Across One Sixth of the World
Soviet Expedition Cinema of the 1920-30's.
Presented by the Russian State Film and Photo Archive (RGAKFD)
In 1926, Dziga Vertov made an ambitious "visual poem" with the catchy title A Sixth Part of the World. Shot in the diverse and remote parts of the Soviet Union, it presented a novel and profoundly influential way of seeing the new empire. Filming in the Far North, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, Vertov created a "union of borderlands," which emphasized the periphery over the center and paid special attention to the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Soviet Union. The reception of the film further enhanced the rising tide of expedition films to different corners of the Soviet Union which were produced in the following years - up to the early 1930s. Combining propaganda with ethnography, the films had a variety of agendas - serving as visual proof of "advancing socialism" as well as presenting proto-ethnographic research into the complexities of local cultures. The panorama, presented by the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents, is intended to present the variety and complexity of the short-lived genre. The program consists of silent films that have never been screened in Hungary. They include by-products of the A Sixth Part of the World (Dagestan, The Tungus, Bukhara), an expedition to Pamir by one of the most interesting early Soviet filmmakers, Vladimir Erofeev (Roof of the World), travel films on the Autonomous Republics of Buriatia and Chuvashia as well as across Kamchatka (Across Buriat-Mongolia, The Chuvash Land, Kamchatka), and two films promoting Jewish resettlement plans in Crimea and Birobidzhan (Jews on the Land, Birobidzhan). The documentary expedition film proved to be a short-lived genre: the consolidating regime introduced tighter control over studio production and showed no interest in local cultural specificities. The uniformly presented socialist culture took over regional and national particularities, imposing a uniform narrative typified by the film that closes the program, Alexander Lemberg's From the Darkness of Centuries focusing on the Mordvins. The diversity of films in the panorama aims to reconstruct the once vivid expedities of documentary genre and pays tribute to the filmmakers' attempts to explore the variety of the "sixth part of the world."
Dziga Vertov / USSR / 1926 / 73 min / silent, Russian intertitles A Sixth Part of the World is Vertov's spatially most ambitious film, which he envisioned as "the next stage after the concept of cinema." This "cine-race" takes the viewers across the Soviet universe which stretches from Dagestan villages to Siberian forests. It creates a highly ambiguous image of a "union of Soviet borderlands," and earned the author both high praise as an "epic cine-poet" and vilification as an "exoticism-hunter." The first part represents the external, alien, distant land of Capital. Opposite Capital the Soviet World is portrayed as a site of spatial variety, economic diversity, and cultural richness, transformed into a utopian space with a mosaic of cultures.
The Tungus / 1927 / Elizaveta Svilova / 12 min / silent, Russian intertitles
Bukhara / 1927 / Elizaveta Svilova / 12 min / silent, Russian intertitles
Adygea /1928 / Iakov Kornil'ev / 14 min / silent, Russian intertitles
Kamchatka / 1927 / Nikolai Konstantinov / 31 min / silent, Russian intertitles Numerous short films were created using extensive material shot for A Sixth Part of the World. Works in this program by Elizaveta Svilova and Sergei Liamin are made of this footage. The film block also includes Iakov Kornil'ev portrait of Adygea, which contains the blueprint of the future transformation of the expedition genre exemplified by the last screening of the series and Nikolai Konstantinov's travelogue to Kamchatka peninsula, which introduces the territory as a remote frontier and matter-of-factly presents everyday fishing practices of the indigenous population.
Vladimir Erofeev / 1929 / 76 min / silent, Russian intertitles In the summer of 1927, the Sovkino studio and the Geological Committee sent a joint expedition to an under-researched region of Central Asia - Pamir, also known as the "roof of the world." The resulting film is a rare example of cooperation between scientists and filmmakers. Its director, Vladimir Erofeev, was a pioneer of ethnographic filmmaking in the Soviet Union. Starting off in Moscow, the travelogue leads through Samara and Orenburg to Tashkent, Osh, and further on to the Pamir mountains. In the Alay valley the camera records the practices of the Kyrgyz nomads; later, leaving the plateau, the film enters a Tajik village at the foot of Pamir. By emphatically showing the customs of the Pamir peoples, Erofeev not only makes a point about their ancient traditions, but inscribes his observations into a broader anthropological paradigm, examining relations between human beings and their physical environment transcending the ideological impositions of the day.
Lydia Stepanova / 1929 / 38 min / silent, Russian intertitles Through Buriat-Mongolia is a record of a joint Soviet-German medical expedition, aimed at addressing pressing problems with syphilis and other diseases in the area. Starting as an ethnographic account, it ends with agitation for a hygienic lifestyle. A strong civilizational discourse permeates the film, the descriptions of both daily practices and religious activities are given from the point of view of their impact on the health of the population, linking certain habits with the spread of diseases.
Vladislav Korolevich / 1927 / 60 min / silent, Russian intertitles The Chuvash Land was produced by a neophyte regional studio in the Chuvash Autonomous Republic as part of the festivities of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution. It employs a conventional opposition of 'before' and 'after' the coming of Soviet power in which scenes of colonial exploitation are followed by triumphant modernization and growing construction. Like many other films on national minorities, it postulated the compactness and specificity of Chuvash culture. The director combined documentary footage with staged episodes which oscillate between melodrama, action film, and comedy. The film did not go to distribution on the grounds of its low professional quality. The ambiguity of the film today lies in the growing historical value of the material originally perceived as mediocre.
Abram Room / 1927 / 19 min / silent, Russian intertitles Commissioned by the Society for the Settlement of Jewish Toilers on the Land, this film was part of a fundraising campaign and advocated the short-lived policy of resettlement by presenting the experiences of the first Jewish colonists in the Crimean steppe. The script for the film was written by Viktor Shklovsky and Vladimir Mayakovsky; the filming was organized by Lilya Brik and directed by Abram Room. It was intended as a "competitive offer" to Soviet Jewry in opposition to the Zionist nation-building project in Palestine and stressed the secular character of the undertaking and its emancipatory potential. With dry humor, it contrasts the shtetl lifestyle with the idealized image of settlers exploring a bare frontier. After the Crimean experiment was abruptly halted, leaving 100,000 resettled people without any support, Jews on the Land was banned.
Mikhail Slutskii / 1934 / 35 min / silent, Russian intertitles In the early 1930s, the Crimean resettlement project was abandoned and the regime turned to propagating the 'virgin lands' of Birobidzhan, located in the Far East, as a new settlement. In 1934 the territory was assigned the status of Jewish Autonomous Region. Shot in Yiddish to propagate the new undertaking worldwide, Mikhail Slutskii's Birobidzhan reapplies a number of motifs already used in Jews on the Land: the opposition of the vast taiga with the crowdedness of the shtetl, the freshness of nature versus the stench of towns; calm and tranquility versus urban hustle and bustle. The taiga, as much as the Crimean steppe, is presented as virgin soil in need of cultivation and care. The traditional Jewish lifestyle is shown surviving only as a parody on the stage of a theater.
Alexander Lemberg / 1931 / 54 min / silent, Russian intertitles The retrospective closes with a film on the Mordvins, a Finno-Ugrian minority in the Soviet Union, which illustrates the transformation of the genre of expedition cinema into fully staged films using amateur and professional actors. The travelogue is replaced here by a sort of historical fiction squared with ideological requirements: the Mordvins of the past are shown as having been exploited by the clergy and the landlords. In the present, their progress is attributed solely to the new regime and the kolkhoz is presented as the most desirable model of farming. The blurred genre conventions allowed for the insertion of animation episodes, vilifying and parodying anybody opposing the changes.
The films in the Retrospective are translated into Hungarian and English.