A Way of Seeing (3/4)

Joris Ivens and
the Evolution of Documentary

Leaving aside attempts to find the “first documentary in film history,” there are several things to say for documentary’s start or growth in the twenties—I am inclined to state the late twenties—especially when we take in consideration the “purpose” of the documentary: i.e., not only to inform, but to educate, agitate, move, and interpret reality. Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov come very close to these specifics in a way that indicates they can and must be called the precursors of documentary. Both showed a certain creativity with their material, to paraphrase Grierson’s definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”: Flaherty, with Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926), gave a kind of creative reinvention of a past reality; and Vertov, a creative arrangement of actuality with his Kino Eye (1924). However, the form of the creative documentary as we still know it today evolved in the late twenties, as an artistic and political response to the social developments of the period. Paul Rotha, himself one of the early documentarists, puts it neatly,

What we have come to call “documentary” did not appear as a distinctive method of film-making at any given moment in the cinema’s history. It did not suddenly become manifest as a new conception of film in any particular production. Rather documentary has evolved over a period of time for materialist reasons; partly as the result of amateur effort, partly through serving propagandist ends, partly through aestheticism.20

This evolution gains momentum at the height of the avant-garde movement in Europe, as well as in relation to the “Great Slump,” the economic crisis of 1929-1933, and the upcoming political crisis of the thirties.21 The aesthetic movement came as a reaction against Hollywood dominance, but was, for many documentarists-to-be, overtaken by social and political dissatisfaction. This is especially the case with Joris Ivens:

In the beginning, it was based very much on aesthetics, and most of us were strongly against Hollywood. We thought, especially before the sound films started, that they were emphasizing the sentimental angle of cheap stories, as well as the sex angle. We thought they were too far from reality. There was a very strong and logical reaction from students, artists, and young people in Europe, who thought we should go against that sort of thing and base our work on reality. So that was the beginning of the documentary film.22

If we may believe William Alexander, Ivens’s films, which he had brought with him when he came to the United States in 1936, had a major impact on American film directors: “No documentary films ever shown here before have been as exciting, stimulating, dynamic, tense and as brilliant in execution of their purposes”; they are “far more creative than mere reporting . . . far more exciting and enriching than mere fiction.”23 His films provoked the spectator more than the works of other noted documentarists of that time, but it is difficult to say that his films were a touchstone for them. Documentarists influenced each other, and the films of Joris Ivens matched the idea of documentary that was formed in the thirties and further shaped in the forties and fifties by “the great documentarists” of that time, like Grierson’s Film Unit (e.g., Night Mail), Pare Lorentz with The River (1937), Flaherty with Louisiana Story (1948), Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1942), and of course Joris Ivens himself with films like The Spanish Earth (1937) and Power and the Land (1941). But Ivens played an important role in this forming and shaping more in the 1930s and 1940s than in the 1950s (when he was more a skillful artist than an innovator).

In fact, since the 1950s, Ivens’s contribution to documentary was no longer that of a creator of new forms of expression, yet remained very important in other ways. With the coming of new techniques like lightweight 16mm cameras with synchronous sound, Ivens was no longer a forerunner, yet he still made remarkable films by skillful and professional use of these techniques (which were sometimes neglected by other directors), in part thanks to the important contributions of collaborator Marceline Loridan. Initially, Ivens had some reticence towards these new techniques presented by direct cinema and cinéma vérité:

[W]e should remain alert to the fact that with the possibility of quick observation and increased mobility comes the danger of remaining on the surface of truth, of skimming reality instead of penetrating it, of showing it without any force, daring or creative power. We need to be aware of the dangers that might make us lose along the road the truth we had first set out to express. It is important at the outset to look intensely for the truth in order to express it by an elaborate documentation and an intelligent analysis—for real truth is often hidden.24

Ivens and Marceline Loridan show this awareness in The 17th Parallel (“Le Dix-septième parallèle,” 1968), which presents powerful photography and a skillful combination of direct and synchronized sound. In this way they introduced a more conscious use of the new techniques that had become so popular and easy to handle, but which also endangered professionalism. On the other hand, these new techniques were also cheaper and therefore available to more people. This had its influence on the documentaries of the 1960s and on a movement in which Ivens’ long experience made him once again an example to others, especially in France: militant cinema. Active less as an innovator than as an agitator, Ivens, along with Chris Marker, became one of the exponents of political and militant cinema. Together with Loridan he formed collectives to make cinematographic statements about, for instance, Vietnam (The Threatening Sky [“Le Ciel, la terre,” 1965]; The 17th Parallel; and, with Chris Marker among others, Far from Vietnam [“Loin de Vietnam,” 1967]) or Laos (The People and Their Guns [“Le peuple et ses fusils,” 1970]).

Combining fictive with factual elements in his last film, A Tale of the Wind (“Une Histoire de vent,” 1988), Ivens, together with Marceline Loridan, contributed once more, but for the last time to the documentary form. Chris Marker had already shaped this kind of personal film before, especially with Sans Soleil (1984), but A Tale of the Wind extrapolated this in extremis, to reflect not only on Ivens’s own life and work and the history of changes in world in the twentieth century, but also on documentary, truth, and the boundaries of the genre.

Ivens’s “passionate convictions” and “historical experience” were translated in his work only a few films after The Bridge (“De Brug”), with Rain (“Regen”), an example of his avant-garde start as a filmmaker. In 1929 he made his first socially engaged film with Leo van Lakerveld (a Communist Party member). Poor Drenthe (“Arm Drenthe”) was probably (for the film is considered lost) a good illustration of Kracauer’s statement that human suffering is conducive to detached reporting:25 “Unemployment everywhere. But also those who work have to live in hovels made from sod, pieces of wood, cases, and cardboard boxes. As a dwelling and sleeping place: one close den for ten or twelve people. Lack of the most necessary food; lameness and tuberculosis. The misery suffered here by human beings is beyond description.”26

But was Ivens’s evolution into an engaged, socialist, and revolutionary filmmaker a logical one? It is at least not his education that led him to this.

The second son in the Catholic family of Kees Ivens and Dora Muskens, Joris Ivens enjoyed a protected but liberal education. The Ivens family was a progressive one, both in the city of Nijmegen and in Kees Ivens’s trade: photography. The cinematograph and other new technical developments in the field of photography were to be found in the CAPI-shop (CAPI standing for Cornelius Adrian Peter Ivens, Kees Ivens’s full name). It is therefore not surprising that son Joris (then still called George) came into contact with the film medium at an early age. At thirteen he had already made his first film, Wigwam (“De Wigwam”), a story of Indians in which the whole family participated. And yet 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, and for this purpose he followed the necessary training: economics at the Higher Commercial College in Rotterdam and phototechnology in Berlin, as well as apprenticeships with ICA, Zeiss, and Erneman.

In Berlin Ivens met Germaine Krull and came into contact with the experimental film climate and the left-wing revolutionary movements. Berlin in the 1920s was the cultural and political mecca for the left-wing avant-garde. Through Krull Ivens became involved in it, though he was more affected by socialist ideas than by his friend’s anarchism. In the cinemas they saw German expressionist films and the avant-garde experiments of Walther Ruttmann. Ivens took both of these cultural and political experiences with him to the Netherlands where he first worked as head of the technical department and later as managing director of the CAPI branch in Amsterdam.

So far little had pointed towards Ivens becoming a filmmaker. It is true that in the 1920s he had already made some short family films, but this is hardly surprising in a family of a photographic supplier, where all the equipment was available. This did not change until 1927, when a movement to see more art films came into being in Amsterdam. In May of that year the Film League was established, with Ivens playing an important role as technical director in inviting guests and bringing in films. In the same year he began his first filmic experiments and a meeting with Walther Ruttmann and his film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (“Berlin, die Symphonie der Grosstadt”) stimulated him to make more serious film plans. Seeing Ruttmann’s work made with an old, incomplete camera and hardly any filmmaking skills, Ivens must have thought, “I can do that too.”

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20. Paul Rotha, Documentary Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1952 [first published in 1936]): p. 75.

21. See Hobsbawm, especially the chapters “Into the Economic Abyss” and “The Fall of Liberalism,” pp. 85-141.

22. Ivens, “Documentary.”

23. Reviewers cited in William Alexander, Film on the Left. American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981): p. 122.

24. Joris Ivens, “Long Live Cinéma-Vérité,” in Rosalind Delmar, Joris Ivens: 50 years of film-making (London: British Film Institute, 1979): p. 111 (first published in French in Les Lettres Françaises, March 1963).

25. See page 4 and note 15.

26. Quoted from a titlecard by Hans Schoots, Gevaarlijk leven: Een biografievan Joris Ivens (Amsterdam: Jan Mets): p. 66; my translation. An English translation of this thorough and enlighting biography is in preparation and will be published by Amsterdam University Press.