The Watching Community #2

This is Alex Graham’s introduction to Dziga Vertov’s Sixth Part of the Worldwhich was screened on Sunday 4 May among Star Lager’s Beer at Its Best, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and Paul Strand’s Native Landon the evening dedicated to observing the reconfigurations of community across state, nation and empire.

As with all of his contemporaries in Soviet cinema whose practice can be described as avant-garde, Dziga Vertov’s journey in cinema is one that began in earnest after the Bolshevik revolution. The years between 1918 and 1922 saw the newsreel editor who was born David Kaufman, contribute to the production of Kino-Hedelia or Cine-week, a series of actuality compilation reels commissioned by Moscow’s first ever ‘cinema committee’ and which were destined for exhibition both in urban cinemas and as part of the travelling agit-prop train circuit that was active in disseminating cinema and theatre during the volatile period of Civil War mobilisation. As Vertov’s career progresses towards ever more complex formal experiments, we may be able to trace the formative influence of the darting movements of the agit-prop train on the filmmaker’s conception of geographic space and also on the immediacy, the urgency of his camera’s engagement with the new Soviet citizens whom he encountered on his cine-travels across Russia. But let’s return to 1922. From here, a group comprising Vertov, his brother and camera operator Mikhail Kaufman and his fellow editor and future wife Elizaveta Svilova began to publish theoretical tracts and manifestos in the influential critical cultural journal LEF. As the Kinoki, or Kino-Eyes, this ‘council of three’ as they were known would spend the next three years producing the Kino-Pravda series of newsreels that were distinguished by an episodic, vignette structure and a fluid blend of ‘straight’ reportage footage and formal experiments. This tendency towards experimentation and aesthetic complexity intensified as the series continued, taking Vertov to the point where his prominence as a very vocal revolutionary theorist and filmmaker would bring about special commissions for stand-alone projects at Sovkino, the central cinema production unit at the time. The first of these was to be A Sixth-part of the World, a film initially conceived of and pitched as a feature-length advertisement for the export arm of GOSTORG, which was the Soviet Union’s centrally run state trade commission. The film that we’re about to see marks the beginning of a new stage in the development of Vertov’s cinematic style. Of the films to come over the four years following its release in 1926, it is also arguably the most humane and culturally focused of Vertov’s major works, insofar as it addresses the idea of the Soviet Union as a multi-ethnic space with a hugely diverse and disparate production force to be empowered through labour and liberated by a sensitive and accommodating Soviet modernity. Much more so than the heavily foregrounded formal self-consciousness of Man with a Movie Camera, and more so than the celebratory politics and temporal leaping back and forward through history in The Eleventh Year, A Sixth-part of the World is a film of human potential to be harnessed through spatial expansion, labour solidarity and a cultural awareness of the ‘Other’ within the revolutionary social configuration. At the time of the film’s production, this new society found itself in the flux of unprecedentedly rapid political and infrastructural change. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe A Sixth-part of the World as one of the most significant and nuanced texts that we have from this historical moment, during which the ultimate direction of Soviet communism was still very ambiguously framed by its cultural output and was entirely obscure to all beyond the ruling Bolshevik elite.  As we will see in the film, despite not having an especially privileged position within this political framework, Vertov’s project is endowed with the power of an analytical sight that draws attention to the inconsistencies of the emerging political doctrine, all while appropriating its rhetoric in the service of the filmmaker’s own revolutionary cultural agenda. vertov4

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

The doctrine in question, of course, is that of Stalinism in its earliest, most aggressively economic guise, and the engine of this doctrine is the turbo-accelerated industrialisation of the land-mass inherited by the Bolsheviks from the backward, agrarian Russian Empire. This is such an interesting time for Vertov’s film to appear at because here we find ourselves in the moment between the birth of Stalin’s modernising industrial drive in 1925 and the beginnings of agricultural collectivisation in 1929, by which time all internal political opposition in the Party has been eradicated and Stalin’s consolidation of executive power is complete. This four-year period is therefore one of intense social change and startling ideological contradictions, as Lenin’s New Economic Policy is replaced by centralised planning and gargantuan production quotas, and official advocacy of a world Marxist revolution quietly gives way to the policy of ‘Socialism in One Country.’ Now, this last idea is crucial to giving us an inroad into understanding the levels on which the title, A Sixth-part of the World, is operating. In one sense, the entrenchment and self-contained enclosure of a new Soviet empire, as proposed by Stalin, makes this a title of impending limits and demarcation as much as one of vast spatial ambition to grow and to modernise, this being the aim that Vertov charts and constructs as a system with international trade significance. Although Vertov in no way isolates this one-sixth from the other five-sixths of the world in his montage and associative imagery, we will be able to return after the screening to the ways in which Stalinist politics and Vertov’s spatial operations complicate any reductive reading of ideological coherence in this film. vertov1

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

What’s more, we can also read this title as an indication both of a new stage in the world’s historical development and of the concordant structuring principle that Vertov will give to the film’s movement. This is possible when we take the Russian, Shestaia chast’ mira, and consider its semantics. Chast’ is indeed ‘part’ in space, but it is also ‘part’ in sequential time, and here we can take our lead from a recent paper on Vertov by the film scholar Devin Fore when he insists on the importance of time and succession in Vertov’s work, as well as what Fore calls those “eccentric and ecstatic spatial constructions” that are evident in the vaulting performance of his montage. If on one hand this film is a non-linear travelogue of cultures and production techniques, it is also an historical exploration of the distinct modes of production practised by different communities, as they coexist, diverge and come into contact with other in Vertov’s vision of contemporary Soviet reality. Devin Fore’s analysis follows Lenin and then Trotskii in attesting to no-less-than five fully elaborated modes of production to be found operating in Russia when the Bolsheviks come to power in 1917. From Asiatic trade routes to primitive agrarianism, from feudal land management to advanced capitalism and revolutionary communism, these five stages and spheres of economic development exist within a film that is destined to perform the sixth stage, the sixth chapter, in a Soviet, or indeed perhaps still even in a global, context: that of an advanced, industrial Communism that is projected as being somehow both bent on self-sufficiency and yet integrated in a network of differing labour practices, which it must either mitigate or modernise in order to reap benefit from. What we have in A Sixth-part of the World is not a depiction or a description, but a performance of this mitigation, an example of how cinema can orientate citizens participating in economic growth, transporting them across cultural divides and training their sights on the phenomena that link them through a circular chain of horizontal, democratised labour relations. Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 16.40.39

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

Six parts to the world, then, and also six chapters to the film: the first is kind of a filmic cartography of place that penetrates new and exotic customs to arrive at the universality of labour; the second develops a strategy of personal address to these new participants in the Soviet project, bringing them into the collective sphere of Vertov’s USSR. The third expands on these cultural specificities with a non-linear, political-economic geography of the Union’s expanses, and the fourth uses these parameters to conduct a formal exploration of Soviet export routes, which was the initial subject of the GOSTORG commission. Chapter Five examines those things that are not yet Soviet, whether through backwardness or orthodoxies that are rooted in the pre-Soviet and the pre-Modern, before the final ‘coming to consciousness’ of Chapter Six, in which the diversity of the local subjects addressed in Chapters One and Two is unified by cultural interaction through labour and the shared experience of the film’s training for a new regime of visuality. To insist upon the idea of training is also to acknowledge the ways in which Vertov’s film tries to challenge the notion of linear historical progress towards modernity and the colonial narrative of unidirectional eastward expansion in the Russian imperial consciousness. To capture the phenomena of “life caught unawares” of “Life as it is” (zhizn’ kak ona est’), these are the two core principles of the Kino-Eye manifesto that are displayed in a performance that is as much about establishing newly democratised ways of seeing through cinema as it is about demystifying the cultural ‘otherness’ of the furthest-flung Soviet subjects. After the screening, we will be better placed to attempt to square this approach with the other much more orthodox Soviet strand in Vertov’s thinking, that of holding cultural difference less as a difference to be respected, and more a certain “not-as-yet-sameness” to be overcome in time. Despite this, it must be said that the horizontal and democratising agenda of this film is framed by a political philosophy that is thoroughly un-Bolshevik in character. However, in this ambiguous and uneasy period between the aftershock of revolution and the dawn of the totalitarian Thirties, the opposing strategies and agendas of the Kino-Eyes and the Bolsheviks can converge on the centrality of the machine and a shared fervour for the red-hot acceleration of productive futurism in both culture and industry. Now, the Russian postcolonial scholar Irina Sandomirskaia has argued that it is grotesque to conflate the internationalist, exploratory agenda of the Leftist Soviet avant-garde with the surveillance bureaucracy and prurient, puritanical culture of early Stalinist orthodoxy, and the key culture texts of the period certainly bear this out. Nonetheless, in the same breath Sandomirskaia goes on to assert that it is equally naïve to say that the avant-garde, and especially its filmmakers, are innocent vis-à-vis the kind of hegemony pursued by the agents of the State. What’s at stake here, however, is the difference between a cultural hegemony of “the seeing”, the “collective subjectivity” that Vertov strives to engender through the perceptual training of the citizens on one hand, and the stifling containment of collectivisation and imperial hegemony on the other. The danger here is where Vertov’s horizontal mutualism might be read along the same lines as Stalinism’s “indifference to difference”: although these positions exist at opposite ends of the revolutionary spectrum, they must be reconciled to one another as a result of their coexistence in this film, which is ultimately the deformation by Vertov of an anodyne trade-film commission and its transformation into a radical linkage of working communities across the Soviet Union. Among film scholars, much ink has been spilled over the formal and philosophical density of Vertov’s importance to cinema, and also over the ultimate failure and collapse of his utilitarian revolutionary platform for a new film visuality that would reject narrative structures and devices. Critical perspectives on the integrity and coherence of this agenda differ significantly between West and East, between those who identify Vertov with the ‘virtues’ of a Soviet project that in the end was hijacked and distorted, and those who read his close political affiliation with the future-building Soviet state as the main principle that underpins his manipulative approach to actuality filmmaking. Where there is agreement, though, is on the difficulties of interpretation posed by the formal virtuosity and the non-linear structure of Vertov’s work. We are about to watch a film that challenges us to a kind of perceptual training session, and that asks us to make associative leaps as huge and as abrupt as those made through space and time by the film’s camera. vertov3

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

So what is it that makes Vertov ‘difficult’? As well as the complexity of his montage and visual poetics, we are faced with a cyclically repeating rhythm of sequences that play out at a relentless pace, both in terms of the cutting and of the dynamism of movement within and across the frame. This film is a forceful indication that the new cinema of the Soviet Union (or what with Vertov, we might more accurately call the new Soviet Union of cinema) is not a space in which a spectator can ever be usefully immersed in contemplation, but must instead be a participant who confronts ‘reception in a state of distraction’ (to borrow another term from Walter Benjamin) as a form of perceptual training for a new life of labour in a new, technologically connected society. For as we’ll see, Vertov’s real project with A Sixth-part of the World is to train all Soviet citizens to appropriate the ‘I see’ (Vizhu) of his intertitle as a collective subjectivity that experiences cinema as a space of ‘virtual belonging’. This belonging is to a community united through labour across cultural boundaries, and empowered by two interrelated revolutions, one in industry and another in sight. With this aim in mind, here is one of Vertov’s own characteristically provocative statements on A Sixth-part of the World in the run-up to the film’s release: “A Sith-part of the World is more than a film, than what we usually understand by the word “film” (…) A Sixth-part of the World is somewhere beyond the boundaries of these definitions; it is already the next stage after the concept of “cinema” itself (…) This film has, strictly speaking, no viewers, since all the working people of the USSR, 130 to 140 million of them, are not viewers but participants in this film. The very concept of this film and its whole construction are now resolving in practice the most difficult theoretical question of the eradication of the boundary between viewers and spectacle. A Sixth-part of the World cannot have critical opponents or critical supporters within the borders of the USSR, since both the opponents and supporters are also participants in the film (…) Our slogan is: All citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 10 to 100 years old must see this work. By the tenth anniversary of October there must not be a single Tungus who has not seen A Sixth-part of the World.”


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