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Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova at work, from the film Goskino Review (Obzor Goskino, 1924). Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents (11622). •    • • 26 Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) JOHN MACKAY A perpetually controversial figure in the history of cinema, Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov (b. David Abelevich Kaufman in Bialystok, Russian Empire [now Poland], January 15, 1896 [NS]; d. Moscow, February 12, 1954) has, since at least the early 1970s, figured centrally in debates about nonfiction cinema, avant-garde cinema, political propaganda film, and film theory worldwide. His work and thought present a number of apparently intractable paradoxes. Vertov was at once the most uncompromising advocate of documentary (or “non-acted”) film as a means of showing “life as it is”—his neologism “kino-pravda” (film truth), as translated into French by Georges Sadoul, gave us the term “cinéma verité,” a notion with a most problematic relation to Vertov’s actual cinematic practice—and the most radical explorer of the possibilities of montage prior to the emergence of the European and U.S. avant-gardes in the late 1950s. He was both the implacable opponent of “scripted” documentary, and the most fanatically “formalist” micro-organizer of image and sound in the history of nonfiction film; he was at once a proud outsider, loudly defending his “kino-eye” doctrines as a bulwark of true revolutionary principle against the backsliding into bourgeois theatricality represented by dominant fiction film norms, and largely conformist in relation to the policies and rhetoric of the Soviet state. Beyond this, Vertov’s famous writings, often fiercely manifesto-like in character, seem less than adequate keys to the singular complexity of his films, even as certain of their themes (the politicization of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction film, for instance, or the well-known “theory of the interval”) continue to stimulate filmmakers and theorists alike.1 For its part, Vertov’s biography, including his posthumous reception, presents us with, if not “paradox” exactly, certainly stark and sometimes bleak contrasts: specifically , the contrasts between his modest beginnings as a provincial student and war refugee, his rapid rise to artistic prominence between 1922 and 1929, his downward slide into total creative frustration and near-oblivion during the last twenty years of his life, and his legacy as a now canonical, if still provocative, giant of film history. To be sure, that legacy as articulated during the Cold War period was structured by 284 John MacKay familiar Vertovian paradoxes, as the “formalist” or “experimental” aspects of his work were downplayed or denounced in the Soviet Union (where he was recognized by the 1960s as the father of documentary and film journalism), and correspondingly valorized in the West.2 Vertov’s life was an eventful one. His father, Abel Kushelevich Kaufman (b. 1868 in Grodno [now in Belarus], Russian Empire; d. sometime between 1941 and 1943 in Bialystok), after working as a librarian for the Bialystok city government, opened up a large bookstore (with an adjunct lending library) in that bustling industrial city at the beginning of 1893. A year later he married Chaya-Ester Rakhmielievna Gal'pern (b. 1873 in Zabludovo [now Zabludow, Poland] Russian Empire; d. sometime between 1941–43 in Bialystok), who worked alongside her husband in the bookstore and library . Extraordinarily, all of Abel and Chaya’s sons—with the exception of Semyon (born 1900), who died in infancy—grew up to become significant figures in cinema history. Mikhail Kaufman (b. Moisei Abelevich on September 5, 1897 [NS], in Bialystok; d. March 11, 1980, in Moscow) was Vertov’s main cameraman and close collaborator between 1922 and 1929, and later became an important documentary director in his own right; Boris (b. January 12, 1903 [NS], in Bialystok; d. June 24, 1980, in New York), who never practiced filmmaking in Russia, began to work as a cameraman and sometime co-director in France in the mid-1920s, eventually doing the cinematography for the early films of Jean Lods, all the films of Jean Vigo, and, still later in the United States, for films like Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), for which he won an Academy Award. Evidently, the primary family stimulus to work with images was provided by Chaya’s sister Masha Gal'pern (b. 1883 in Zabludovo; d. 1970 in Acre, Israel) who purchased Mikhail his first still camera; after 1924, Boris in France apparently corresponded with both Dziga and Mikhail about cinema, and Boris’s...


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