It can be argued that Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera can be classified as a documentary. The makings of documentation are there, flashing various footages of the industrial landscape of Russia during the 1920s, capturing streets and avenues without being too controlling of what’s happening.
The movie, after all, can be classified into another thing, as well as another one without feeling the lack of belongingness. At the very start, we are introduced to what it was through a series of intertitles. It reads:
“AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION”
“Of visual phenomena”
“WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES (a film without intertitles)”
“WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCENARIO (a film without a scenario)”
“WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE (a film without actors, without sets, etc.)”
What comes after is a projectionist preparing the film reel for a movie presentation. The chairs in the movie theater magically move in unison, gleefully waiting for the audience to come in. A flock of moviegoers enter the cinema and start sitting on their respective seats. The projectionist is ready and starts to project the movie. He projects Man with a Movie Camera, the film he belongs to.
This is only just the beginning of Vertov’s film, and yet it pulls very big swings during its time. Aside from the actual movie being projected to a crowded cinema, we also see how it was made – from the camera opening and closing to shoot it to the film’s actual editor Elizaveta Svilova editing and stitching the entire thing. It’s an impressive feat.
Then there’s the titular man, the only recurring character throughout this 65-minute movie, who carries his movie camera to shoot the busy lifestyle of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa most of the time while on top of a moving car. It’s a subtle creative gimmick signifying that the language of cinema, personified by the man, can go anywhere.
One can describe Man with a Movie Camera is rebellious filmmaking, bravely crossing outside the borders of the convention. Its experimentation of the medium is way ahead of its time, way ahead even of the now.
But beyond that, this is an energetic (if not, hyperkinetic) film that sees a gloomy Russia in between the two world wars. It’s a wonderful achievement and a glaring reminder both cinematically and historically. Everyone needs to see it.