Director Dziga Vertov had a clear ambition for Man with a Movie Camera that he outlined in its first few moments on-screen: finally, here was proof that cinema spoke a truly universal language, and wouldn’t be held ransom by theatre and literature. If the film's enduring popularity and its degree of influence today is anything to go by, he triumphed; Man with a Movie Camera is widely regarded as one of the best documentary films of all time (some might even say it's the best example). But if you're not convinced by its accolades, it may reassure you that this film is more than a purely educative experience and a landmark bit of film history - it's also a joy to watch. For me, this latest remaster by BFI presents an unmissable opportunity to see it in all it's glory on the big screen.
Man with a Movie Camera is packed full with detail about the city lives it documents, although sometimes we can only snatch glimpses of inhabitants through the fantastical network of trams which direct and mimic the flow of pedestrian traffic, intersecting with one another. Throughout, a frenzy of gears and spindles work and play alongside their human counterparts in industry. Vertov, who edited his films in his own basement, worked with his brother Mikhail Kaufman and wife Yelizaveta Svilova, a talented film-maker and editor in her own right. They built their city from the ground up; drawing together together footage from three different locations to create a whole, using a heady mix of film-making techniques and dashing exploits from cameramen to help establish this as a cinematic city space with squeezed but negotiable boundaries.
Vertov didn't like to be associated with any concept of 'art' or 'art cinema' - he thought these terms were irrelevant to his vision of 'film-truth', which was rooted very much in every-day experience. Despite his efforts, Man with a Movie Camera has never quite managed to detach itself from that arty, avant-garde sort of world, and it's perhaps relevant in that context now more than ever.
Vertov's ideas exercise immense influence in the experimental and documentary film trade, but they resonate in many other fields, too. Man with a Movie Camera has much in common with the current exhibition at FACT, for example - though, I admit, it's convenient for me to say so here! Build Your Own and Man with a Movie Camera share a similar concept of a society in which participants express themselves through labours of love, as they fortify cultural identities and narratives through their engagement with craft and technology. In both, there is a will to build a platform for communal expression and emancipation - whether that's achieved through filming and watching the Bolshoi collapse in on itself, designing low-cost prosthetics or restoring a Toxteth terraced house to its former glory.
Man with a Movie Camera can be usefully interpreted as a 'build (y)our own society' project. Despite the rhetorical emphasis on the individual, today's DIY movements in art help to re-establish vulnerable communities and bypass the dominant forces threatening them with extinction. Perhaps we can draw on Vertov’s films to develop ways of making and discussing our environment that can help us to survive the pressures of contemporary life, reframe the way we use technologies around us and recover the city we live in.
Book tickets for Man with a Movie Camera, screening this Sunday 9 August. See what else is coming up on the big screen.