A Hundred Years of Revolutionary Dreams :
Truth and Drama in Documentary Representations of the 1917 Russian October Revolution
by Johan Jakobson January 2011
Abstract It is widely assumed that from its inception the medium of documentary film was designed to represent objective truth about the historical events which were depicted on screen. With the advent of the docudrama format documentary makers begun to mix fiction and fact and balance subjective and objective views of the historical events they were trying to truthfully represent. Despite the introduction of predominantly 'info-tainment' style of public television today, whereby viewers, more like consumers, are supposedly 'free' to 'choose-and-pick' seemingly devoid of ideology facts, which are then coupled with abundant and accessible digital archival materials â€“ the issue of propaganda in contemporary documentary-making remains unresolved, as demonstrated in the case of almost a hundred years of documenting the Russian October Revolution on screen.
Introduction The question of the relationship between documentary and truth concerns more theoretical questions about the transformative character of viewertelevision-reality relationship, whereby televised dramas and facts, often mixed together, are consumed as entertainment. Of particular interest in this respect is the role of the docudrama, which attempts to mix fiction and fact and balance subjective and objective views of the historical events it tries to truthfully represent. These questions concern presumed epistemologies, research and production methods, depictive forms, and models of viewer engagement and understanding. A long-standing underlying assumption about the documentary film is that it is supposed to be more honest and accurate than fiction according to the hierarchy of the forms of representation of reality. 1 However, following the first demonstrations of Lumiere’s actualities, and the commencing of the age of the World Wars, many imperialist governments discovered that the documentary works particularly effectively as a medium of propaganda due to its nature of representing the ‘real’ and in the audience’s unquestioning belief in its depiction of truth. Later, new creative inventions and hybridisation within the format became commonplace.2 Towards the 1960s, definitions of documentary, such as those provided by Pare Lorentz, whereby documentary film is “a factual film which is dramatic” 3 – became more acceptable, thus producing a significant increase in the number of the so-called semidocumentaries in the US and drama documentaries in the UK (now also known as docudramas). Generally, while placing more emphasis on personality and narrative, drama documentary can be defined as: ‘A unique blend of fact and fiction which dramatizes events and historic personages from our recent memory…. It is a TV recreation based on fact though it relies on actors, dialogue, sets and costumes to recreate an earlier event.’ (Hoffer & Nelson, 1978: 21)
As a result, documentary and drama could no longer be viewed as mutually exclusive in the context of television, and this has inevitably led to the argument in favour of applying this style as both an aesthetically and ‘politically valid approach’ to representing reality, as ‘it is merely presenting facts from a different viewpoint than those offered in factual programmes, which are themselves subjective’.4 However, this ‘blurring’ of the line between fact and fiction through the powerful medium of the documentary film, which 1
Grierson (1932) in his essay - First Principles of Documentary - argued that the principles of documentary were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the ‘original’ actor and ‘original’ scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials ‘thus taken from the raw’ can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with the Soviet propagandist Dziga Vertov’s (On Kinopravda, 1924) contempt for dramatic fiction as ‘bourgeois excess’ and his fascination, instead, with ‘life as it is’, ‘life caught unawares’. 2 As Hoffer and Nelson (1978: 73) point out: ‘The combination of dramatic and documentary forms offers a unique perspective on and analysis of both current and historical occurrences, attracting a much larger audience share when compared to the traditional documentary or newscast’. 3 Pare Lorentz Centre at FDR Library (http://parelorentzcenter.net/fdr_film.php) 4 As Rolinson rightfully points out in this respect, ‘factual programming is itself subject to editorial decision-making and narrative organisation’ (BFI, 2008).
attempts to ‘reconstruct reality’ in popular memory (either juxtaposing them to official or alternative histories), has had in the past and continues to cause significant political and social consequences. Similarly, it can be said that the beginnings of the Russian documentary tradition and its most famous artists and their works, 5 – who tried to revolutionise both the film and documentary form and historical genre through the technique of montage, long take, and the observational immediacy of the camera’s mechanical ‘kino-eye’, – were and still are considered today as simply exemplary models of modern state-led propaganda that inevitably leads to one or another (mostly authoritarian) form of propagandist dictat. 6 Indeed, there is nothing unusual that through these new experimental techniques the ideological message about the progressive power of the Marxist-Leninist Revolution was deliberately coded, archived and edited by the above film directors and theorists in order to form a collective memory about the birth of a Soviet nation out of the ruins of an oppressive, feudal/capitalist past, to channel the creative emotion of the mobilised masses, and to arouse their ideological consciousness as part of the global proletarian movement. In fact, the use of the documentary format as a progressive narrative at the helm of any social reformist movement since the end of the WWII, casts doubt on the belief that the alleged ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama, 1989) signifies the end of televised propaganda as an ideological and mobilising device, as well as justifies somewhat partial historical revision of the 20th century crucial events in order to restore (‘in the interest of the public’) previously untold ‘histories’ and ‘memories’, which were marginalised by the grand narratives of modernity. The success and proliferation of docudrama on TV, promoted through the different aesthetics of the digital ‘age of [information] plenty’ – remains to be seen, as truth and impartiality was never the point of subjective representation, achieved through the medium of documentary, or, specifically – docudrama. To better understand the relationship between the issues of truth and documentary representation, I will first define propaganda, its main components, and their role in post-revolutionary Russia, and, secondly, trace its various incarnations in representation of the Revolution, in particular, on the cinematic examples that stand apart almost a hundred of years. To better demonstrate the above thesis I have chosen three films: Esfir Shub’s, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927, 90 min; hereafter - FRD), Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook The World, (104 min., 1928; hereafter - OTD), and Ian Lilley’s Russian Revolution in Colour (94 min., 2005; hereafter - RRC), - for their clear relevance to the indexical relationship that documentary form has established over the previous century, on the one hand: with different aspects of historical evidence (i.e., that it conveys information about events in the past, based on fact, rather than fiction; that events represented are authentic and not staged; and that the world portrayed in the documentary is real, and not imaginary), and with its direct interpretation of this world through an argument. 5
These are: Esfir Shub’s Russian Revolution compilation trilogy: Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927); The Great Road (1927) and The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928); Dziga Vertov’s ‘life as it was’ in Anniversary of the Revolution (1919), Kinopravda (1922-25), and Three Songs about Lenin (1936); as well as Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘intellectual montage’ in his historical trilogy: Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928). 6 In the Soviet case it was Social Realism in art ‘buttressing’ the Stalinist totalitarian regime. See, e.g. discussion in: R. Barsam (1992: 67); and Petric (1978: 30).
Realism of Propaganda: “Sending Truth on its Journey around the World” 7 Dramatisation for the sake of propaganda was not unknown prior to all the Russian Revolutions of 1905-1917, as both American and British governments used early documentary films to bolster their war efforts during the HispanoAmerican War in 1889 and Boer War in 1899. If propaganda is said not to be concerned with truth and thinking as such, but with the express intention of persuading an audience of the validity of a particular viewpoint, and positioning them to share and to act on such viewpoint, it cannot do so without a valid truth claim.8 Distorting or misrepresenting the facts still requires an argument and certain way of presenting the picture of a reality in a way that is meets overtly or inadvertently the propaganda goals. For this propaganda also needs a valid truth claim. Of immense value to either the historian or politician, as Nichols points out, is that: ‘documentary images claim a bond to the historical world’ (Nichols, 1991: 131).9 In essence, documentary footage records an event that happened in historical reality (i.e., the event was not created or staged, such as fiction footage). The indexical bond between the footage and the event it represents is what gives documentary its truth claim. The recorded image becomes a piece of historical evidence ‘demonstrating the physical look of a historical event in a way no fictional likeness can ever duplicate however close its approximation’ (Nichols, 1991: 117). However, documentaries place evidence into particular order and into new contexts to give it new meaning, which takes the form of an argument about this or that historical reality. It becomes apparent then, as Beattie (2004) explains, that ‘saying that a documentary representation makes a truth claim is not the same as saying that it represents truth’. Playing on the value of the above bond to different documentary-makers, Grierson (1932), for example, distinguished between different ‘species’ of documentary films, including those that constitute different “discursive ‘interests’”, or “dramatized ‘interests’”, since they represent ‘very different powers and ambitions at the stage of organising material’. He notes that: ‘it is important to make a distinction between a method which describes only the surface values of a subject, and the method which more explosively reveals the reality of it.’ Translating this formula into today’s language, Eva Hohenberger (2007: 121) talks of the documentary as ‘being a technology of truth’ which, - in Nichol’s understanding of documentary as ‘a discourse of sobriety’,10 - regulates our ‘access to historical reality only… by means of 7
From Leonard Brockington’s introductory poem, Listening to Britain, to the WWII British propaganda film Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister, 1942). 8 For a criticism of misleading definitions of ‘propaganda’ and exploration of an alternative threefold epistemic merit communication model of propaganda (Sender-Message-Receiver) see, e.g.: Sheryl T. Ross’ (2002) article ‘Understanding Propaganda: The Epistemic Merit Model and Its Application to Art’. 9 This ‘indexical bond’, according to Nichols: ‘the indexical dimension of an image refers to the way in which the appearance of an image is shaped or determined by what it records… it is a document of what once stood before the camera as well as how the camera represented them’ (Nichols, 2001 :35-36). 10 According to Nichols: ‘Documentary films… are part and parcel of the discursive formations, the language games, and rhetorical stratagems by and through which pleasure and power, ideologies and utopias, subjects and
representations’ (Nichols, 1991: 7). From this understanding further problems ensue within the drama documentary sub-format, whereby, ‘having chosen the dramatic form to portray factual events…important facts are discarded and distorted because they are insufficiently dramatic’ (Williams, 1999: 331). But does this diminish their value as a documentary? In fact, ‘pure’, real events, which documentary films take as their referents, have no structure evident within them. Therefore, as Guynn (1990: 133) notes, ‘documentarists, like historians, endow their material with meaning through a discursive act… that produces structure, i.e., a system of relationships between the assembled materials, images and sounds’. For example, contemporary documentary-maker, Trinh T. Minh-ha, sates that: ‘it’s always in the name of my truth that I give myself the license to stamp out others’ truths…’ (in Gail and McLoughlin, 2007: 121). Therefore, there does not exist ‘one truth’ or ‘the true’ representation of certain historical events, but always – an ideologically coloured one, according to current dominant ideologies or discourses. If propaganda is regarded only as a politically motivated call to mobilisation, then what can be said of setting up false memories and conflicting historical interpretations? Is it reductionism at best and disinformation at worst?
Constructing a New Social Reality: Shub’s Compilation Films While, as Malinsky (2004) notes, ‘the role of individual subjectivity was a point of interrogation for art during the first ten years following the Bolshevik Revolution’, technical difficulties and the demands of Soviet propaganda that followed during the Civil War years meant that filmmakers were using innovative and experimental ways to express the needs and goals of the newly liberated working class. Thus, for example, infamous Dziga Vertov’s early realist/constructivist records of the nascent Soviet society stood in stark opposition to the bourgeois ‘excess’ of fiction and ‘narrativised’ representation of events in pre-revolutionary films.11 These documentaries attempted to grasp the immediacy of ‘dialectical relationships between disparate events occurring in reality’ (Vertov, 1923), and to put facts together (through an early technique of metric/ rhythmic and tonal montage) in a new structure, in order to contribute to building ‘a true socialist society’ with ‘more perceptive people’.12 However, Vertov’s early experiments with montage and relating immediate experiences of multiverse post-Revolutionary (rather than just socialist) reality were ahead of its time, and, as the political climate changed towards an increasingly one-party rule in the 1920s, the goals of Soviet propaganda had gradually metamorphosed into showing: the importance of the leading role of the Bolshevik party in all revolutionary events, and that Bolshevist Russia had the capacity to move from pre-revolutionary backwardness towards a bright industrial future. Accused by contemporary fellow critics of ‘fetishisation of subjectivities receive tangible representation… Documentary… joins these other discourses (of law, family, education, economics, politics, state and nation) in the actual construction of social reality.’ (Nichols, 1991: 10). 11 These were: the first Soviet newsreel – Kino-nedelya (07.1918-12.1919), and feature-length compilation documentary The Anniversary of Revolution (1918/1919). Unfortunately, according to some Russian archivists, out of the initial 12 parts of the film only 4 remain now (Magidov, 1994) – ‘February/March Revolution’, ‘October Revolution’, ‘The Brain of Soviet Russia’, and ‘What the Pesant-Proletariat Government Achieved in a Year? (In the City, in the Countryside, In fighting the Enemies of the Revolution)’. 12 From V. Petric’s (1978) summary of Vertov’s theoretical statement, Kinoks: A Revolution (1923).
fact’,13 - or limiting documentaries to easily recordable phenomena, ‘documentarists-engineers’, such as Vertov, were criticised for not showing processes hard to catch with the ‘cine-eye’ (such as counter-revolutionary plots), as well as for not giving a sense of a bigger picture encapsulated in a Hegelian notion of the ‘totality’ of history and art forms (Hicks, 2007: 83). Despite this and prior to a complete reorientation of Soviet non-fiction film in the early 1930s towards the scripted, staged documentaries and absolutely inaccurate historical films (Hicks, 2007: 85), a different attempt to eliminate the subjective elitism of the documentary ‘director-engineer’ was undertaken through the method of national factory-archive, whose logic was ‘to diminish the present by looking to the future through the prism of the past’ (Malitsky, 2004).14 As part of the ‘larger transition from fragmentation, inspiration and subjectivity to consolidation, organisation and centralisation’ (Malitsky, 2004), in the early 1920s, Esfir Shub began a study of Russian pre-revolutionary history at the Leningrad Museum of Revolution. Her study resulted in the 1927 documentary film (FRD) considered to be a masterpiece of archival commentary on the past events, to be presented for future generations of soviet citizens. The main reason behind this film was less so the miming the Western positivist fascination with the culture of archiving, 15 or even the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution (whose proletarian origins, it was understood nevertheless, needed to be sooner or later fully authorised and firmly ingrained in popular Soviet psyche), but more so – with the Soviet state’s seminal ‘re-thinking of the nation-building policy, the communication aspect of which relied on research that contributed to a changed conception of the text-audience relationship’ (Malitsky, 2004). This change, in particular, touched upon the aesthetics of film-making, such as ‘de-familiarisation’, temporal and spatial representation, as well as its methods: the primary reliance on archival footage, and the requirements of thematic narrative for organising the documentary material in a meaningful and memorable way. It can be said that during this period, the authoritative license of a ‘director engineer’ consisted, as would be seen from Shub’s example, of providing a commentary on the compiled archival evidence. Commentary, as Nichols writes, ‘can include not only direct address (voiceover narrators or on-screen authorities, for example) but also other tactics or devices… that draw attention away from a perspective on the world and toward a more distanced, conceptual accounting of it’ (Nichols, 1991: 118). Soviet critics, such as Viktor Shklovsky and Osip Brik, who saw Vertov’s fastmoving, ‘metrical’ montage editing of short takes and individualistic, artistic cinematography of ‘life-caught unawares’ as distorting material reality and as incomprehensible to the masses (Yampolsky, 1991: 161), claimed that the viewer in Vertov’s films is disoriented as he/she feels as part of the action of the ‘cine-eye’, which renders the contemporary reality unfamiliar. By contrast, the reliance of the new ‘director-editor’ – Shub, – on found archival footage 13
Al. Borisov, ‘Dokumentalisty v zvukovom kino’, Proletarskoe Kino, 5-6, 1931: 33. As Malitsky (2004) notes, the creation and use of the nationwide cinema archives compiled of raw footage (to be filmed by a variety of specially designated, but not necessarily professional contributors), - was sought to make the archival documentary images more relevant to a variety of viewers across the newly formed Soviet states. 15 Soviet notions of the national archive were more utilitarian and pragmatic, rather than those in the West, where it was believed that total coverage of the world’s artefacts in archives would rationally, rather than through different ideologies, reveal universal laws and truths behind them, thus housing recorded truth outside ideological influence and allowing people to witness and challenge the evidence. (See: e.g., Derrida, 1995). 14
(with its reputed ability to capture and store indexically and objectively a particular historical space and time) and her use of long takes (composed mostly of long shots) were seen as restoring authenticity to the film document (by diminishing the work of the director-editor) and re-connecting it back with the masses through contemplation and commentary.16
'The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty', Russian Federation, 1927
Indeed, in FRD Shub’s found ‘second hand’ archival images, filmed originally by the royal court’s filmographer (obviously for closed, self-referential viewing), were re-compiled into longer takes with scenes, describing and juxtaposing royal, industrial and ordinary life in pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia (mostly in St. Petersburg and Moscow). When compared to Vertov’s ‘liberating’ inter-cutting of short ‘bits’ (Malitsky, 2004) of newsreel material that removed temporal and extra-textual context, Shubian way of re-presenting historical reality (simple composition of sequences and intertitles to produce a commentary) was able to distance the contemporary Soviet viewer from those historical events, allowing for their closer contemplation and examination. 17 Thus, the construction of these artificial contemplative pauses within the space of the compilation film, allowed the critics at the time to contend that meaning was not determined by the connection between the shots, but was primarily contained in individual shots, – those ‘indexical traces of the presence of a real past’ (Rosen, 2001),18 - and that because of this, non-fiction film in general needed a prior organising principle (thematic, commentary or both), that would emerge from the material itself.19
While it was thought, as Yampolsky notes, that ‘work on present-day films should practically stop and that cinema should begin to work for the future’ to allow the possibility of a future ‘Shubian’-style masterpieces, in which ‘the document not only became alienated from the director, it became a document from the past’ thus making the reflection of contemporary reality impossible (Yampolsky, 1991: 164, author’s emphasis). 17 For example, Shub herself described as the goal of her montage that ‘emphasis on the fact is an emphasis not only to show the fact, but to enable it to be examined and, having examined it, to be kept in mind’ (E. Shub, Zhizn’ moya – kinematograf (Cinematography – my life), (1972): 268. Quoted in Yampolsky, 163). 18 For an analysis of how elements of modern historiography encompass documentary film practice, see Rosen, chapter 6, “Document and documentary: on the persistence of historical concepts,” 225-264. 19 In words of Osip Brik: ‘A non-played film needs a script far more than a played film does. A script does not necessarily mean a simple plot-like account of events. A script is the justification for the raw material that is filmed and non-played material requires this justification to an even greater degree than does played material. To think that newsreel shots stuck together without any internal thematic connection can make a film is worse than flippant’ (Brick, 1928, in Christie & Taylor, 1994: 225-6).
As such, main theme of Shub’s research is eloquently stated in the title of the film, which, in its description of the end of an oppressive monarchy (rather than just glory of the one Bolshevik October uprising), not only appeals to a very wide, multi-class and multi-national audience, while re-creating a drama of epic proportions, but also provides a happy ending with a promise of a ‘socialism with a human face’ (e.g., shots of smiling Lenin in an open car frantically shaking hands with bystanders). The end of one historical period clearly indicates a triumph of a new, and better one. As suggested by Malitsky (2004), ‘the ideological and historical message in Shub’s films is easily legible. Peering beneath that surface only happens within the context of the ideological message’. In this sense Shub’s mastered commentary on Russia’s recent history clearly coincided with the state propaganda: the revolution was inevitable because the ‘rulers’ (monarchy, clergy and capitalists) and the ‘masses’ (workers and peasants) were in an immense contradiction over their needs and goals, and a new type of politics – one fit for the whole working people was ready to take over the crumbling and exploding society. This message cannot be simply deduced from the numerous intertitles (e.g.: ‘In Europe’, ‘Nations are set in motion’, ‘Hinterland’, ‘All power to the Soviets!’) which signpost a simple but powerful (hi)story and, therefore, are deliberately scarce and widely separated in FRD by long takes of carefully selected archival material to fit this unfinished, still developing revolutionary story. The abovementioned dialectic style of representing reality is clearly a theme of its own throughout the film, as it is reflected in the grouping of the archival material within each section of the film. For example: frivolous and insignificant musings of the nobility (300 th anniversary of Romanovs) are juxtaposed with the vast privately owned lands, separating the latter from the deep poverty of the countryside population; busyness and self-security of the capitalists and bourgeoisie, serviced by the diplomats, versus ‘cannon fodder’ of workers and children, who are to be slaughtered in the coming WWI; indecisive and revisionist provisional government versus the agitated crowds of workers, intelligentsia and soldiers on the streets. Finally, the presentation of a compilation/contemplation film (novelty within its form back then) for the audience expecting a re-construction of events (like one would see in Eisenstein’s October) or a simple inter-cutting of newsreel (as done by Vertov) can be considered a commentary on recent history itself, as if saying: ‘let’s stop and see how we have gotten so far and whether or not this is all true’. To conclude this section it is appropriate to cite here Malitsky (2004) who notes that Shub, as ‘originator of the compilation documentary’, ‘helped usher in a new historiographic practice by combining an established research method (working with documents in an archive) with a new way of telling the historical story (through film images and intertitles).’ This was a great achievement in the documentary movement, and with a nascent national archive (a newly constructed ‘memory of a nation’) documentary images of the past could finally be revealed in a meaningful (both subjective and objective) way to the public. The director-editor’s commentary in FRD is, as Nichols (1991: 118) points out, ‘a more overt and direct form of argumentation’, and is always ‘at a more “meta” level than perspective’. Let us now look at a more figurative representation of Revolution in Sergei Eisenstein’s October which has sunk deeply into the popular consciousness.
Ploughing the Vision of the Revolution: Eisenstein’s October 1917 Eisenstein’s OTD does not meticulously retell the year of revolution. It is a clear dramatisation, often preferring to use metaphors in place of literal recreation. In this way, the film challenges the viewer not only with the narrative of the events, but with some of the key ideas about the revolution, as seen from the director’s perspective. Going back to the Griersonian method which more ‘explosively reveals the reality’ of a subject, one cannot miss Eisenstein’s (1959: 23) famous quoting of Goethe during the discussion of fact and fiction in the making of Battleship Potemkin: ‘For the sake of truthfulness, one can afford to defy the truth’. Eisenstein believed that film montage could create ideas or have an impact beyond the individual images, 20 whereby two or more images edited together create a ‘tertium quid’ (third thing) that makes the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts. 21 He also recognised that this ‘collision’ of shots within the technique of montage could be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and create film metaphors, progressing through communication of primal emotions to intellectual ideas. This approach is epitomised in Eisenstein’s own saying about the art of cinema, which compares it to ‘a tractor ploughing the audience’s psyche within a pre-set class-based context’, and if this is true then the line he is making is by no means an even one.22 As in Potemkin, intellectual montage, is also the main defining style in OTD. A dramatised collage of reality and fiction,23 the film - despite offering, according to the intent of film-makers - the ‘closest possible re-creation of the events of 1917’ (including actual locations in St. Petersburg, the legendary cruiser ‘Aurora’, and other cameo appearances from historical figures who were organisers of the uprising, such as Nikolay Podvolskiy playing himself), also contains Eisenstein’s personal and artistic point of view. Nevertheless, the irony of history consists in that, grandiose paintings depicting the ‘the July Days demonstration shooting’, or ‘revolutionary sailors marching on the waterfront’, and other photo stills taken from Eisenstein's staged film which actually represented the ‘politically correct’ version of the October events in Petrograd, came to be taken as truth and are still used by documentarymakers instead of archival footage, as if ‘the truth of Eisenstein’s art has constructed the reality of the historical world that his film was about’ (Conesa, 2000).
This, in Eisenstein’s view would allow ‘wholly new concepts or ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete denotations of two concrete objects…’ (Eisenstein, 1949: 50). 21 See, e.g.: S. Eisenstein, ‘The Montage of Attractions’ (1923), (in Christie & Taylor, 1994: 87-89). 22 Eisenstein later admitted that ‘from the point of view of construction, October is by no means flawless… I allowed myself to make experiments… they were enough to break the composition of the work as a unity’ (cited in Bergan, 1997: 136). 23 Despite that, as critics point out, the film was similar to a mass spectacle in the form of a historical re-enactment called The Storming of the Winter Palace, which was successfully staged in Petrograd in 1920 in front of 100,000 spectators (von Geldern, 1993). Eisenstein wanted to guarantee its authenticity by giving it secondary title, borrowed from John Reed’s personal account of the October-November revolution (Ten Days that Shook the World).
'October: Ten Days That Shook The World', Russian Federation, 1928
Similar to Shub, Eisenstein uses authentic historical documents in the film (newspapers, banners, passes, party membership cards, etc.) to authenticate the appearance of real people in the film (essentially non-actors, who were cast from real workers and soldiers of Petrograd). However, if one would accept the characterisation of Eisenstein’s films as ‘a language… in which the real is used as an element of a discourse’ (Ulmer, 1983: 85), then his use of the montage technique to illustrate rational associations for the purposes of narrative progression creates the ‘abstract’ space of historical representation which gives access to ‘deeper truths’ as seen through the director’s eyes. Since the ideological parameters of the film were more or less already pre-set, - similar to the Shub’s FRD, - by the party’s general line: i.e., the downfall of a lawless, oppressive tsarist regime and the triumph of a new, popular, democratic and lawful government (i.e., as shown in opening and closing shots in each film), - this space opened to a more individual interpretation of events by a director, who, like Shub, sought to recount a historical situation whose scope exceeds the capacities of the filmic language and the powers of montage. Like many other documentary films that followed, OTD set out to portray ‘collectivities’, rather than ‘individuals’ (the ‘enemies’ of the Revolution, painted as caricatures, are merely diminutive anti-heroes), however, the absence of truly novelistic characters (even Lenin – presumably ‘the one and the only’ ‘engine’ of rebellion - is visibly played by many actors, appearing and disappearing in and out of the story), prompts Eisenstein to make the people of Petrograd, both actors in the film and spectators in the cinema – the main drivers of the dialectic action between the true children of Revolution – the young, – and its ageing enemies. The overt exaggeration of facts in almost theatrical/dramatic staging of some scenes in OTD (i.e., the lynching of a young Bolshevik trying to hide the flag, or Kerenskiy’s awkward entry to the White Palace, or the ‘storming’ of the latter in one, big ‘street battle’) does not give credit to Eisenstein’s truthful, or, rather, accurate portrayal of historical events of 1917. But to Eisenstein-thedirector, OTD is more than just a Revolution (or rather two Revolutions – February and November) with a simple progression of an enumerated multitude of immediate causal events (as it would be seen, for example, by Vertov), or as long shot of documentary canvasses (as they would be for Shub). It is also a sombre reflection – through intellectual montage, on the issues of the icon and idol-worshipping, god, and the cult of personality – hence the montage scenes showing the dismantling of the Tsar’s statue, intercutting images of Kerenskiy with a Napoleon statuette, and a complex montage of various effigies of gods, symbols of power/authority, juxtaposed with the revolutionary autonomy of the ordinary people’s will and aspirations. These ‘abstract’ spaces of historical representation of the order of ideas 11
breaks the jumpy and emotional narrative-like pace of ‘the Eisenstein’s tractor’ as it ploughs the streets and minds of Revolutionary Petrograd, thus creating a memorable, but highly subjective perspective of the director-auteur. Thus, Eisenstein’s OTD shows the power of the artistic perspective in tacitly delivering a very strong argument about a historical reality. Despite careful and detailed reconstructions of historical events - real (July Days demonstration shooting) and staged (storming of the Winter Palace) - as soon as the camera chooses a preferred angle from which to capture the subject, everything outside the angle is excluded from this representation of the ‘real’ and is being done so deliberately through choosing to highlight one aspect of the scene in order to use it to reinforce a particular viewpoint/message (enhanced by the extra-historical space of montage).
Paint-by-numbers in HD: The “Third” Russian Revolution in Colour As Corner (in Rosenthal, 1999: 35) notes ‘the most important aspect of drama documentary as a controversial form…is the linking together of a “viewpoint” discourse with discourses of strong referentiality and of high imaginative potency’. In this respect, the next example successfully builds upon the above mentioned issues of commentary and perspective, discussed in the case with RFD and OTD. The ethical choices in the production of RRC – in terms of text-viewer position – were clearly made in favour of placing the viewer into a passive, rather than active position, a default assumption within an infotainment-type programme, characteristic of the early 21st century TV. The film’s editors say that it ‘makes novel use of dramatised recreations and colourised archives to tell how this extraordinary event happened…’ by focusing ‘on the sailors from the island naval base of Kronstadt, who in 1917 took up the revolutionary cause with bloody enthusiasm, only to have their dreams shattered when Lenin creates a brutal police state. The sailors denounce their former ally and face the Red Army in a final battle’. 24 Thus, RRC attempts to present the contemporary viewer with a strong revisionist argument about the whole idea of the Russian Revolution(s). The ideological pre-text becomes clear and infers the above perspective from the authoritative authorial voice-over which eloquently summarises for the viewer some twothirds of all historical events of the 20th century: ‘The Russian Revolution changed the world forever. Almost overnight, an entire society was destroyed and replaced with one of the biggest and most radical experiments ever seen. Within a generation, millions would be killed and almost one third of the world’s population would be living in the shadow of communism.’ (RRC, 2005, narrated by Peter Guiness)
Structurally, the argument within the RRC proceeds almost in two dialectically opposed stages: ‘Freedom and Hope’ (thesis: shows ‘how the Kronstadt sailors’ loyalty helped defend the revolution in its first years) and ‘Fear and Paranoia’ (antithesis: how the sailors’ brutal defeat killed the flickering hope for a more just society). This dramatic narrative antagonism plays on a unifying promethean theme of the heroic rise and fall of the driving force of the Revolution – the Kronstadt sailors, who become the main novelistic characters who fuel the textual economy of this docudrama. Furthermore, to enhance this experience, the viewer is told to believe that this is the reality of how it might have been witnessed by the sailors themselves (hence come the reconstruction scenes with POV shots, together with colourised archive materials).
Channel Five Website, a synopsis of the documentary (accessed 12.05.2007).
'Russian Revolution in Colour', UK, 2005
To bring the narrative ‘closer to the viewer’s experience’ the main storyline in RRC is punctuated with seemingly ‘individual’ sailor characters (portrayed by two historically known sailor leaders, and accompanied by another unidentified sailor, whose image we see throughout the film and whose voice ‘reads’, occasionally, from his archived letters to convey these personal experiences). Meanwhile, the factual part of the story is supported by a good number of testimonials from different experts (mostly historians), both British and Russian (to give a fair representation), who provide an insightful commentary (in form of their subjective opinion) with the air of authority both: from the comfort of their academic chairs, as well as from the brightly lit, summery-looking locations of the above heroic/gruesome historical action which dates back almost hundred years. The use of electronically colourised archival footage aims to amplify and authenticate the - otherwise subjective - narrative voice (of the author-director) and commentaries, as well as the reconstruction sequences. The latter, however, are given at times the same faded, worn-out finish (electronically) to blend them in visual continuity with the archival footage. In fact, taken into account the colouring of the archival footage (to fit contemporary tastes), quite the opposite becomes true as the whole historical world of that period starts to glisten with a ‘life-like’ reality of ‘technicolor’, apparently to become ‘closer’ to our senses (unlike Shub’s distancing effect of contemplative historical plates). This ‘blurring’ of fact and fiction is further augmented by an inexplicable mixing of the archival sequences with a number of well recognisable frames from Eisenstein’s OTD (i.e., re-created July demonstrations and sailors marching), which are intended to complement or, perhaps, even stand (whether mistakenly or deliberately) for the otherwise scarce (and very expensive) archival footage from that period. The style of the editing of this footage is fast, and, unlike Shub’s re-edited long takes, gives only glimpses of historical reality, which is in line with the shooting and editing (news-reel) style of the modern reconstructions, with their POVs, and fragmented close-ups. Despite the several layers of fabrication of historical reality in RRC (voiceover, ‘objective’ expert commentaries, reconstruction sequences and archival footage), the film is full, like its predecessors, of historical inaccuracies, 25 most significant of them (in terms of the narrative) – is the fact that, although 25
See, e.g.: Nadim al-Mahjoub, ‘The Russian Revolution in Colour’, In Defence of Marxism (online journal), 07 April 2005, http://www.marxist.com/russian-revolution-colour-documentary.htm.
portrayed in film over the course of a 5-year revolutionary saga as a continuous group of people, the composition of the group of Kronstadt sailors of 1917 was not the same as at the time of the 1921 uprising. Moreover, the representation of the Kronstadt sailors in the first half of the drama in a very positive light, - almost as a perfect ‘model of democracy’ (within a closely-knit military, predominantly male community on a remote island) amongst the chaos of the revolution hijacked by Bolsheviks - inevitably leads in the second half of the program (as a requirement of dramatic narrative) to a ‘surprisingly’ negative painting of the new Soviet state, struggling to survive at all costs among the Civil War and International invasion. By portraying the Kronstadt uprising as ‘the only’ major uprising against the Soviet government at the time (by limiting any information about other significant uprisings at the time and also in later years) it denies the soviet people and people in what become socialist countries a good measure of self-determination and historical agency, thus leaving the notion of ‘liberal democracy’ as the only acceptable model throughout history. Therefore the ideologically-painted argument of the Russian Revolution in RRC, clearly inspired by the revisionist trend of the last two decades, positions itself to reverberate beyond the 20 th century’s history by making a concealed comment on Russia’s present history, whereby the strong state, apparently, is ‘again’ crushing down the ‘green shoots’ of Eltsin’s ‘liberal business’ revolution of the 1990s. If, paraphrasing Nichols (1999: 131), montage techniques applied by Vertov, Shub and Eisenstein in their films ‘emphasized the overt or constructed quality of an argument, based on representations from the historical world, rather than the constructed quality of an imaginary world’, then RRC does everything to blur this fine line (through digital technology) by accentuating dramatic occurrences within the wider discourse of revolution and historical development.
Conclusion One of the most engaging aspects of the drama documentary is the way in which it poses more general questions about the viewer-television-reality relationship. The presumed assumption that the Soviet historical docudrama films were ‘less neutral’ than their more recent Western counterparts, does not mean to suggest a lack of faith in (drama-) documentary film’s ability to communicate ‘the truth of the world’. As seen from the above examples various depictive forms (such as montage, compilation and historical reconstruction) were employed to communicate different truth(s). At the same time, new research and production methods (archival and journalistic investigation) adopted by the Soviet documentarists were part of a universal positivist scientific project (rather than just performing state ideological function), in that they communicated and performed Marxist dialectics on screen. On the one hand, what the purity of the film document seemingly assured within the format of documentary and docudrama was that the building blocks of the argument were indisputable facts within historical world. On the other hand, the viewer’s interpretation and our willingness to consider them simultaneously at their referential (indexical) value, as well as, simultaneously, within the ideological context - is capable of producing alternative readings, and, hence, alternative truths that can step beyond the controversial world of docudrama.
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Filmography The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Shub, Esfir (Russian Federation, 1927, 90 min). October: Ten Days That Shook The World, Eisenstein, Sergei (Russian Federation, 1928, 104 min.) Russian Revolution in Colour, Lilley, Ian (UK, 2005, 94 min.)
2011 © Johan Jakobson, all rights reserved
Published on Jan 1, 2011
It is widely assumed that from its inception the medium of documentary film was designed to represent objective truth about the historical e...