Could you talk a little about the genesis of the book? How did you land on the topic and choose these national cinemas?
This book began as my dissertation project at Northwestern. It came out of two projects on which I’d been working. I had been looking into nonfiction films made in Ghana during the period of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule—during and immediately following independence. I’d been in contact with a filmmaker who worked closely with Nkrumah who told me that he had stashed in London a lot of the films that were presumed to have been lost. There was a time I thought this would be my dissertation project.
At the same time I started thinking a lot about Shub’s compilation trilogy—not just in terms of her role in film history but how her work can help us to think about the development of or transitions within avant-garde movements. I was dissatisfied with the way the transition from the experimentalism in the 1920s to (the imposition of) Socialist Realism in the 1930s was characterized. It didn’t seem to me that movements operate that way—that there are internal dynamics that such a story doesn’t account for, that artists often try to adjust their choices so as to align with state goals in subtle ways, and that movements often die out or transition pretty dramatically on their own accord. I found Ian Christie’s work on the 1930s and the transition to it to be a much more convincing account and I wanted to think about how that functioned for nonfiction film. The piece that inspired me to do so more than any other was Mikhail Iampol’ski’s short but really rich essay “Reality at Second Hand.”
I realized while working on the Ghanaian project that the questions I was asking were much more documentary and nonfiction film driven than nation or area studies-driven. It was then that I decided to do the comparative project. It was to be a comparative Soviet, Cuban, and Ghanaian nonfiction film project.
The Ghana part ended up dropping out because it just became unmanageable. It was going to require raising lots of money, spending lots of time in London working with the High Commission and coordinating that activity with the people in Accra, and working with Reuters, who had come to own many of the film rights. It moved me too far from the critical project that really drove my interest.
How did you come to the book's organization? I found the alternating chapters on Russia and Cuba to be an effective conceit that maintains the specificity of each nation while creating the through-threads of your conceptual framework.
At various points I was contemplating a more thematic-driven structure. But I decided on the alternating chapters for three reasons. First, there is so much historical detail that needs to be covered in terms of artists, institutions, players, topics, etc… that I thought it would be asking too much for people to keep it all straight. And I think that historical detail matters. Second, I wanted people coming at the book from an area studies perspective to be able to isolate the sections that would be useful to them. And third, I wanted to highlight the interconnectedness between newsreels and documentaries at a given moment so that they could be understood as part of project.
Some of the films you analyze will be familiar to those who know Russian or Cuban cinema. But for those who are less familiar, is there a film you'd particularly recommend that scholars or cinephiles watch?
In terms of the Soviet example, I find A Sixth Part of the World to be a tour de force and The Eleventh Year (not a film I focus on in the book) to be provocative and innovative, a film about which there is so much more to say.
The Eleventh Year (Vertov, 1928)
In terms of the Cuban films, Alvarez exhibits such a range of styles and approaches in his films. I find 79 Primaveras to be incredibly moving and politically astute whereas I find LBJ needs more attention.
It’s an interesting and important question. Brian Winston and I had a recent exchange about this, noting that of all the nonfiction genres it’s newsreels that are never subsumed under the “documentary” tradition. Educational films, science films, and industrial films, for example, are all at times considered subsets of the documentary tradition. So what is it about newsreels? Brian thinks is starts with Grierson’s dismissal of them as “just a speedy snip-snap” and a “series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show” but we both agree that he was wrong and that the traditions need consideration.
In terms of documentary studies, I believe strongly that historical, theoretical, and critical considerations of various nonfiction forms is one of the key future directions. As you know, there’s been so much great work on nontheatrical film in the past decade. Scholars have demonstrated how educational films, industrial films, science films and other “useful” cinemas have communicated new ideas, shaped subjectivities, and been employed by institutions for both public and private purposes. And we know that these questions align with those that scholars have long asked in studies of documentary, a field that also takes into account a range of institutional contexts (for funding, distribution, and exhibition), purposes, production models, and audience constituencies. But there’s still some methodological and conceptual divergences between those who see themselves as part of a community that focuses on nontheatrical films (goes to Domitor and Orphans) and those who see themselves as part of this growing field of documentary studies. To be sure, there are many who overlap sub-fields but I do think that each area would benefit from teasing out the conceptual and historical convergences and divergences, which would help us to create a vocabulary and space for a larger umbrella.
There's an extended and nuanced argument about documentary "objectivity" in your book, but would you mind speaking a little more to this aspect? How do we need to adjust our conception of objectivity?
This is an issue I’d been wrestling with for a while and which emanated from my thinking about Shub. I was trying to work through what I saw as nuanced shifts in aspects of documentary production methods and aesthetics that gets privileged or celebrated within a movement or period of time. Shub was trying to lessen her own directorial influence but not doing so with any naivete about her role. And that involved a host of choices about materials (found), process of working with them, and formal choices (longer takes, stiller views). It struck me that she was trying to make the films more “objective” (removing aspects of the self) than works like Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World and Stride Soviet! while still accounting for her own role. But the way we discussed objectivity and subjectivity in reference to documentary was by locating them as singular and pure concepts. I wanted to highlight the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity as well as point to a more historicized and multifaceted notion of objectivity. Historians of Science were useful in working through such thorny territory (as well as in the related topic of realism).
There's clearly a lot of research behind this book. What was involved? Did you see most of the films in archives?
I did. For the Soviet case I was fortunate to have obtained copies of Vertov’s kino-nedelia and kino-pravda newsreel series, his early documentaries that are available, his feature films, and Shub’s films. I first saw the full runs at Pordenone in I think 2004 when Yuri Tsivian programmed them. Yuri then gave me access to a number of the features and some of the newsreels for the writing of the dissertation. I spent time researching at the Austrian Filmmuseum, which has an incredible collection of Vertov’s papers and films and Shub’s features as well, for the book research.
The Cuban example was, as you’d anticipate, more of a challenge. I made multiple trips to Havana. During that time I had access to Alvarez’ materials and documentaries at ICAIC (and conversations with his widow, those who worked with him, Cuban film scholars). Some of those I was able to obtain copies of, some I wasn’t. Colleagues in Havana made me copies of a number of documentaries by other Cuban directors of the 1960s—Sara Gomez, Nicolasito Guillen, Octavio Cortazar to name a few. For the newsreels, I was able to watch about 6 per year. They wouldn’t let me select topics. I decided that I would watch 6 consecutive issues, figuring that would give me a sense of how they approached a news story across issues and would give me the opportunity to have a keener awareness of what might appear to be subtle changes. I obtained copies of a handful of those but I was not always confident of the issue # they gave me.
The good news is that UNESCO announced that all existing negatives of the newsreel series would be preserved and digitized as part of its “Memory of the World” register. Cuba and France have been working together to make this happen. I hope and suspect that this will generate lots of great work.
One aspect of the book I really love is its ability and willingness to take seriously films that others dismiss, such as Alvarez's De America Soy Hijo. Are there general areas you feel that prior studies have overlooked?
Conceiving of these projects as bodies of post-revolutionary nonfiction films required attending to films that don’t necessarily highlight what’s unique about an individual “auteur’s” work or about the singularity of this context formally and/or ideologically. I understood why people chose to celebrate certain Cuban newsreels, for example, as distinct from the established newsreel tradition and as artistically valuable. But those examples often feel cherry-picked and don’t exemplify the tradition as a whole. So I had different criteria. But in the process, in being open to different kinds of efforts, I hope I was able to point to works that are aesthetically and politically interesting even if they don’t appear that way at first glance.
De America Soy Hijo (Santiago Alvarez, 1972)
You've been active as an organizer for Visible Evidence, a long-running documentary conference and scholarly community. Speaking for yourself, what do you see as the some of the major institutional or disciplinary challenges for documentary studies?
Another great and large question. As you know, Visible Evidence and Documentary Studies as a sub-field of Film and Media Studies are really growing. What I really want to see (and I’m sure this will come as no surprise) is an increased attention on the study of nonfiction media from both a historical and theoretical perspective. I would like us to draw more early cinema folks working on nonfiction film projects and grow in that direction. At the same time, I want documentary studies to maintain its connection to artists and activists. It’s one of the things that makes VE and working on documentary exciting and somewhat distinct in the humanities.
The other direction I see opening up for studies of documentary involves much more trans-disciplinary work. There’s been a real growth in university (and non-university) degree programs, centers, and institutes related to documentary or “reality-based” media. We’re hoping to do something at IU. Along with two colleagues (a law professor and a historian), I am in the process of proposing a Center for Documentary Research and Practice (CDRP). Our working board consists of filmmakers, historians, film archivists, anthropologists, lawyers, and hard scientists, as well as film and media scholars. The goal of the Center is to bring together scholars and artists from across the university to explore how we express ourselves, critically and creatively, when we speak about, and with, the lived world. And we will do so by studying how some of the most innovative historical and contemporary documentary filmmakers have approached the multiple challenges inherent in documentary work, as an art and as scholarship. So we’ll be working closely with IU archives and IU Cinema. We hope to have post-docs and visiting filmmakers. It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m very hopeful we will be able to procure funding.
Are there any other scholars' work you've found particularly useful or inspirational lately - on documentary or otherwise?
Right now I’m knee-deep in Yugoslavian and Balkan history, preparing to do archival work in Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro starting in a couple of weeks. I’m also reading some documentary (and film history) anthologies, seeing how they are organized and conceived, as Malin Wahlberg and I have agreed to co-edit a Blackwell Companion to Documentary History.
In terms of work I’ve found inspirational lately, I’d point to three examples: Devin Fore’s Realism After Modernism, in which he rethinks the politics and aesthetics of interwar realism in film, painting, and literature; Masha Salazkina’s work on transnationalism, film theory, and institutional film cultures, focusing on the Soviet Union, Italy, and Cuba; and Lee Grieveson’s work with Colin MacCabe on the Empire and Film collection as well as his own work on how states promoted liberal economic views through nonfiction film projects throughout the century.
Joshua Malitsky is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University.