A Bird's Eye View of a Documentary Career
Kees Bakker

A few years after the birth of cinema, and just before the beginning of the twentieth century, George Henri Anton Ivens was born in Nijmegen on 18 November 1898. At thirteen he already made his first film Wigwam ("De Wigwam"), a story of Indians in which the whole family participated. For the time being Joris did not think of a career as a filmmaker; a job was in store for him in his father's growing and prospering photo business CAPI, and for this purpose he followed the necessary training: economics at the Higher Commercial College in Rotterdam and phototechnology in Berlin, as well as some apprenticeships with Ica, Zeiss, and Erneman.

In early 1928, while working for CAPI in Amsterdam, Joris Ivens began shooting The Bridge ("De Brug"). For him this film was, in the first place, a study in movement, composition, and film language. After its first performance the film was received with loud acclaim and was marked as an avant-garde masterpiece. Certainly after making Rain ("Regen") his reputation as a filmmaker was established. He received an assignment from the General Netherlands Construction Workers' Union to make a film on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the union. We Are Building ("Wij Bouwen") is the first documentary series by Joris Ivens showing his involvement with the workers, even though it is still directed towards their work and not so much their way of living.

After Philips Radio, the first Dutch sound film, he made his first real social documentary with Henri Storck in 1934, Borinage ("Misére au Borinage" ), about a miners' strike and the abominable living conditions of the workers in the Borinage. His social and political engagement appears in the treatment of Zuiderzee, which, together with the music of Hanns Eisler and the title New Earth, was given an explicitely political message. Joris Ivens had already represented his political beliefs in the socialist utopia in the film Song of Heroes ("Pesn o gerojach [Komsomol]," 1933). Co-operating with, among others, Eisler, who produced the soundtrack of the film, he made a film about the building up of the socialist Soviet state on the basis of the construction of the blast furnace town of Magnitogorsk by the Komsomol youth.

After a subsequent stay in the Soviet Union, Joris Ivens left for the United States in 1936 where, after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Contemporary Historians, Inc., was established to enable the production of what was later to become The Spanish Earth (1937). Recorded at the republican front in Spain, this film is still seen as one of Ivens's most important works, characterized by powerful photography, editing, sober commentary by Ernest Hemingway, and clear partiality against Franco's fascism. A year later Ivens filmed the Sino-Japanese War (The 400 Million), and subsequently make a number of films on the United States themselves.

In this relatively short period in his film career, Joris Ivens had already put a clear mark on the documentary film and since that time he is generally regarded as one of the designers of this "movement" as the documentarists called it themselves. Besides Ivens having co-developed the language of the documentary, he continued to devote this medium to his ideals and the progress of society and against the repression of weaker groups. In spite of his communist sympathies Ivens was appointed by the Dutch government to film the liberation of Indonesia as Film Commissioner for the Dutch East Indies. However, in Ivens's opinion the Netherlands were not liberating, but re-colonizing this country. He considered this a breach of contract on the side of the Dutch, resigned his position, and went on to make a filmic pamphlet against Dutch
policy in Indonesia. Indonesia Calling (1946) meant a breach with the Netherlands: Ivens was considered persona non grata. This did not hamper his filmic work, however. He had already filmed in various corners of the world and was now given an assignment from Eastern Europe to film the reconstruction of the countries stricken by the Second World War, which were now on the brink of a socialist future (The First Years ["Pierwsze lata," 1949]). Till 1957 Joris Ivens continued to work in East Germany, making one of the largest productions in the history of the documentary film there (Song of the Rivers, [Das Lied der Ströme," 1954]), but the films of this period were predominently characterized by propaganda for communism, and less by his artistic qualities, in part because he was given less freedom to develop them.

In 1957 Joris Ivens returned to Western Europe and made the poetic The Seine Meets Paris ("La Seine a recontré Paris") in France. This, however, did not mean a turning away from his political and social engagement, for his films that follow are characterized by an alternation of poetry and politics, and of free productions and commissioned films. In 1958 he made, while working as a lecturer at the Beijing Film Academy, both the poetic Before Spring and the political pamphlet Six Hundred Million with You. After a commissioned film for the Italian state oil company ENI (Italy Is Not a Poor Country ["L'Italia non e un paese povero," 1960]) he made both the pro-revolutionary An Armed People ("Pueblo armado"), as well as the more poetic travel letter to Charles Chaplin, Travel Note ("Carnet de viaja"), in Cuba (both from 1961). The sixties are characterized by these two extremes in his work as a filmmaker, for before starkly militant films about, among other things, Vietnam (such as The Threatening Sky ["Le Ciel, la terre," 1966] and The 17th Parallel ["Le Dix-septième parallèle," 1967], which he shot with Marceline Loridan), Ivens also made two special film poems: . . . A Valparaiso (1963) and The Mistral ("Pour le mistral," 1965).

His cooperation with Marceline Loridan began from this period and continued till his death in 1989. This cooperation resulted, among other things, in the monumental series lasting twelve hours, How Yukong Moved the Mountains ("Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes," 1976), about the influence of the Cultural Revolution on everyday life in China. Together they made some more, important films, including the poetic, contemplative, sometimes ironic testementary, A Tale of the Wind ("Une Histoire de vent," 1988). This was a highly praised pinnacle of his imposing oeuvre, which originated in five continents and witnessed the turbulent twentieth century.

The continuation of an oeuvre

During his entire career as a filmmaker, Joris Ivens kept the papers that are produced when making a film. In accordance with Joris Ivens's desire to deposit his archives with an independent institution, the European Foundation Joris Ivens was established a year after his death, with the purpose of managing, inventorying, and opening up the Joris Ivens Archives. In 1995 the Foundation obtained the Archives: an impressive collection for one person, but also a very rich set of materials; it is a cross-section of documentary film history and of twentieth century socio-political history. The European Foundation Joris Ivens aims to open up and complete the archives and the collections it acquires, to preserve this part of documentary film history and make it available for students and researchers, journalists, writers, and filmmakers who want to know more about Joris Ivens, his role in film history, the events he witnessed and documented with his camera, and documentary cinema in general.

The European Foundation Joris Ivens tries to continue the work of Joris Ivens. Not by making films, but by keeping the films of Ivens alive and by stimulating people to see them and to think about the world Ivens filmed and the world he wanted to film. The Foundation wants to achieve this by, apart from making the Joris Ivens Archives available, organizing exhibitions, retrospectives, conferences, film programs, and other activities that can stimulate people in understanding the moving twentieth century and the role of documentary film in reflecting this history.


COPYRIGHT:Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Organizing Committee