and mixes it with other film media to create a video collage that’s somewhere between a memoir and a travelogue.

Her old footage is not that interesting. People sit on benches and chat; take food from the oven; or sit about on grass, smiling at the camera. We never know who is who, and it doesn’t really matter as Ostrovsky instead elects to provide a voiceover narrating what was going on at the time. Early on, as she describes how the relatives’ warmth helped extinguish the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia the situation created, we see the first instance of other footage enhancing the narrative. Tape reels recording and a room of women listening in on headphones and scribbling away. And Ostrovsky’s recollection of “a raincoat man” tailing them shows that, though not entirely noticeable, surveillance was happening.

The breadth of surplus footage used is impressive. Films, news reels, documentary, music, propaganda, and other found footage. The extensive use hides that there likely wasn’t much family footage, but it is cleverly used to either riff on a theme from Ostrovsky’s narrative or to slyly undercut it with contradictions. In a country sans advertising but replete with propaganda, we see what we are meant to see. In a clip from a Soviet movie, we are allowed to see its players dressed up to echo western cinema, albeit showing off how Soviet ideals make the more utopian society. But this propaganda is swept away (“The outside was never like the inside. What you saw in the shop window could never be found inside.”) to show us what lay underneath the falsehoods.

Beginning with ramshackle Soviet housing, Nikita Kino continues lifting the veil on Soviet society — restaurants, dance halls, and industry — with supplementary footage and recollections. The contemporary space race is seen, and it’s sometimes a wonder how they got a man into space with all the parading that had to be done, both military and athletics. And while there are positives about the society — women being able to work any career; to divorce and have abortions — there are darker elements too, most notably that Ostrovsky’s family passports carried ‘Jewish’ as a nationality and, two decades on from the Holocaust, segregation was still a way of life:

Jews had to be smart to get into kindergarten. Bright to get into the best schools. Brilliant to get into the right universities. And supermen to be allowed a military career.

Throughout the short film, the accompanying music flirts with various styles, with gypsy music blending into the martial. While sometimes comical it can turn the mood to solemn in a beat, and this, in the same way the found footage does, helps enhance the experience and the storytelling. For all its linearity — the narrative spans 1960 to Ostrovsky’s father’s death twenty years later — the delivery is nicely abstract and plays with the arrow of time so as not to be episodic. Ostrovsky jumps around, from one theme to the next, meandering into the paradoxes of Soviet life where everyone is individually unhappy but happy as a whole. At one point a young man in Yerevan waves to the camera; footage of Nikita Krushchev smiles and waves back.

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Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

Although the moving image is a natural progression from static photography, what a wonder the movie camera must have been in those early days. It may well have been an answer to this little couplet from Robert BurnsTo A Louse:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

The movie camera, assuming that power, was able to record and play back the world around us. Naturally, when it came to telling stories through this new medium, the narratives were borrowed from both page and stage. Was this to be the fate of moving images? Dziga Vertov thought different. The moving picture made possible new means of expression and new narratives. The movie needed to be a language in its own right, an “absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature”.  Hence Man With A Movie Camera (1929, 68 mins), a manic composite of disparate scenes and images drawn from any old day in Soviet Russia edited in such a way as to tell a universal story.

As the title suggests, the premise is thin – a man does indeed have a movie camera – but it’s the execution that is rich and makes this a rewarding view. Our eponymous man can be seen regularly, out and about with his camera, whether he be running along the streets, standing on rooftops looking over the streets, or even just standing in the middle of the street. It’s hardly surprising that much of the content should be set here as this is a film about life and much of our daily life happens on the streets. Shops line them, trams glide along them, and those down on their luck sleep in them. But the man about town with his camera is not the subject, but what is seen through his lens. And, what the camera sees is a world without borders. Where a person may have difficulty going, the camera has no qualms. And so the streets are only part of its focus. Beyond there’s industry, beaches, and bedrooms.

All human life is here, juxtaposed. Birth alongside deaths; marriage against divorce; the rigours of work versus the pursuit of leisure. That it’s real people and not actors make it a beautiful historical document, but Vertov’s handling of this is nothing short of cinematic poetry. And it’s not just his attention to the myriad Russian lives that composes this symphony but the technology that occupies the people, be it in the workplace or through entertainment. The wheels of machinery turn, churning out their product repeatedly, a mirror to humanity’s daily saga of life and death.

Ultimately, the camera does not just capture what it sees, but shows a startling self-awareness. It sees the movie itself being made. When it begins we see an empty cinema, the type where news reels were once shown. The seats come to life, people gather to watch. Just another facet of daily life. But what they have come to see is not just the end result, but its production. Vertov’s work has fun here. We see innocent street scenes and then cut to the man filming them. Many people are blissfully unaware of the camera’s all-seeing eye while others direct their performance its way. We see a boy smiling, unaware he’s being filmed, before moving to the film in the editing room where his smile is static in a single frame.

The speed at which images fly by is incredible. The second you’ve been presented with something — a scene, an object, a face — to observe, and adjusted to this, the film has discarded it in favour of something else. It’s frenetic, and with the accompanying high-tempo soundtrack (Michael Nyman’s 2002 score, in my case) it takes you on a dreamlike journey that carries an undercurrent of urgency. It’s not quite free-associating, but the wealth of images flow in and out, both complementing and contradicting each other.

If Vertov’s new cinematic language is playful, so too is its further use of technique. The director doesn’t shy away from experimenting with his footage, and thus we see double exposures, split screens, slow motion, amongst others.  This creates interest and adds variety to the those scenes that are perhaps overused. There’s one moment, shown in reverse, featuring the gathering – or ungathering, rather – of chess pieces that doesn’t ring true with the opening assertion to viewers that the film is “a cinematic communication of real events” however it still works as another interesting image in the film’s inventory. What most impressed me was a piece of stop motion animation that saw our titular movie camera lose its man and walk around on its own. Truly the camera has the power to go anywhere.

With no definite narrative, the montage of disparate shots in Man With A Movie Camera is a fine example of the Kuleshov Effect writ large. What can it mean when one image is followed by another? A train passing and a woman rousing from sleep, say. Each to their own. But to watch this film now, over eighty years since its release, represents many different journeys. One back in time to a world gone by; one across the world to a place unvisited; and one through a day in the life of both a city and a man. A man with a movie camera — the reel deal.

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