KINO-PRAVDA - Film (Movie) Plot and Review


USSR, 1922–25

Director: Dziga Vertov

Production: Black and white, 35mm, series of 23 newsreels-documentaries, released over a period of 3 years; First issue released 21 May 1922, the 23rd and last issue released 1925. Filmed in the Soviet Union.

Photography: Mikhail Kaufman, I. Belyakov and A. Lemberg; editor: Dziga Vertov; assistant editor: Yelizaveta Svilova; assistant director: Ilya Kopalin.



De La Roche, Catherine, and Thorold Dickinson, Soviet Cinema , London, 1948; New York, 1972.

Leyda, Jay, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film , London, 1960.

Abramov, Nikolai, Dziga Vertov , Moscow, 1962; French edition, Lyons, 1965.

Vertov, Dziga, Aufsätze, Tagebücher, Skizzen , edited by Sergej Drobaschenko, Berlin, 1967.

Borokov, V., Dziga Vertov , Moscow, 1967.

Rotha, Paul, and others, Documentary Film , New York, 1968.

Sitney, P. Adams, editor, Film Culture Reader , New York, 1970.

Sadoul, Georges, Dziga Vertov , Paris, 1971.

Issari, M. Ali, Cinema Vérité , East Lansing, Michigan, 1971.

Schnitzer, Luda, Jean Schnitzer, and Marcel Martin, Cinema in Revolution: The Heroic Era of the Soviet Film , New York, 1973.

Rimberg, John, The Motion Picture in the Soviet Union 1918–1952 , New York, 1973.

Cohen, Louis Harris, The Cultural-Political Traditions and Developments of the Soviet Cinema 1917–1972 , New York, 1974.

Feldman, Seth R., Evolution of Style in the Early Works of Dziga Vertov , New York, 1977.

Ellis, Jack C., A History of Film , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1979.

Feldman, Seth R., Dziga Vertov: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1979.

Marshall, Herbert, Masters of the Soviet Cinema: Crippled Creative Biographies , London, 1983.

Vertov, Dziga, Kino-Eye: The Writings , edited by Annette Michelson, Berkeley, 1984.

Waugh, Thomas, editor, "Show Us Life": Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.

Petric, Vlad, Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera: A Cinematic Analysis , Cambridge, 1987.

Ellis, Jack C., The Documentary Idea , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1989.

Devaux, Frédérique, Homme à la camera, de Dziga Vertov , Crisnée, 1990.


Abramov, Nikolai, "Dziga Vertov es a dokumentufilm muveszete," in Filmkultura (Budapest), January 1961.

"The Writings of Dziga Vertov," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1962.

Bordwell, David, "Dziga Vertov: An Introduction," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1972.

Feldman, Seth R., "Cinema Weekly and Cinema Truth," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1973–74.

Mayne, Judith, "Kino-Truth and Kino-Praxis: Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera ," in Ciné-Tracts (Montreal), Summer 1977.

Lebedev, A., in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), October 1977.

Dille, J., "'Konstruktivizm' and 'Kinematografiya'," in Artforum , vol. 16, May 1978.

* * *

The 21 May 1922 debut of the innovative newsreel Kino-Pravda came at a crucial time in Soviet history. The nature and reception of Kino-Pravda are best understood against that background. In August of the previous year, Lenin, in a desperate move to spark an economy prostrated by years of turmoil—revolution, civil war, occupation by foreign troops—had decreed a "New Economic Policy" i.e., a temporary invocation of private enterprise, including concessions to foreign interests. With striking promptness theatres began showing pre-war Russian films and imports from the major capitalist powers (e.g., Evil Shadows , Daughter of Tarzan , The City's Temptation ). Even as their armies departed, their films flooded in, providing some of the needed economic stimulus. But the young film worker Dziga Vertov described the deluge as "living corpses of movie dramas garbed in splendid technological dressing." With the rhetorical flair for which he would become noted, he protested: "The body of cinema is numbed by the terrible poison of habit. We demand an opportunity to experiment with this dying organism, to find an antidote." For him the antidote was "reality." His apparent contempt for fiction films antagonized many in the Russian film world, but his words won support in high places. Lenin had recently declared that it hardly mattered if people were drawn to theatres by nonsense films, provided there was also a proportion dealing with world realities. The need for a "Leninist film proportion" (never clearly defined) became Soviet doctrine and seemed to be implemented with the authorized launching of Kino-Pravda , under the leadership of the 26-year-old Dziga Vertov.

For many Russian film-goers the monthly issues of Kino-Pravda released during the next two years must often have seemed the only items touching their lives. They saw such events as: the day a Moscow trolley line, long out of service in torn-up streets, resumed running; a tank levelling a field for an airport-to-be; homeless children, surviving in rubble, getting medical attention from a hospital; a hydroelectric project under construction. Kino-Pravda occasionally turned a camera on its own operations. One episode showed a film worker arriving in a village, setting up a screen and projector, and, when a crowd gathered, showing them a Kino-Pravda reel.

Kino-Pravda was the work of a compact group. Its creator, Dziga Vertov (real name, Denis Kaufman) hailed from Bialystok in the Polish part of the Tsarist domain. With the outbreak of war in 1914 his parents, both librarians, had taken their three young sons—Denis, Mikhail, Boris—to what must have seemed the comparative safety of Russia. The two older sons, Denis and Mikhail, took up university studies in St Petersburg. In 1917 both were caught up in the fever of the revolution, with Denis volunteering to the cinema committee; he was soon editing agit-prop films despatched to fighting units as well as to towns and villages. He renamed himself Dziga Vertov, names suggesting a spinning top, perhaps symbolizing a revolving film reel, or revolution itself. By 1921, as the fighting ended, he was a seasoned film worker. He foresaw a crucial role for film in the coming Soviet state and wrote manifestos to that effect. When his Kino-Pravda project won approval, he enlisted his brother Mikhail Kaufman, one year his junior, as chief cameraman, joined by others as needed. Vertov's wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, became Kino-Pravda 's editor. (Boris, youngest of the Kaufman brothers, was sent to France to be educated. He eventually pursued a notable film career there, and later in Canada and the United States).

The Kino-Pravda group began its work in a basement in the centre of Moscow. Vertov later described it as damp and dark with an earthen floor and holes one stumbled into at every turn. "This dampness prevented our reels of lovingly edited film from sticking together properly, rusted our scissors and our splicers." To get an issue out in time, they often worked into the night. "Before dawn— damp, cold, teeth chattering—I wrap comrade Svilova in a third jacket."

Vertov remained the guiding force. He outlined general strategy, then sent Mikhail and other cameramen in various directions, allowing them wide latitude. They were to shoot what seemed important. Staged action was taboo. They wished to catch life "unaware." They never asked permission. They sometimes shot from concealed positions. The epoch provided the themes. Mikhail would remember the period with nostalgia. His camera was always with him. They worked hard but never thought of it as hard work. It was "like breathing or eating." Once when Vertov ordered him to take a rest in the country, he went reluctantly. It was beautiful, "but when I could not see it with the help of my camera, it was not beauty for me."

Like the American film pioneer Robert Flaherty, a contemporary, Vertov and Mikhail considered the camera a miraculous "machine for seeing." The camera eye could help the human eye perceive things it could not otherwise see. To exploit this to the fullest, Kino-Pravda welcomed such devices as speeded and slowed action, and vistas from impossible angles. In one of his manifestos, Vertov lets the camera do the explaining: "I, a machine, show you a world such as only I can see. From now on and for always I cast off human immobility, I move constantly, I approach and move away from objects, I creep under them, I leap onto them, I move alongside the mouth of a galloping horse, I cut into a crowd, I turn on my back, I take off with an airplane, I fall and rise without falling and rising bodies." Such words help to explain why Kino-Pravda was considered livelier than most newsreels. It dealt with "the prose of life," but processed with any device that would convey symbolic values. Thus in issue No. 24 (1925), on the first anniversary of the death of Lenin, we see people streaming past the dead leader in his coffin. Meanwhile the living Lenin appears by superimposure in the corner of the screen as though still speaking to them.

The Kino-Pravda series had a considerable influence beyond its short life. Its footage and techniques were used in a number of subsequent feature-length documentaries by Vertov and his associates, notably in Shestaya Chast Mira (One Sixth of the World, 1926), a widely admired film.

Kino-Pravda 's magazine-like newsreel seems to have contributed to Time 's decision to create The March of Time . Even more significant was the inspiration Kino-Pravda gave to the cinema vérité movement of the 1960s, which took not only its name, but some of its basic ideas, from the Vertov newsreel. Synchronized sight-and-sound shooting had by then made possible, in a fuller sense than in Vertov's time, the Kino-Pravda aspiration of capturing life "on the run."

—Erik Barnouw

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