If you want to know exactly what cinema can do, catch this silent masterpiece recently voted the best doc of all time
If you’re thinking about taking a directing course but don’t have three years to kill or thousands to spend, don’t worry: you can learn pretty much everything you need to know about framing, composition, cutting and the sheer force of the moving image in 68 minutes from Russian master Dziga Vertov’s thrilling 1929 film-about-film. Recently proclaimed the best documentary of all time by film bible Sight and Sound (and the eighth best film of any kind in the BFI’s 2012 poll), Vertov’s experimental essay proclaims its ‘complete separation from the language of theatre and literature’ in the opening titles. What follows is cinema in its purest form: movement, sensation, action and visual trickery.
As befits its Soviet-era genesis this is a staunchly political film, blending footage taken in four Russian cities over three years to create a sensual, idealised urban landscape filled with toned, muscular citizens at work and play. Edited by Vertov’s wife Elizaveta Svilova, the film is also strikingly feminist, with a strong focus on women’s faces and bodies and a hospital birth sequence which must have been shocking in its explicitness at the time.
But Vertov is also concerned with the filmmaking process, featuring his cameramen in several shots – forcing the audience to recognise that there must be a second camera shooting the first. He luxuriates in the possibilities of off-kilter framing, double exposure, fast and slow motion, dissolves and ludicrously fast cutting, setting a pace that wouldn’t be matched until the MTV era.