April 25, 2002

Cornell Cinema

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Dutch documentary filmmaker Jorvis Ivens touched cinema in a way that has sent ripples through every genre of the art since his first film, The Bridge, in 1928. Combining impeccable technical skill with a keen sense of aesthetics, filmmakers and students of film still look to his portfolio of masterpieces for inspiration, knowledge, and enjoyment.

Ivens is responsible for so many benchmarks in the realm of brilliant cinema. He was a pioneer in the art of editing, building on cinematic rhythms first introduced by experimental filmmakers such as Richteur and Eggeling. He combined the purely aesthetic rhythm of this type of editing with traditional, narrative editing which lent meaning to his images through juxtaposition.

However, Ivens contributions to the art reach beyond technical arenas into the theoretical spheres in which cinema has grown for over a century. Ivens’ idea of “personalization” is a key element in his films and those of his contemporaries, which hybridizes the documentary film with the narrative film.

Personalization was often inserted into documentary films of leftist filmmakers of the 1930s through vignette-type scenarios that followed an individual and illustrated that person’s own story. In this way, personalization attempted to drum up empathy or sympathy within the viewer for that individual and consequently for the collective of similar individuals with similar stories concerned in the film. It is a tool for identification with a mass issue through a personalized look of that issue.

Ivens believed that the important thing was not showing the truth, but whether the truth had been made convincing enough to make people want to change or emulate the situation show to them on screen, according to film scholar Thomas Waugh.

In The Spanish Earth (1937), Ivens uses the tool of personalization to present the truth that in Spain a war was raging in which fascism and democracy battled. This “truth” also presents the people involved in this struggle as agents of history, not casualties, and as having voices as a collective that are only heard through democracy.

This “truth” is relayed to the viewer through the story of a village in dire need of irrigation for their crops, however the absentee landlords of the village have blocked their effort. Thus, the viewer is given a story to identify with before being introduced to the larger civil war raging between the fascists and those who would have a democratic Spain.

Once the viewer is introduced tot he facts of the civil war through a geographic map of the front line and snips of battle footage, he or she is then told the story of a single soldier named Julian. Through his story, the viewer is meant to sympathize with the sacrifices made by individuals for the well-being of the collective, or democracy for the Spanish people.

An earlier Ivens film, Rain (1929), which was very influential in European documentary film, shows the beginnings of Ivens’ tool of personalization. Rain, a short film that observes a rainstorm in the city of Amsterdam, has been categorized as a “cine-poem.” Though silent, Ivens creates a sort of ballet of images through editing and the loving focus of his lens.

The rain that the film follows in various forms and places in Amsterdam is arguably anthropometric. The physical object of rain is celebrated in the film, but also the human experience of rain. While the medium of film does what only film can do by passively recording the falling of raindrops on pavement or water, it also narrates the story of human behaviors during a rain shower.

An excellent example of this dual function is the scene in which the camera watches raindrops tripping their way down the glass of a trolley car from inside of the vehicle. While only film could document this movement of the raindrops through time and space, it also lends a distinctly human perspective. By placing the camera inside of the trolley car, rather than outside of it, Ivens appeals to the viewer’s memory. It is a distinctly human experience for all types of people. Whether watching raindrops racing down car or house windows, most people have partaken in this type of viewing. It’s a strange and subtle empathy, but the recognition is accomplished nonetheless.

Archived article by Laura Thomas