b. November 18, 1898, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
d. June 28, 1989, Paris, France
Joris Ivens made his first documentary films in the late 1920s, working alone with a hand-held 35 mm camera. In 1945 he commented that the time of the one-man documentary was over, such were the complications of script, sound, cameras, editing, commentary and music. Even a team of two or three people could not manage it. By 1967 he had thought again, and concluded that technical changes made documentary something for a small team, “a collective of people who understand each other”. (1) Now, 16 years after Ivens’ death, we are back to his starting point, and one person can quite easily make a documentary on his or her own, from the images and sound to the editing and even the production and distribution.
But the idea of what a documentary should be has changed radically, and much of Ivens’ work sits uneasily with present ideas. Now that the camera can be grafted to the documentarist’s eye, with practically unlimited video time, anything other than recorded observation, with direct sound, is considered to be in bad faith. Such films are constructed from what is “seen”, during a lived experience. If there is commentary at all, it is personal, the subjects explaining themselves or the filmmaker voicing his or her thoughts and feelings.
In contrast, Ivens’ films were often scripted, with events reconstructed or acted out, the better to tell a story or to deliver a political message. More often than not, the sound was designed in a studio, with a commentary and score to explain or accentuate what is on the screen. If the story demanded, newsreel footage would be pressed into service, in some cases making up the majority of the film.
Technical and economic constraints meant that Ivens had to work in this way, and in order to embark on a film at all he had to make concessions to both his camera and the film’s “sponsors” (whether governments, unions, companies or political organisations). But in many ways Ivens was aiming for the same result as today’s observational documentarist: to put on screen what is seen or felt during a lived experience. That these experiences were frequently political in nature leads his films to be classed as either militant polemic or propaganda, depending on the political persuasion of the critic. But they are all faithful to the underlying idea that there is a human reality that can be captured on film and shared.
The people who make digital, observational documentaries sometimes appear to have forgotten that they are a part of cinema, and that they can draw on all of the techniques and strategies that cinema provides, without betraying the goal of objectivity. Ivens never forgot this, never ceased to experiment and update his repertoire. If he had lived to see the digital age, it is unlikely that he would have been content to press record and wait for something to happen.
George Henri Anton Ivens was born in 1898, in Nijmegen, a Dutch town close to the German border. His father owned a series of photographic shops, and it was with a view to joining the family business that Ivens – Joris to his friends – studied economics in Rotterdam, photochemistry in Berlin, camera construction in Dresden and lenses in Jena. When he returned to run the family store in Amsterdam in 1924 he was under the spell of the artistic life he had experienced in Berlin, of which the cinema was an integral part. During his time in Berlin he particularly recalled seeing the films of GW Pabst, EA Dupont and FW Murnau.
Amsterdam offered a rich cultural life, although it was not always possible to see the latest experimental films. Inspired by a private screening of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mat (Mother) (1926), Ivens and his friends started the Filmliga, a society dedicated to showing films that for artistic or political reasons were not otherwise distributed in the Netherlands. This included the abstract films of Walter Ruttmann and Hans Richter, René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) (1928), plus the films of Alexander Dovzhenko, Sergei Eisenstein and Alberto Cavalcanti. Among the earliest documentaries, the Filmliga screened Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and, later, Victor Turin’s Turksib (1929). More importantly, carrying out the Filmliga’s business allowed Ivens to meet many of these directors in person.
In a family of photographers it is unsurprising that Ivens came early to filmmaking, and the beginning of his filmography is made up of intimate home movies, plus De Wigwam (Wigwam) (1912), a school-boy Western made with family and friends. His decision to make films of a more serious sort came from the combined experience of the avant-garde films being shown by the Filmliga and the work he had to do selling cameras for his father. Through 1927 and 1928 he embarked on a number of film experiments exploring techniques of subjective filming, including a bar seen through the bottom of a beer glass, and attempts to replicate the movement of walking and ice-skating. Alongside these experiments he also discussed fiction projects, although these never got beyond screen tests of an actress friend.
His first completed film is similarly a search for a visual language. De Brug (The Bridge) (1928) is based on a systematic analysis of the movements of a railway bridge in Rotterdam that can be raised and lowered to let a boat pass underneath. He chose this subject because it repeated the same action over and over, and would be the same every time he could snatch an hour from work (and a few metres of film) to go and shoot it.
The film announces its agenda from the very start, with a presentation of three different views of the camera itself, as if in a technical drawing. It then proceeds to examine the bridge from all angles, up and down its towers, along the rails, in amongst the winding gear. But alongside this inevitable, almost abstract mechanical process is a story: a train is speeding towards the city; it must stop and wait for the bridge to be raised; when the bridge descends, it can continue on its way. For all his analysis, Ivens cannot give himself up entirely to the abstract.
The same can be said of Regen (Rain) (1929). At the visual level it is an abstract exploration of water falling on water: rain on the wet streets of Amsterdam, on the canals, on the bonnets of cars, and so on (including, it seems, on the skylight above Ivens’ bed). As with The Bridge, the film was shot over many months, although this time the subject was not the same every time Ivens went back. Is it therefore a greater leap to construct from this material, as Ivens did, a film that tells the story of one rainstorm over Amsterdam? Perhaps, if the sole aim is abstract analysis. But if your aim is documentary, to represent the lived experience of a rainstorm, the leap is essential.
The result of the film club experience was that young filmmakers saw the great possibilities that the cinema had to offer, without being encumbered by conventions or genres. They had strong feelings about what was and was not good filmmaking, but almost no sense of anything being out of bounds. In a world where newsreels were made by cameramen standing a respectful distance from the event in question, it was obvious that a better film could be made by using close-ups, by moving along with the action, as in fiction films or in the purely abstract.
Ivens was no different, and it is possible to see his early films as a complete cinematic response to a particular situation. This approach can be seen in the fiction film Branding (Breakers) (1929), made between The Bridge and Rain in collaboration with Mannus Franken, who dealt with script and actors while Ivens took control of the camera. He adapts the dramatic camera angles of Soviet political cinema to a pair of lovers walking in the sand dunes, shoots “newsreel” footage of villagers going to church on a Sunday, and takes his camera into the sea to follow a suicidal fisherman who has lost his fiancée (and almost everything else) to the village pawnbroker. In this story one can also see the first stirrings of social themes in Ivens’ films, later developed in an account of poverty in the bogs of Drenth, a film now lost. (2)
Working and Not Working
The success of The Bridge, and later Rain, brought Ivens commissions to make films from the Dutch Building Workers’ Union and for companies in the Netherlands and beyond. He fulfilled these by setting up a film production unit within his father’s company and recruiting a team of collaborators from among his friends. This group included Helene Van Dongen and John Fernhout, who went on to have long careers in cinema in their own right.
For the union Ivens made a series of films known collectively as Wij Bouwen (We Are Building) (1930), which, when screened together, last for several hours. The aim was to promote the work of the union, celebrate the work of Dutch builders, and encourage a sense of solidarity pride among members. Some of these films simply show building methods, such as pouring concrete to make a floor in a building or driving piles, the various methods explored from all angles in the same way (and to the same effect) as in The Bridge. Others show the activities in the union’s head office, its summer camps, or surveyed recent Dutch architecture. While there are longueurs in this work there are also striking sequences, such as destitute workers queuing to receive union assistance.
Among these films one stands out, and has had the strongest independent existence. Zuiderzeewerken (Zuiderzee Works) describes the methods with which the Dutch set about reclaiming land from the vast northern inland sea, building dykes, pumping out water and creating new agricultural land. Its worth as a historical document is undisputed, the harsh manual labour it shows is clearly more shocking now than it would have been at the time. A key sequence shows the workers weaving a huge wooden raft, which is dragged out into open water and sunk as an anchor for a dyke – sunk with hundreds of rocks thrown by hand from the accompanying barges. Again Ivens wraps up the abstract examination of processes with a story, the race to close a particular section of dyke, man and his machines against the sea.
Throughout We Are Building, Ivens makes sure that the worker is shown alongside his work, that the camera shows his point of view. Ivens was always particularly gratified when workers told him after seeing the films that this was how they saw the work, and even more so when a Soviet worker accused him of lying when he claimed to have directed a scene of rock breaking, because a bourgeois could never have shown so well how it felt. (3) But it is also striking that Ivens includes the workers eating and sleeping, putting down their tools and leaving work as well as the work itself. His sympathy with his subject informs the images.
The most celebrated of the commissioned films from this period is Philips Radio (1931), a portrait of work in the Philips factory, from the blowing of glass for valves and assembly of complete radios, to the research laboratories and the typing pool. Its French title, Symphonie industrielle, is more apt. Not only does it recall the “city symphony” films of directors such as Walter Ruttman, but it also captures the extraordinary soundtrack that was constructed for the film, combining noises of work, music, radio broadcasts and pure abstraction.
These early films – in particular The Bridge, Rain and Philips Radio – retain a high critical reputation for their cinematic beauty and formal inventiveness. Film historians place them equally among the founding films of documentary and the tail-end of Europe’s silent avant-garde. However, in light of what Ivens went on to do, they are also “safe” films for critics to like. They are not politically explicit and do not transcend what is acceptable in terms of manipulation for the camera. This is Ivens before he was “spoilt”.
In the middle of this exceptionally busy period of filmmaking, Ivens went to the USSR at the invitation of Pudovkin. He toured with his films, and more than ever before was exposed to the comments and criticisms of workers. He became convinced that the Soviet Union could offer him greater opportunity to film than Europe and his father’s photographic company, and he promised to return and make a film at the first opportunity. The pledge was honoured with Pesn o Gerojach (Song of the Heroes) (1932), the story of the construction of a new blast furnace in the industrial city of Magnitogorsk, in the Urals. On top of the story of completing the work, the film is augmented with a lead character, a peasant who is taken on at the beginning of the film, learns the ropes and finally participates in the completion of the furnace. This is the first time Ivens uses an actor, albeit one from the world he is filming. Though Ivens retains his ability to photograph the industrial process, the human element rings hollow. The smiling workers seem at odds with their labour, whereas the Dutch dyke builders seemed at one with theirs.
The film was heavily criticised in Moscow for failing to follow the Socialist Realist line, and its release was delayed. Nevertheless, Ivens resolved that this was the world in which he wished to work. He returned to Europe, where he produced a more radical version of the material on reclaiming the Zuiderzee. Instead of celebrating the vision of the project and the labour that achieved it, Nieuwe Gronden (New Earth) (1933) condemns the idea of creating ever more farmland, and growing ever more grain, when there is a glut on the world market. To do this Ivens brings in external newsreel footage for the first time, and for the first time fakes such footage when it is not available.
His first project as a newly radicalised filmmaker was to document a miners’ strike in the Borinage region of Belgium. The strike was over, but Ivens and his co-director, the Belgian Henri Storck, documented the workers’ living conditions and the pressures put upon them by the mining companies. They got the workers to re-enact particular episodes, such as street meetings and evictions (apparently the problem here was finding miners who would dress up as policemen or bailiffs). Ivens defended these reconstructions – they were “true”, he said, and needed to be filmed. The most famous of these instances is the recreation of a march in which the lead man carries a home-made portrait of Karl Marx. As the re-created march was being filmed more and more people came out to salute the portrait with raised fists, or to join the march. In the end it was broken up by the police.
In making Misère au Borinage (Borinage) (1934), Ivens said that he strove to suppress the aesthetic beauty of his previous films. Any pleasing conjunction of light and shade was eliminated, every effort made to make this world of miners as squalid on film as it seemed to them on the ground. And yet, much as Ivens hated the suggestion, there is a sort of cinematic beauty in Borinage, most distinctly in the closing sequences where the miners, too poor to buy their own coal, search the slag heaps overlooked lumps fit to burn.
True to his promise, Ivens returned to the Soviet Union, but all did not go well. He made a Russian version of Borinage, resetting it as a story told to Soviet miners by visiting Belgians, and including footage of the advanced Soviet living and working conditions. But all efforts to launch other projects appear to have failed, thwarted by the Soviet bureaucracy. (4) Looking for a way out, he persuaded the Moscow studio to which he was attached to send him to the USA. His mission was to lecture, make contacts and learn new techniques. And if he could find a film project to make there, he could stay.
The project came in the shape of The Spanish Earth (1937), a film intended to help American campaigners raise funds for ambulances to send to the Spanish civil war. Ivens and John Fernhout travelled to Spain, filming the clashes between republicans and nationalists around Madrid, and the effects of aerial bombardment. To give structure to the film, Ivens decided to include a human interest story about a young soldier from a village close to Madrid, where irrigation work was underway to grow more crops for the besieged city. This was not completely successful, as the crew had trouble finding the soldier again once he had gone to the front, but the story of irrigation, of the people reclaiming the land previously held by the aristocracy, provides a strong counterpoint to the grim footage from the city. The whole film is pulled together with a commentary by Ernest Hemingway, who accompanied Ivens in the filming.
Already expressed in Zuiderzee Works, Ivens would return frequently in his films to man’s relationship with the land, and to water and irrigation. For some critics it is a major theme, and Ivens is sometimes seen less as a political filmmaker than a sort of frustrated nature poet. However, as in The Spanish Earth, the land and the water are frequently political in Ivens’ cinema, they are part of the struggle. Another theme that appears first in The Spanish Earth is that of war, reported under fire, of death than comes from the air.
These three films – New Earth, Borinage and The Spanish Earth – form the basis of Ivens’ reputation as a militant filmmaker. They represent a complete cinematic response to a political issue, combining elements of documentary argument, reportage, montage of pre-existing footage and fiction. They are reports from the front, both in a physical and political sense. Their enduring reputation has been helped by their accessibility (in terms of language and distribution) and the fact that their political context is long passed into history, the nuances of their positions long forgotten.
Buoyed up by the success of The Spanish Earth, Ivens and Fernhout tried to repeat the experience by filming the struggle of the Chinese against the invading Japanese army. However, the nationalist army would not let the westerners near their own front line, still less that of Mao’s Red Army, and Ivens returned to the USA with very little to show for his trip. Nevertheless, he patched together The 400 Million (1939) before moving on to other projects. Throughout the Second World War he developed films in support of the war effort, many of which went unrealised or drifted out of his control. In many ways, Ivens found Hollywood as hard to work with as the Moscow studios.
The one undisputed success from Ivens’ American period is Power and the Land (1941), a lyrical, largely staged documentary about rural electrification in the USA. Here Ivens finally achieves a film carried by its human characters, the hard-working Parkinson family from Ohio. In reality the Parkinsons already had electricity, but Ivens had them relive their old life to illustrate its harshness for the first part of the film. Helped by the government scheme that had sponsored the film, the Parkinsons and their neighbours are able to get their own connection to the grid.
The film is as much a work of propaganda as anything he made before or after in the Eastern Bloc. Steeped in the all-American values of family, hard work and self-help, the film maintains a strong critical reputation in the US as a “New Deal” documentary (its producer was Pare Lorentz, father of the genre). The film’s political line is acceptable (if not entirely invisible) to US critics and it is one of the few Ivens films that is commercially available on video. It is a remarkable demonstration of Ivens’ ability to reflect the political culture in which he is working, to make a film that belongs to the cause rather than observing it from the outside.
As the war drew to a close Ivens was offered the position of film commissioner in the Dutch East Indies by the Dutch government. He was to be responsible for filming the liberation of Indonesia, both from the Japanese and, he thought, from the colonial power, and for establishing a film production service. Ivens accepted and travelled to Australia to await the end of hostilities, only to hear the door to America slam closed behind him. Unhappy with his Communist connections, the US government denied him a re-entry visa.
Once in Australia, it became clear that Dutch intentions regarding Indonesia were not so definite. Progressively alienated, Ivens made a film celebrating a union blockade of ships intended to take Dutch soldiers and supplies to the islands. Indonesia Calling! (1946) is an odd film, although highly rated by some critics for its ground-breaking multiculturalism. Having missed the events concerned, Ivens reconstructed them, but with greater accuracy than he had attempted in any film before. Union leaders repeated their speeches, in exactly the same places, to exactly the same audiences. Activists hailed departing cargo ships from their motor launch. And yet it seems so unreal.
Talking about working with non-actors in Power and the Land, Ivens explained that it doesn’t work to ask them to remember how they felt, to repeat an action. Instead you have to make them feel the emotion or carry out the action for the first time. So when Ivens hands Farmer Parkinson a note, he doesn’t get the blank piece of paper he is expecting but a letter saying the dairy has rejected his milk because it is sour. His reaction, just for a moment, is real. (5) For Indonesia Calling!, however, everything is happening for the second time, which may be the problem.
The Usual Communist Spectacle
Unwelcome in The Netherlands after the Indonesian episode, and banned from the USA, Ivens had a difficult choice to make about where to go after the war. He still had strong links with the USSR, but notwithstanding his ideological sympathies he had found it impossible to work in Moscow. A compromise was to settle in the other capitals of the Eastern Bloc – first Prague, then Warsaw, then East Berlin – and to seek commissions from the large number of satellite organisations than made up the fabric of international communism. In this way he hoped to put a buffer between himself and the Moscow politics he found so hard to navigate.
An initial attempt to work directly with the Eastern Bloc governments was hardly encouraging. The First Years (1949) was to have included episodes from four states, setting out the ways in which they were building a new socialist future. However the Bulgarian government found his picture of their tobacco farmers too primitive and demanded substantial changes, while Yugoslavia’s exclusion from the Soviet family in 1948 put its contribution out of bounds. Ivens had more luck with the Communist satellite organisations. He covered the peace movement in Pokoj Zwyciezy Swiat (Peace Will Win) (1951), the youth movement in Freundschaft Siegt (Friendship Triumphs) (1952), the unions in Das Lied der Ströme (Song of the Rivers) (1954) and, bizarrely, cycle racing in Wyscig Pokoju Warszawa-Berlin-Praga (Peace Tour 1952) (1952). Those films (or versions of films) for external consumption emphasise cooperation and comradeship, while those for use inside the Eastern Bloc are harder in their anti-Americanism and veneration of Stalin.
Rarely seen in the West and politically unacceptable to most western critics, the films of this period represent a gap in most surveys of Ivens’ work. However, they contain further development of Ivens’ handling of newsreel and fiction. The Polish section of The First Years, for instance, is a more successful attempt to tell the story of Song of the Heroes, while the Bulgarian section recasts Power and the Land with the irrigation theme of The Spanish Earth.
For the few western critics who have seen the other films, the overwhelming impression is of speeches and crowd scenes, leading some to compare Ivens (unfavourably) to Leni Riefenstahl. However, this work is perhaps the closest Ivens ever came to the modern observational documentary: the events are staged, certainly, but not for the camera. All of this would be happening even if Ivens wasn’t there. In this sense, the films are straightforward accounts of a rigidly controlled political culture. We don’t need a detached commentary to tell us what is going on; the voice proclaiming “Stalin, the best friend the German people have” tells us just as effectively.
This is not to say that Ivens was pleased with his Eastern Bloc projects, or the niche that he had made for himself in the shadow of the USSR. In 1956 he decided to relocate to Paris, while maintaining his links with the power structures in the Eastern Bloc. He would later say that the reason for this move was the return of his Dutch passport after his Indonesian difficulties, but in reality the choice was his. (6)
One Man, Many Causes
The emergence of new political movements around the world in the late 1950s and 1960s presented Ivens with new opportunities to make films in the way he desired. By filming in Africa or Latin America he could put even more space between himself and controlling power structures of the Eastern Bloc, while still drawing on their support. He could borrow resources in the countries where he was filming: co-opting film students was a favourite ploy, and he generally expected the host government to provide food, accommodation and transport. In addition he could usually count on involving a French producer, attracted by the mix of art and politics that Ivens could deliver, and by the government subsidies for high-quality short films. With greater distribution for his films, Ivens was gradually rehabilitated as a “global” filmmaker.
Above all in this period, there is the emergence of what is considered Ivens’ mature personal style. His films deal lyrically with topics that are not overtly political, often mixing social awareness with an exploration of the elements or a particular geographic location. La Seine a rencontré Paris (The Seine Meets Paris) (1957) follows the river though France’s capital city. Shot in black and white, largely from the deck of a boat, the film has a sense of constant motion, as the camera picks out people working on boats or resting on the banks. With its interest in gestures and textures, told in the story of the boat journey through the city, it recalls Ivens’ early silent documentaries. Jacques Prévert, poet and one-time screenwriter for Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir, provided the commentary.
Ivens was also well served in his writer for A Valparaiso (1963), with Chris Marker providing the commentary for this exploration of Chilean port. Motion again plays a central part, as the camera travels up and down the stairs and elevators that link the separate hills of the town. Ivens’ meditation draws together its social divisions, the difficulty of getting water to the highest, poorest towns, and the wind that whips across the hillside. The political commentary dwells on Chile’s colonial past rather than its present. A more contemporary film is Carnet de viaje (Travel Notebook) (1961), a personal film-essay of a tour Ivens made around post-revolution Cuba in the first flush of revolution. On the same trip he made a more militant film about the people’s militia, Pueblo Armado (An Armed People) (1961).
Ivens’ interest in cinematic experimentation re-emerges in his films of the 1960s. In L’Italia non è un paese povero (Italy Is Not a Poor Country) (1960), an episodic film made for Italy’s state gas company, Ivens includes nods to neo-realism, a dream sequence and ironic deployment of on-screen interviewers. Pour le Mistral (The Mistral) (1965) has Ivens pursuing this legendary wind in the south of France, attempting to film the invisible. Again he imposes a story, a tour of the seasons, to what could have been a purely abstract film, with rather less success than in his earlier work. Nonetheless, the photography is striking and Ivens’ enjoys experimenting, for instance capturing people in freeze-frames as they are blown around the streets. And a commission for the city of Rotterdam allows him a dramatic fantasy on the city and the legend of the Flying Dutchman. Rotterdam Europoort (Rotterdam Europort) (1966) can also be seen as an exploration of the role of documentary in the age of television.
There are two films from this period that are unusual, and worthy of greater attention. Ivens had returned to China in 1956–57, making a lyrical evocation of the country in Before Spring (1958), although one wonders how much of it is Ivens’ and how much the film students’ with whom he was working. However, on the same trip he made 600 Million With You (1958), a very short film of a demonstration in Peking against British policy in the Middle East. A seemingly endless procession of demonstrators file past the British Embassy, acting out their protests, waving papers and shouting at the couple of stone-faced English officials who are, unaccountably, standing at the gate. The walls and pavement are quickly covered in paper, the Chinese ever more animated in their anger, but no blows change hands. The film would not be out of place among militant accounts of recent anti-globalisation demonstrations.
The second is Demain à Nanguila (Nanguila Tomorrow) (1960), commissioned by the government of what was to become Mali and filmed there on the eve of independence. It is a fiction, concerning a young man living a fast life in the capital, Bamako, who falls foul of the police and is sent to an agricultural training camp. The only way out is by returning to his family village, where he is slowly caught up in the coming independence and the modernisation it promises. The film so closely touched the national mood that it is still considered the first film in Malian cinema, while it has barely ever been screened in Europe.
Vietnam, Laos and China
In among this great diversity of projects, Ivens was drawn to a new political passion: the Vietnam war. He first visited the country in 1964, returning a year later to make a short protest film, Le Ciel, la terre (The Threatening Sky) (1966). In Paris he campaigned against the war, and tried to raise donations of equipment for the impoverished Vietnamese film industry. He participated in the collective film Loin du Viêt-nam (Far From Vietnam) (1967), the only one of the directors to work in Vietnam. From there he moved to the front line, filming under US bombardment.
Le 17ème Parallele (The Seventeenth Parallel) (1968) sees Ivens using light 16 mm cameras and synchronised sound for the first time, although he is still constructing his films around central characters, bending reality to the camera. But the result is a powerful account, in black and white, of life in the underground villages of the Vietnamese army, farming among the shell holes and watching for in-coming bombs. A downed US airman is paraded through the village, and children learn how to shout “hands up!” in English.
Le Peuple et ses fusils (The People and their Guns) (1968–69) was an attempt to extend this front-line filming to Laos, but Ivens’ health was failing and much of the work was left to his collaborators. Back in Paris these same collaborators were swept up in the radicalised film movement after May 1968, and the final editing was carried out under the auspices of a Maoist collective. The radical final form of this film helped Ivens enter the 1970s as a post-’68 hero rather than an old Soviet.
Ivens’ next work was in China, an immense series of documentaries most of which are collected under the title Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes (How Yukong Moved Mountains) (1976). They use “cinema direct” techniques to explore life after the Cultural Revolution, and are closest in practice and appearance to the modern idea of the documentary. This is perhaps why they suffer more than usual from accusations of construction, and their proximity to the official line. However, as with Ivens’ Eastern Bloc films, there is a sense that these Chinese documentaries show a spectacle that would be taking place even if the camera was not there. They also return to Ivens’ enduring themes of work, the elements, and a people trying to build a new way of life.
China is also the setting for Ivens’ final film, Une Histoire de Vent (A Tale of the Wind) (1988). This is an unusually personal account of his lyrical rather than his political obsessions, largely directed by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, his wife and collaborator since the Vietnam films. It tells the story of an elderly director who wants to film the wind in the Mongolian desert and, while waiting on the edge of a dune, dreams of the life that has brought him here. Childhood reminiscence is mixed with fantasies of mythical Chinese characters, and footage of the frail Ivens meeting children and artists. A most engaging sequence shows him in long negotiations with the management of the museum that holds the Terracotta Army. Unable to film in the way he wants, his assistants buy as many souvenir reproductions of the figures as they can, and the scene is played out among these instead, with the addition of a troupe of dancers in foam Terracotta army costumes.
Joris Ivens died in 1989, only days after joining protesters against the Tiananmen Square massacre in Paris.
This article would have been impossible without the help of the European Foundation Joris Ivens, which provided access to films and archives alike. Its staff – André Stufkens, Huub Jansen and Bram Relouw – have been infinitely generous with their time. Thanks are also due to the Fonds Henri Storck (Brussels), the British Film Institute (London) and the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information (Paris) for access to other Ivens films. Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the Musée du Cinéma in Brussels, for regularly screening Ivens’ work and so much of the silent cinema that inspired him.
As director or co-director
Family films (1910–30)
De Wigwam aka Brandende Straal (Wigwam aka Shining Ray) (1912)
Film experiments (1927) films lost
Études des Mouvements à Paris (Studies in Movement) (1927)
De Brug (The Bridge) (1928)
Branding (Breakers) (1929) with Mannus Franken.
Ik-Film (I Film) (1929) film lost
Scaatsenrijden (Ice Skating) (1929) film lost
Arm Drenthe (Poor Drenthe) (1929) film lost
Regen (Rain) (1929) with Mannus Franken
Heien (Pile Driving) (1929)
Wij Bouwen (We Are Building) (1930) made up of Heien (Pile Driving), NVV-Congres (NVV Congress), Jeugddag (Day of Youth), Nieuwe Architectuur (New Architecture), Caissonbouw (Caisson Building), Amsterdamse Jeugddag (Amsterdam Day of Youth), Zuiderzeewerken (Zuiderzee Works), Zuid-Limburg (South Limburg) Van Strijd, Jeugd en Arbeid (Second Union Film Of Labour, Youth and Struggle) (1930) made up of Caissonbouw te Rotterdam (Caisson Building in Rotterdam), Spoorwegbouw in Limburg (Railway Building in Limburg), Jeugddag te Vierhouten (Youthday at Vierhouten).
Newsreels (1930) films lost
Donogoo-Tonka (1931) film lost
Philips Radio (1931)
Creosoot (Creosote) (1932) with Jean Dréville
Pesn o Gerojach (Song of Heroes, aka Komsomol) (1932)
Nieuwe Gronden (New Earth) (1932)
Misère au Borinage (Borinage) (1934) with Henri Storck
Saarabstimmung und Sowjetunion (Saar Referendum and Soviet Union) (1934) with Gustav Regler; film lost
The Russian School in New York (1936) film lost
The Spanish Earth (1937)
The 400 Million (1939)
Power and the Land (1941)
Bip goes to Town (1941)
The Worst of Farm Disasters (1941)
Our Russian Front (1941) with Lewis Milestone
Oil For Alladins Lamp (1942)
Action Stations! (1943)
Indonesia Calling! (1946)
The First Years (1949)
Pokoj Zwyciezy Swiat (Peace Will Win) (1951) with Jerzy Bossak
Freundschaft Siegt (Friendship Triumphs) (1952) with Ivan Pyriev
Wyscig Pokoju Warszawa-Berlin-Praga (Peace Tour 1952) (1952)
Das Lied der Ströme (Song of the Rivers) (1954)
La Seine a rencontré Paris (The Seine Meets Paris) (1957)
Before Spring (1958)
600 Million With You (1958)
L’Italia non è un paese povero (Italy is not a Poor Country) (1960)
Demain à Nanguila (Nanguila Tomorrow) (1960)
Carnet de viaje (Travel Notebook) (1960)
Pueblo armado (An Armed People) (1960)
A Valparaiso (1963)
Le Petit Chapiteau (The Little Circus) (1963)
Le Train de la victoire (The Victory Train) (1964)
Pour le Mistral (The Mistral) (1965)
Le Ciel, la terre (The Threatening Sky) (1966)
Rotterdam Europoort (Rotterdam Europort) (1966)
Loin du Viêt-nam (Far From Vietnam) (1967) collective
Le 17ème Parallele (The 17th Parallel) (1968) with Marceline Loridan
Le Peuple et ses fusils (The People and Their Guns) (1970) collective
Rencontre avec le president Ho Chi Minh (Meeting With President Ho Chi Minh) (1970) with Marceline Loridan Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains) (1976) with Marceline Loridan; made up of Autour de petrole: Taking (The Oilfields), La Pharmacie nr 3: Shangai (The Pharmacy: Shanghai), L’Usine de generateurs (The Generator Factory), Une Femme, une famille (A Woman, A Family), Le Village des pecheurs (The Fishing Village), Une Caserne (An Army Camp), Impressions d’une ville: Shanghai (Impression of a City: Shanghai), Histoire d’un ballon: le lycee no 31 à Pekin (The Football Incident), Le Professeur Tsien (Professor Tsien), Une Repetition à l’Opera de Pekin (Rehearsal at the Peking Opera), Entrainement au Cirque de Pekin (Training at the Peking Circus), Les Artisans (Traditional Handicrafts)
Les Kazaks – minorité Sinkiang (The Kazakhs – National Minority, Xinjiang) (1977) with Marceline Loridan
Les Ouigours – minorité Sinkiang (The Uigurs – National Minority, Xinjiang) (1977) with Marceline Loridan
Commémoration à Paris de la mort de Mao Ze Dong (Commemoration of the death of Mao Ze Dong) (1979) with Marceline Loridan
Une Histoire de Vent (A Tale of the Wind) (1988) with Marceline Loridan
Kees Bakker (ed.), Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1999.
Carlos Böker, Joris Ivens, Film-maker: Facing Reality, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, 1978.
Claude Brunel, Joris Ivens, Le Cinémathèque Française, Paris, 1983.
Rosalind Delmar, Joris Ivens: 50 Years of Film making, British Film Institute, London, 1979.
Robert Destanque and Joris Ivens, Joris Ivens ou la mémoire d’un regard, Editions BFB, Paris, 1982.
Claire Devarrieux, Entretiens avec Joris Ivens, Editions Albatros, Paris, 1979.
Robert Grelier, Joris Ivens, Les Éditeurs français réunis, Paris, 1965.
Joris Ivens, The Camera and I, Seven Seas Books, Berlin, 1969.
Marceline Loridan and Joris Ivens 17e parallèle, la guerre du peuple (deux mois sous la terre), Les Editeurs français réunis, Paris, 1968.
Jean-Loup Passek (ed.), Joris Ivens, 50 ans de cinéma, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1979.
Hans Schoots, Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens, Amsterdam University Press Amsterdam, 2000.
Abraham Zalzman, Joris Ivens, Editions Seghers, Paris, 1963.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia by John Hughes
European Foundation Joris Ivens
The Foundation looks after Ivens’ archive and promotes his work. It publishes an annual newsletter, including research articles on aspects of Ivens’ work, available on the site, along with an extensive bibliography. In 2006 it plans to release a selection of Ivens’ films on DVD.
Utopian Visions in Cold War Documentary: Joris Ivens, Paul Robeson and Song of the Rivers (1954)
Essay by Charles Musser, from Cinémas, vol. 12, no. 3, spring 2002.
Catherine Duncan: As Others See Us
Essay by Deane Williams in Screening the Past. There is much detail on Indonesia Calling, from the point of view of one of Ivens’ collaborators.
Joris Ivens: Cinema Without Borders
A retrospective that toured the US in 2002.
Joris Ivens’s Labor-Intensive Industrials
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s overview of Ivens’ career from the Chicago Reader on the occasion of a US retrospective in 2002.
Man with the Movie Camera
Paul Arthur’s overview of Ivens’ career from Film Comment on the occasion of a US retrospective in 2002.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Online articles can be found here.
Click here to search for Joris Ivens DVDs, videos and books at
- Joris Ivens, The Camera and I, Seven Seas Books, Berlin, 1969, pp. 212, 226.
- Hans Schoots, Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2000, p. 47.
- Ivens, pp. 59–60.
- Ivens rarely discussed this period of his life (April 1934 to January 1936); that we know anything about it at all is largely thanks to the research of Schoots, pp. 97–109.
- Ivens, pp. 191–192. As he acknowledges, this trick is borrowed from Pudovkin, but here and elsewhere Ivens went a long way in thinking about how real people could be filmed without appearing to be acting.
- Schoots goes into Ivens’ relationship with the Dutch government at some length. However unjustified, Ivens appears to have felt rejected, even persecuted by his country of birth.