Brothers with movie cameras: Unremarkable Russian film tells remarkable stories
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 May 2004)

Can a movie be badly paced, clumsily written, poorly scored -- yet somehow magnificent? That's the case with Dziga and His Brothers, a 52-minute film from Russia that I recently saw twice and plan to see again.

It unites for the first time the stories of Dziga Vertov, maker of the greatest Soviet documentaries, and his two brothers, one a filmmaker in Moscow, the other in Paris, New York and Ottawa. Now circling the festivals, it comes to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival this Sunday and on May 12 appears at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.

The director, Yevgeni Tsymbal, unfortunately rushes his story, lumbers it with an oppressive musical score, and can't deftly match his words with his pictures. Still, a great history-crammed saga shines through, full of triumph, disaster, irony and betrayal. Cuts from films made by the three brothers keep the screen alive.

David, Mikhail and Boris, the three Kaufman brothers, were born around 1900, the grandsons of a rabbi in Poland. As a young man, David renamed himself Dziga Vertov (which means something like "turning, revolving") and became an experimental moviemaker. His brother Mikhail was his cameraman and also the onscreen star of Dziga's famous Man With a Movie Camera, made in 1929 when Soviet culture was heady with promise. Before all this happened their younger brother, Boris, was shipped off to the West.

Both Dziga and Mikhail had enviable careers until Stalinism turned them into timorous hacks. Dziga loved the visual poetry of factories, bridges and smokestacks. He argued for spontaneity in films, which was either a self-delusion or a fraud. "Shoot life as it happens," he liked to say, but that's not what he did. Usually he arranged his subjects carefully, like most documentary-makers then and now. In the editing room, his best shots became surrealist images, which eventually made the Stalinist film commissars smell a rat. They realized that an artist had slipped in among the apparatchiks, and from the mid-1930s onward they tormented him without mercy.

Driven nearly mad by their criticism, he tried to brainwash himself. His diary sounds like notes from a re-education camp: "I have to be cheerful. To be otherwise is un-Bolshevik." It did no good. He was permanently sentenced to routine newsreel work, and his old films were so viciously derided that when he died in 1954 of cancer he had no idea whether they would ever be seen again.

His brother Mikhail became a director himself, had some success, but was also forced into hackery. The Exemplary Beet Farmer was among his later works. He was mostly forgotten when he died in 1980, the same year as his younger brother, who was by then a distinguished American cinematographer.

Boris Kaufman had two separate careers and one interesting interlude. His first career was in Paris, where he became Jean Vigo's cameraman and in 1934 shot a great classic, L'Atalante. By 1941 he had escaped to New York, where John Grierson asked him to come to Ottawa and work at the National Film Board. For two years Kaufman helped train young cameramen and contributed to Canada Carries On, the famous wartime series. (Dziga was then working for its Soviet equivalent, USSR On-Screen.)

Boris returned to New York and found a place at the centre of American movies. In 1954 he won an Academy Award in cinematography for his first American feature, On the Waterfront. Later he shot Baby Doll and Splendor in the Grass for Elia Kazan, and several films, notably Twelve Angry Men and The Pawnbroker, for Sidney Lumet.

Grierson, long before founding the National Film Board or recruiting Boris Kaufman, identified the main flaw in Dziga Vertov's Soviet documentaries: Vertov was so intoxicated by the possibilities of the camera that he believed he didn't need character or storytelling. In a 1931 essay, Grierson acknowledged that Vertov's style could make the events of ordinary life "achieve a new value, leap to a more vigorous life." But both Man With a Movie Camera and Vertov's later Enthusiasm (about the Five Year Plan in the Don River basin) lacked dramatic structure and insight. "A film must march somewhere," Grierson wrote. Vertov's films stood still and admired their own ingenuity. They needed a narrative to carry all their rich, detailed information.

David Ofek, an Israeli who has directed a touching and revealing 75-minute film he calls No. 17 (also to be shown Sunday at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival), has grasped this truth and run with it. Ofek wanted to make a film about life in Israel in the age of random bombing. But how to do it? How to get beyond the horror on TV news and uncover the people who live within a society darkly stained by terror?

Ofek happened to learn that after a suicide terrorist exploded his car next to a bus near Tel Aviv in June, 2002, one of the 17 people killed was unidentified. No one came forward to claim the body, and forensic experts could say only that he was male and about 40 years old. Was he perhaps an illegal foreign worker? A tourist whom no one back home had yet missed?

Ofek and his crew set out like detectives to solve the mystery, interviewing survivors, making a chart of the bus that eventually showed where everyone sat, gathering pictures of the dead, finally focusing on the unidentified 17th. The search lasts six months and holds the audience's attention, but soon we realize that Ofek has something else in mind. He wants to show a national community that remains vibrantly alive even in the shadow of death.

We meet an amazing collection of Israelis, from the Ultra-Orthodox sketch artist who happens also to be a jazz critic to the foreign workers who are allowed out of jail if they take jobs as caregivers. No. 17 deserves a wide showing and no doubt will get to PBS and the Documentary Channel. As for Ofek, he'll likely have much more to tell us in future. His human subjects, standing in the light of common day, leap to vigorous life, as Vertov's did. But Ofek, like many of the filmmakers who are emerging in this great new age of documentary, has stories of importance he wants to tell us.

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