Magazine article History Today

Documentary and History on Film: Brian Winston Looks Back at Some of the Ways in Which History Has Been Presented on the Screen, and Sees the Documentary Based on Archival Footage as Intrinsic to Its Success

Magazine article History Today

Documentary and History on Film: Brian Winston Looks Back at Some of the Ways in Which History Has Been Presented on the Screen, and Sees the Documentary Based on Archival Footage as Intrinsic to Its Success

Article excerpt

BEING A WOMAN, a revolutionary Communist and a mere film editor are considerable obstacles to establishing a rightful place in the twentieth-century cinema's pantheon of great film-makers, as a comparison of the career and subsequent reputation of Soviet newsreel editor Esfir Schub (1894-1959) proves. Yet Schub, who was all these things, richly deserves acknowledgement for overcoming such obstructions because it was she who created one of the most enduring and popular of all documentary film types--the historical archival compilation.

The idea that cinema might provide a vivid new sort of historical record was realized very early. Boleslaw Matuszewski, a Pole working in St Petersburg in the late 1890s as a cinematographer, wrote a pamphlet calling for the establishment of a 'cinematic museum or depository'. In 1927 Schub confirmed the potential of his idea. She was a Ukrainian from a fairly privileged background who threw her lot in with the Bolsheviks and became a film editor. She proved well able to hold her own in the brilliant and fractious group who created the propaganda masterworks of the Soviet cinema--Battleship Potemkin and the rest--in the late 1920s. That she turned out to be a film editor of genius was no disadvantage.

Fall of the House of Romanov (1927) offered a straightforward chronological account of the events leading up to Lenin's seizure of power. Its compilation of historical footage, mainly from the Tsar's private archive, offers an explanation of, and a justification for, the Revolution as well as a structured attempt to fix Soviet collective memory of the upheaval. As a silent work, it uses intertitles, often of elegant restraint, to put the Bolshevik point of view. For example, footage of religious processions are simply contextualized with the title 'Moscow of the Priests'. The contrast between the gilded world of the landed gentry and the court on the one hand and the ceaseless toil of the proletariat on the other is highlighted by a title introducing footage of a party during a Tsarist yachting trip--'Their "honours" were please to danced the mazurka with their "highnesses"' ... 'until they perspired'. Cut to a group of exhausted labourers, equally sweaty, digging a ditch at the side of a country road.

In Fall of the House of Romanov (and the other two feature length films in the trilogy--The Great Road and Lev Tolstoy and the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II--that she also made in 1927-28), Schub showed herself concerned with the ethics of such presentational subterfuges. She worried specifically that she was distorting the Tsar's private footage simply by juxtaposing it with newsreel and other materials. Yet she felt justified because, as she wrote:

   The intention was not so much to
   provide the facts but to evaluate them
   from the vantage point of the
   revolutionary class. This is what made
   my films revolutionary and agitational
   --although they were composed of
   counter-revolutionary material.

Here is the licence for all those who have emulated her down the years--for the most part very much more crudely (such as Michael Moore's attack on George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Fahrenheit 9/11). Yet documentary has always had space for the personal, even the propagandistic, point of view. The British documentary pioneer, John Grierson (1898-1972), was always at pains to point out that it was the documentarists' 'creative treatment' of their materials which made their work different from, say, the newsreels or television journalism. Over the past forty-five years, largely because of television, the public seems now to think documentaries must be journalistic, but this is not the case and Schub was not alone in having managed to produce sophisticated telling moments through such an approach. For example, Point of Order, Emile D'Antonio's documentary made in 1964 from footage taken ten years earlier of the Joseph McCarthy Army hearings, has one of the most effective final moments in the entire documentary archive. …

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