This Land Belongs to You and Me: One Sixth of the World (Dziga Vertov, 1926)
The year 1926 was the starting point for a two-year period that would mark the high-point of the Soviet avant-garde. It was marked chiefly by a turn to factography (litertura fakta) that would subsequently dominate the influential journal of the constructivist vanguard, New LEF (Noviy LEF). In the theatre, Sergei Tretyakov’s Roar, China! made a successful debut in January, while Vsevolod Meyerhold’s legendary production of Gogol’s Government Inspector premiered in December after lengthy rehearsals. The artist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s new preoccupation with industrial photography, notable for its unusual angles and assertive cropping, would shortly exert a substantial influence on his European counterparts. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky began work on his final lengthy poem, Khorosho! (All Right!) also in December. And of course in the cinema, the international success of Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin) had given the Soviet film industry a boost in enthusiasm and venture. It was into this fertile artistic and cultural laboratory that Dziga Vertov’s Shestaya chast mira (One Sixth of the World: A Kino-Eye Race around the USSR: Export and Import by the State Trading Organization of the USSR, also known as A Sixth Part of the World or A Sixth of the World, 1926), following an aggressive advertising campaign, had its official premier on the final day of the year.
Following Kinoglaz (Kino-Eye, 1924) and Shagay, sovet! (Stride, Soviet!, 1926), One Sixth was Vertov’s third multi-reel film since concluding his Kinopravda newsreel series. Shot by at least ten cameramen dispatched to all corners of the Soviet Union, the film cost an exorbitant 130,000 rubles and took more than eighteen months to complete.1 Upon release, it met with mixed reviews. Some viewers were quick to laud its lyrical qualities, likening the unclassifiable film to a “piece of music”, “an individual epic poem”, “a poem about the Earth, about its two gigantic stumbling blocks”, “a monumental poem constructed out of real material”, “a grandiose song”, and “a symphony of facts”.2 Other spectators were more ambivalent, or simply baffled. The literary critic Viktor Shklovsky sensed that Vertov’s “orientation towards fact is artistically correct but has not been carried through to its conclusion. The result is simply verse, red verse with the rhythms of cinema.”3 The less generous found fault with the large number of intertitles, deeming them “importunately emotional” or simply “bad prose poems”. Some lamented “ideological shortcomings” in the relative absence of the Soviet working class and a seeming emphasis on ethnography at the expense of industry.4 And what Vertov himself, in a contemporary manifesto, invoked as “Lightning flashes of facts / Mountains of facts / Hurricanes of facts / And individual little factlets” proved simply too much for some audience members unaccustomed, as it were, to the natural elements. 5,” Moscow Diary, trans. Richard Sieburth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 69. Original text: Walter Benjamin, Moskauer Tagebuch (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980), p. 102.]
As its lengthy subtitle indicates, One Sixth was commissioned and sponsored by the State Trade Organisation (Gosudarstvennaya torgovlya, known as Gostorg) to promote the circulation of Soviet goods on the international market and to justify the New Economic Policy (NEP) at home. The central thesis of the film, first appearing in reel four, then driven home again in reel six, is that the surplus production of primitive local goods (grains, wool, pelts, fish, etc.) is necessary in order to trade abroad for heavy machinery, including “machines that make machines”. Thus, remote peoples at the fringes of Soviet society, “from the Kremlin / to the Chinese border, / from Matochkin Strait / to Bukhara, / from Novorossiysk to Leningrad”, can participate in the “building up” (stroit’) and modernisation of the Soviet economy. The geographical agility suggested by these toponymic intertitles, dashing from one Soviet terminus to another, are mirrored in Vertov’s use of superimposition and the split-screen, techniques he will radicalise in Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) three years later. 6
For example, when “Gostorg” first appears (with a hand from Rodchenko) stenciled in to the central sequence of reel four, it does so as part of a triple exposure, together with a panoramic shot of a train packed full of crates slowly proceeding along a seaport and a close-up of quickly elapsing railroad tracks from the front of an unseen moving train. Vertov thus visualises commercial transit not merely by depicting its chief vehicular emblems and identifying them with the institution charged with managing them, but above all by transforming the process of perception itself. Here Vertov’s kino-eye establishes a certain kind of economic consciousness through a forged totalisation of visuality. One can newly perceive “that which the eye doesn’t see”, something normally “incommensurable from the viewpoint of our human perception”: namely, how railway and seaway blend into one another as coequal arms in the collective commerce required for Soviet industrialisation. 7
In a nearby moment that is similarly notable, a peasant woman plucking flax, an elderly peasant man sowing seeds by hand, and a younger man with ox and plow share the screen in three separate well-lit shots. They are then partially overtaken by a fourth shot, in the silhouette of a helmet dome, of two modern tractors, dimmed, moving industriously toward the camera. Vertov not only contrasts the traditional and modern modes of agricultural production, but also visually suggests, in a nebeneinander (simultaneous) kind of way, that both are necessary components of a healthy Soviet production system. This same effect is achieved in a nacheinander (successive) manner elsewhere throughout the film, as when people from different ethnic groups perform similar tasks of herding livestock, bathing sheep, catching fish, weaving garments, and consuming raw food in grammatically similar segments shown successively. 8 However, images 2 and 3 suggest, at a glance, that the faculty of perception maintained by the kino-eye— its ability to present a “radical vision of interconnection” not only among filmic images but also among segments of life itself— can operate with or without duration. 9
Self-reflexivity likewise appears in One Sixth in a manner that will be dramatically intensified in Man with a Movie Camera. In a sequence from reel two, where the film’s pronominal play is most pronounced, when a series of vocative “you’s” (“you with the grapes”, “you with the rice”, “you eating the raw reindeer meat”, “you doing the laundry with your feet”, etc…) surprisingly includes “and you, sitting in the audience”. The intertitle cuts to a shot from the rear of a movie theater of a full-house of spectators watching the opening sequence from the same reel of One Sixth: a man bathing unwilling sheep “in the waves of the sea.” This self-reflexive moment – itself a wavelike repetitive variation of an element of its content – allows the audience to identify its own viewing activity as one form of socialist existence among others, which the film co-equally addresses. More than a mere aesthetic contrivance, Vertov forges a serious juxtaposition here; like double-exposure and the split-screen, these are “not trick effects but normal methods to be fully used.” 10 If the Vogul untying the knot with his teeth and the Samoyed listening to Lenin on the gramophone are contributing to socialism, so too is the audience: “You are all the makers of the Soviet land.” Vertov makes this more explicit in an interview from August 1926: “this film has, strictly speaking, no ‘viewers’ within the borders of the USSR, since all working people of the USSR are not viewers but participants in this film. The very concept of this film and its whole construction are now resolving in practice the most difficult theoretical question of the eradication of the boundary between viewers and spectacle.”11 Later, Vertov will visually assert that filmmaking is itself a form of industrial labour, a means of building socialism, in Man with a Movie Camera when one observes editor Elizaveta Svilova (Vertov’s wife) loading, timing, snipping, and clipping together celluloid strips and cameraman Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) marching, riding, leaping, and ducking to capture his footage. Vertov does not see his work or its reception as set apart from its socio-economic reality, so the act of incorporating elements of the kino-experience into the film can be read as a serious attempt to “self-objectify” oneself in the midst of social totality.
This moment of self-objectification points to Vertov’s “theory of intervals,” which appears throughout his manifestos in the 1920s.12 For Vertov, the interval is not the space between two points or the gap between two images; it is instead, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze has perceptively written, the very thing that links them, “that which […] will find the appropriate reaction in some other point [point quelconque], however distant it is.”13 Understanding the interval as correlation is not restricted to the filmic domain alone; it is, rather, inscribed into matter itself. What this means is that for Vertov there is no ontological difference between one point or scene and another (e.g.: “your cotton / and sheep / the wool / the wool / the wool / your butter / fish”; “not only calico / but also the machines to produce calico”; “you sitting in the audience / you spinning your wool in the mountains”) since it is the interval linking them which establishes their generic, communal being and a form of non-human perception, the kino-eye, which illuminates it. The kino-eye, already in One Sixth of the World, articulates a non-human perception, in which a viewer, an image, and a thing intermingle to jointly reconcile “material community and formal communism.” 14 In this light, the slippage from “you” (vy) in the intertitles of reel two to “yours” (vash–) in reel three, to “there, where” (tam gde) in reel four and to “we” (my) in reels five and six are readable not as thematic boundary markers but as undulating iterations: our natural resources are our goods are our lands are our peoples are ourselves are us are the world. Or at least one-sixth of it.
After the turn of the new year, this possibility of “seeing without limits and distances” would prove too expensive for Sovkino, it would shortly become too arcane for the fact-oriented constructivists of the LEF group, and eventually it would be looked upon as too formalist by the authorities. 15 But along with other experiments undertaken in Soviet 1926 and with most of the Vertov filmography, One Sixth of the World has survived, and it too – “all of it” – is ours.
- Denise Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918-1935 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), pp. 139-141. Vertov was dismissed from the production company Sovkino in January 1927 and his subsequent films were produced with the Ukrainian Film and Photography Administration (VUKFU). The best succinct synopsis of Vertov’s career and filmography is provided by John Mackay, “Dziga Vertov”, in Stephen M. Norris and Willard Sunderland (eds.), Russia’s People of Empire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), pp. 283-294. ↩
- Various reviewers, collected in Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, ed. Yuri Tsivian (Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2004), pp. 196-209. Michael Kunichika has recently shown more concretely how the poetry of Pushkin, Whitman and Mayakovsky directly inflected Vertov’s epic style: Kunichika, “‘The Ecstasy of Breadth’: the Odic and the Whitmanesque style in Dziga Vertov’s One Sixth of the World”, Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema 6:1 (2012): 53-74. ↩
- Viktor Shklovsky, “The Cine-Eyes and Intertitles”, in Richard Taylor (ed. & trans.), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 153. Orig: “Kinoki i nadpisi,’ Kino (30 October 1926), p. 3. ↩
- See Tsivian, Lines of Resistance, op. cit., pp. 196-209 ↩
- Dziga Vertov, “The Factory of Facts” (1926), in Annette Michelson (ed.), Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 59. One such viewer appears to have been the German critic Walter Benjamin, who was in Moscow at the time of the film’s release and went to see it without a friend to translate the intertitles. His January 5th diary entry laconically concludes with the aside: “I went to see One-Sixth of the World (at the Arbat cinema). But there was much that escaped me [Aber mir entging vieles ↩
- For context on other Soviet travel and ethnographic filmmaking, see Oksana Sarkisova, “Across One Sixth of the World: Dziga Vertov, Travel Cinema, and Soviet Patriotism”, October 121 (Summer 2007), pp. 19-40. ↩
- Dziga Vertov, “The Birth of the Kino-Eye” (1924), in Kino-Eye, op. cit., p. 41; Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 82. Original text: Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 1: L’image mouvement (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1983), p. 118 ↩
- On these “shared ends,” see Malcolm Turvey “Vertov, the View from Nowhere, and the Expanding Circle,” October 148 (Spring 2014), pp. 79-102, esp. pp. 97-101. ↩
- Emma Widdis, Visions of a New Land: Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second World War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 111. ↩
- Dziga Vertov, “Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye” (1929), in Kino-Eye, op. cit., p. 88. ↩
- “A Sixth Part of the World (A Conversation with Dziga Vertov)” in Lines of Resistance, op. cit., p. 182. Original text: “Shestaya chast mira (Beseda s Dzigoy Vertovym),” Kino, 17 August 1926, p. 3. ↩
- For a seminal account, see Annette Michelson, “The Wings of Hypothesis: On Montage and the Theory of the Interval”, in Matthew Teitelbaum (ed.), Montage and Modern Life: 1919-1942 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 60-81. ↩
- Deleuze, Cinema 1, op cit., p. 82; (orig.) Cinéma 1, op. cit., p. 118. In a later text, Vertov himself refers to intervals as “correlations,” Vertov, “From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye,” op. cit., pp. 90-91. ↩
- Deleuze, Cinema 1, op cit., p. 83; (orig.) Cinéma 1, op. cit., p. 121. ↩
- Vertov, “The Birth of the Kino-Eye,” op cit., p. 41. ↩