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Dziga Vertov’s Silent Film Voted Best Docu Ever in Sight & Sound Poll

Critics and filmmakers select Soviet-era film 'Man with a Movie Camera' as best documentary of all time

LONDON — Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film “Man with a Movie Camera” has been voted the world’s best documentary ever by a poll of filmmakers and critics organized by the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine.

The Soviet-era film, shot in the cities of Odessa, Kiev and Kharkiv, was one of “dazzling beauty and bewitching complexity, which unleashed the camera in a teasingly surrealist fashion to capture everyday life in a unique and hugely influential way,” the BFI said in a statement.

The magazine has held a similar poll to decide the best film once a decade since 1952, with Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” receiving the most votes in the last edition in 2012. The vast majority of films nominated were fiction features, although in the most recent poll “Man With a Movie Camera” came in at a surprising 8th place and was the only documentary in the top 10. Now, for the first time, the magazine has launched a poll to discover the greatest documentaries.

More than 1,000 films were nominated by over 200 critics and 100 filmmakers from around the world; over 100 of them voted for “Man with a Movie Camera.”

Nick James, editor, Sight & Sound, said: “What’s remarkable about this top 50 is that it feels so fresh. One in five of the films were made since the millennium, and to have a silent film from 1929 at the top is equally surprising.

“That essay films feature so strongly here shows that nonfiction cinema is not a narrow discipline but a wide-open country full of explorers.”

Ivan Kozlenko, deputy director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center in Kiev, explained: “ ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ was created at the Odessa VUFKU Film Factory in 1929. It is full of an almost incomprehensible lyricism, which offers a powerful sense of the city.

“Researchers often overlook the fact that the film was made mostly in Odessa, but to ignore it makes a thorough interpretation of the film impossible. This is a very ‘Odessian’ film: it has so much sun, sea, and space in it; its emotion is lively and vital likely inspired by ‘romantic vita-ism’ a popular theme in Ukrainian art in 1920s.

“It comes from a long line of brilliant propaganda films by Vertov, but is in fact itself totally apolitical, although its ‘non-Russian’ aesthetic was rejected by Sovkino in Moscow, and it could only be made in the Ukraine, which had become a haven for artists fleeing from Russia where attacks on dissent had begun.”

Eleven out of the first 56 nominations are for films made since 2000, including 2012’s “The Acting of Killing” and “Leviathan,” bearing out suggestions that this is a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Critics’ and filmmakers came remarkably close to the same list.

The poll report is published in Sight & Sound on Friday. Click here for the list.

The full lists of all the votes received and films nominated will be available online from Aug. 14.

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