IDFA Celebrates the Centenary of Dziga Vertov’s Long-Lost First Film The Anniversary of the Revolution

    Distinguished Russian film scholar Nikolai Izvolov describes himself as a sort of archaeologist. The Moscow-based historian and researcher spent a great deal of time carefully restoring and piecing together fragments from other historical films found in the archives that were originally used for Dziga Vertov’s first film, The Anniversary of the Revolution, made in 1918. This November is the film’s 100th anniversary, and Amsterdam audiences will be able to view the premiere of this 120-minute film in its entirety, a full century after it was first screened in Soviet Russia. The special screening will be accompanied by a live soundscape as part of this year’s IDFA on Stage. Here, Izvolov describes the painstaking but joyful work it took to bring this epic project to life.

    Q: Can you describe your working methods once this list of scenes of Vertov’s film was discovered in the archives? Was it as straightforward as following the “roadmap” and piecing segments together, or did it turn out to be a much more complex task?

    A: Finding a complete list of inscriptions for the film was a fantastic research success. Svetlana Ishevskaya found this list in the summer of 2017, but film historians have dreamed about it for many decades. This discovery greatly stimulated the search for the film, but the work was still very difficult. It was necessary to carefully review dozens of films related to the events of 1917-1918, and identify in them those fragments that could be part of the Vertov film. Many of the films themselves could be fragments of other films, so the task was not insignificant. The work of a film historian sometimes resembles the work of an archaeologist: one has to envision the whole from the pieces.

    Q: The film has an invigorating energy that almost defies the ravages of time—from the ways in which Vertov chooses the kind of portraiture we see to the spectacle of the masses of people parading in the streets. But it is also filled with the most whimsical surprises that humanize the people in the frame.

    A: Dziga Vertov created the film on the editing table using the camerawork of dozens of other people. Perhaps that is why the film possesses such diverse and powerful energy. He created it over a very short period of time, investing his own irrepressible energy into it. In almost every frame you can feel the breath of real life and see the signs of genuine events. For example, there are these shots of historical figures of the Revolution filmed against the background of a wall, on which a dirty word is written in large letters. And many frames of this film already seem familiar because they were reused in other films about the history of Soviet Russia. But only here, in this film, do they appear in their true sequence and tell their own story.

    Q: Vertov was both an artful documentarian as well as a diligent one. The footage he chose shows astute attention to the most sensitive coverage. I’m assuming you had some kind of academic relationship with him, as you’ve spent many years immersed in his work. Did that relationship change while you were working on this film?

    A: Of course when you spend a lot of time studying someone and his work, it does feel like you know him. You get used to his life, you begin to understand the innermost motives of his actions, and those actions are not always formulated in words. In this sense, work on the restoration of The Anniversary of the Revolution brought Vertov even closer to me, but it didn’t really change my attitude towards him.

    Q: Did you end up using what was at hand? In other words, is every bit of what was found in the new restoration used or was there any extra editing involved, that is informed from a decision you made versus what Vertov might have envisioned?

    A: The task of the restorer is to handle the original work of the author with great care. But the film during its existence in the culture was bound to suffer losses. Small pieces got lost here and there, and sometimes the film itself had fragments missing when shown in theaters. Therefore, the extant copies are not always of the greatest quality. In addition, in 1918 Vertov himself needed to make copies from other films, so many scratches and other optical defects were already firmly imprinted on the material. Audiences even back then saw the film with some parts that were imperfect. Now we can sometimes find the negatives of the original films and insert better-quality pieces. But then the question arises: Do we have the right to change the quality of the film? Time has already inflicted wounds on this film. Is our bid to improve it going to cause new injuries? This is a serious issue that requires a solid scientific base. When working on the film, I adhered to the well-known rule of physicians: “Do no harm,” and tried not to make distortions that could have an impact that would cause the original meaning of the film to change. Of course, certain questions arose. For example, are some small fragments correctly inserted into the film? But in each case, the decision was made on the basis of a large number of arguments. I wrote a special article for the journal Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema on all this, that I hope will be published by the time the film is shown in Amsterdam.

    Q: Is Vertov saying something with the portraits he chose? Some of the subjects in front of his camera end up looking slightly ridiculous or are filmed in a distinctly unflattering way, while others are quite noble. Do you know if these were aesthetic choices, or was he implying something more obliquely political?

    A: In 1918, Vertov was still very young and his political preferences were not yet fully formed, I think. He even sympathized with the anarchists at one time. I do not think that in the film you can read his attitude to politicians. Rather, I think he thought that having a diversity of human types would make the film more alive, and in some sense convey a truer take on genuine life, since it is genuine life portrayed on the screen that would subsequently interest Vertov the most. So here we can see the beginnings of his future aesthetic.

    Q: What are some of the musical elements that will comprise the live soundtrack during the screening of the film?

    A: We know that during the creation of his classic films such as in Man with a Movie Camera from 1929, Vertov paid great attention to the musical accompaniment of his films and created special musical scripts for them. But in 1918 things were very different. The musical accompaniment depended entirely on where the film was shown. And it could be playing not only in cinemas, but also in large open areas. So acoustics from screening to screening could be very different depending on the music, but also from the effects of all the ambient sounds, as well as the verbal responses from the audience. But for this show, we will try to choose those melodies that were the natural accompaniment to certain historical events. For example, we know that after the February Revolution in Russia, The Marseillaise was very popular. After the October Revolution, it was The International.

    Q: The final scenes are quite melancholy, evocative of anytime war is done and a population is faced with starting anew after so much destruction. As a preservationist and a historian, do you have some thoughts about this?

    A: The modern spectator, especially a Western one, who knows what happened later in Soviet Russia wants to see in these scenes of rural life a prototype of the future “collective farms” or “camps.” In fact, these were attempts to organize new forms of social life. People tried to create a kind of commune (the word comes from the famous Paris commune) where there is no notion of private property—all of it is commonly and equally owned by each member. It is interesting that even Americans came to Russia to create these agricultural communes. So this utopic idea was quite international.

    In the film, we see a rare example of such an agricultural commune in 1918. We don't even know how long it lasted. But the film has preserved this most valuable historical visual document for us. For me, as a historian, this whole film has great value. Among other things, Vertov retained the image of this amazing time, a time that so strongly influenced almost all the subsequent events that took place in the 20th century. We cannot see the chronicle of the French Revolution, but here, right before our eyes, the Russian Revolution comes to life. Then the dictatorship and other hardships will come after that. But for the people in the film, all this is not yet known. It is still a moment of romance, a time of happy expectations of future changes in human life. We already know their fate, while they themselves do not, of course. Perhaps that is why the film has such a strong emotional impact.

    The screening of Anniversary of the Revolution is Tuesday 20 November at 20:30


    Anniversary of the Revolution

    • Dziga Vertov
    • 1918
    • 119 min

      Recently rediscovered, the first full-length film by the godfather of creative documentary Dziga Vertov—previously, only a 12-minute version had survived.

      More info

      Related

      Dziga Vertov’s Anniversary of the Revolution to premiere at IDFA 2018

      • Festival
      • September 24, 2018
      • The staff

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