David Abelevich Kaufman – a.k.a. Dziga Vertov, a Ukrainian phrase meaning “spinning top” – is best known for his pioneering 1929 film “Man With a Movie Camera,” a snapshot of daily life in various Russian cities. Unusually for a documentary, the film wasn’t so much celebrated for its subject-matter as its style – even today, the film is a startlingly adventurous exploration of the possibilities of cinema, using slow motion, shot reversals, freeze-frames, optical illusions and more to create a hallucinogenic meditation on the everyday.
It was deemed to be the high watermark of the director’s career, even though he worked until his death in 1954, aged 58. But until now it’s been impossible to truly measure Vertov’s achievements, since his ambitious debut, 1918’s “The Anniversary of the Revolution,” has been unavailable to view. Last year, however, Russian film scholars made a breakthrough, finding a shot list that enabled them to go back and revisit this long-forgotten and, at two hours, somewhat epic work – which portrayed the developments surrounding the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917, and the following civil war.
Film historian Nikolai Izvolov was part of the team that reassembled this major part of documentary history, and as they prepare for the film’s long-delayed world premiere at IDFA next week, Variety spoke with him.
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How did “The Anniversary of the Revolution” come to be made in the first place – who funded it and how was it shot?
“The Anniversary of the Revolution” was made for the first anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution and was released in Soviet Russia on Nov. 7, 1918. It was made by the Cinematographic Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education – today it would be called the Ministry of Education – and was financed with state money, although, formally, Russian cinema at this time had not yet been nationalized. The purpose of this film was propaganda and education at the same time. Newsreels were used for its creation, filmed by many cameramen from February 1917 to October 1918. Not all of their names are known.
How experienced in filmmaking was Dziga Vertov at that time?
Dziga Vertov at that time was still very young – he was only 22 years old and he had worked in the Cinema Committee for only four months. He was engaged in the periodical newsreel “Film Week” series. The film “The Anniversary of the Revolution” he later called his “exam”. Indeed, today it seems unusual that the creation of such a film – so important from the state’s point of view – was entrusted to a person with minimal professional experience. But at that time, most filmmakers, even the ones who later became classics of Soviet cinema, were very young.
What happened to the original film?
It was shown all over the country, traveling on propaganda trains. Its propaganda role during the civil war was very large. But at the end of the war it lost its relevance, like most chronicle films. It was stored in a film archive, divided into separate parts and no one knew that these were actually fragments of one big film.
Was it truly believed to be lost? If so, when did the restoration project begin?
For a long time the film was considered “lost”. Film historians tried to restore it 50 years ago, but their success was quite modest, despite a lot of research work. A lot of effort in search of “The Anniversary of the Revolution” was made by Victor Listov, a Russian film historian. It was only in the summer of 2017 that Svetlana Ishevskaya, an employee of the Institute of Cinema, found, in the archive of literature and art (RGALI), a complete list of inscriptions (inter-titles) from this film. This made restoration possible.
What was the restoration process? For example, were large portions of the film available or did it all have to be recreated using the shot list?
Restoration of the film was quite time-consuming. It was necessary to view a large number of reels of the film in the archive of documentary films in the city of Krasnogorsk, near Moscow. It was several tens of thousands of meters. Then it was necessary to identify in them those fragments of Vertov’s movie that coincided with the list of inscriptions. Fortunately, each inscription had its own sequence number. Each frame of the film was also numbered back in the time of Vertov, and this made the whole process of restoration [possible to authenticate].
Indeed, how detailed was the shot list?
It was a large street poster, where all the inscriptions from the film were reproduced in strict sequence. That’s about 242 items. We can say that it was an extremely accurate, detailed description of the film – which is very rare for films of that time.
Was it possible to stay faithful to the shot list, and did you have to make any changes?
People involved in the restoration of films always try to be very faithful to the author’s original work. No interference with the author’s structure is allowed if it is not justified by convincing evidence. In our case, we can say that the film was restored to an accuracy of 98% – that is, almost entirely. I did not make any unjustified additions to the film. Of course, some of the missing inscriptions had to be made anew, but I specifically made them in a modern font, so that the viewer could understand that this was a later insert.
How does the film fit into Dziga Vertov’s filmography – is it a minor or major work – and does it tell us any more about his personality?
This film allows us to clarify many details of the creative biography of the famous film director. For film historians it is of great importance. It was a unique experiment, which involved the editing of a huge number of archival newsreels – unprecedented not only for Soviet Russia, but also the rest of the world. In fact, it was the birth of a genre of films that later the famous American film historian Jay Leyda called “compilation films.” But usually the development of this kind of film is associated with the work of Esther Shub [1894-1959]. Thus, we can move the historical boundary of such films almost 10 years earlier.
How important is “The Anniversary of the Revolution” in terms of the history of the documentary film?
Film historians have guessed before that this film had to be of great importance for the development and formation of documentary cinema. But only now, when this film becomes available to the public, can we really see its significance.
What do you think a modern audience will take from the film?
It is quite difficult to predict the audience’s reaction to documentaries. Many movies, popular at the time, are long forgotten. Many old films later go through periods of “reincarnation”. Different times require a different approach to films. But films that have become classics will always be in demand. It seems to me that we are dealing with such a case. We can see how being saved from oblivion revives this film, which has a lot of reasons to be included to the list of film classics.