by Jay Seaver
"Welcome", the hostess said, "to a rare screening of a film by Dziga Vertov" that ISN'T "The Man with a Movie Camera". That, friends, is when you know you're in the company of hard-core film buffs - they're able to intimate that certain silent-era Soviet documentaries are somehow too mainstream for the truly curious cinephileEven those who have heard of Man with a Movie Camera might not be aware of A Sixth Part of the World; it's another documentary by Vertov. While it may not have the fascinating self-referentiality of Vertov's later film, it is equally astonishing in its sheer scope: Where Movie Camera stayed close to Moscow, the title of A Sixth Part of the World refers to the fraction of the world's land area that the Soviet Union covered. Vertov attempts to cover the entirety of it in just over an hour, from Ukraine to Siberia and Leningrad (as it was then) to Kazakhstan. It would be an enormous undertaking today, and Vertov probably wasn't using a lot of air travel.
"It's a small Soviet Union after all."
It does provide a fascinating glimpse of that now re-fragmented nation. One thing that struck me as surprising, despite being somewhat obvious in retrospect, is how ethnically diverse the Soviet Union was, and modern Russia must be. The principal image in my head is generally that of a Slavic people, but genetics don't reflect national borders, and while we see plenty of "Eurorussians", we also observe that the Soviet Union had long borders with the Middle East, China, and Mongolia, while a native Siberian more closely resembles an Eskimo than a Slav. The Soviet Union, the film tells us, doesn't just cover a great deal of the Earth, but represents a large chunk, too. Despite all that, the film implies, it is one united nation, all excited to hear the words of Lenin.
History tells us that's not so much the case, but this is a film produced by the Soviet government with the intention of encouraging people to buy Soviet products. As with a great many Soviet movies, the propaganda is occasionally heaped on with a shovel, getting thicker and thicker toward the end. I imagine it's an attempt to build Soviet pride and unity; early on, it's just showing the beauty of the nation and not making many value judgments other than obliquely referring to "the land of capital" on the other side of the European borders. Once the audience's Soviet pride is built up, then it can start copping an attitude toward outsiders. For instance, it shows pictures of churches without comment toward the beginning, but toward the end, titles mention, with seeming incredulity, that "here, people are still trusting in Jesus" (or Allah, or Buddha, depending on the geography). The delight of Siberian fishermen in hearing a phonograph with Lenin's voice certainly seems unlikely in retrospect.
Even as he's beating his drum, Vertov is showing great chops. He makes some pretty remarkable edits, managing to convey both proximity and distance with simple-seeming cuts. Rather than try to create a narrative or just drily relate information, he presents his film as a sort of visual poem, using the intertitles to give information without being overly expository, frequently using multiple font sizes within the same caption to add bombast to a declaration. When this method works, it's quite stunning; sadly, that's only about two thirds of the time. The film occasionally gets tedious as Vertov finds something more interesting than the audience, and his poetic style doesn't give the audience an easy line with which to pull themselves through."A Sixth Part of the World" does occasionally flounder, even within its short running time, and it's certainly not something I'll want to have on my shelf because I might get an urge to see something like it. It is, however, intriguing, both as an early example of great montage work and as a glimpse at a country that was not nearly as monolithic and homogeneous as we in the West frequently perceived it to be.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15054&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/02/06 13:21:01