Oksana Sarkisova: „Life As It Should Be?“ Early Non-fiction Cinema in Russia From Kulturfilm to Documentary


„Fact is not the whole lruth yet, it is only the raw material from which one should cast, extract the real truth of the art.“
M. Gorkii

Early Years: The Directions of Experiment

Documentary cinema, whose birth is declared by its loyal historians to coincide with the very appearance of filmmaking, was not originally a self-evident concept. There is a common sense logic in the claim that Arrival of the Train by brothers Lumière was the first documentary. But here we encounter a serious contradiction: is it valid to project a concept that appeared much later (particularly on a scale of the short life of cinema itself) on the period that was not aware of the ensuing conceptual developments? While cinematographic tableaux vivants, recording the flow of life, were among the first film productions, early filmmakers and critics employed a variety of terms to denote what nowadays would fall under the classificatory concept of documentary: kulturfilms, educational films, nonfiction, enlightening films, scientific films, and so on. ln its early years, while cinema was still considered a plebeian entertainment, a number of so-called “film reform movements” arose in the countries with actively developing cinematographic fields. Following the European pattern, the Russian film reform movement attempted to “tame” the rapidly expanding the world of mass entertainment. While the market was dominated by French companies, notably Pathé and Gaumont, local institutions made sporadic attempts to win over the audience. They ranged from the allowances from the Imperial Russian Technical Society in 1897/98 for purchasing a film projector and opening the departments of “scientific cinemas” in the regions of the empire to a special congress of “useful entertainment”, convened in Kharkov in 1915 by the local Literacy Society. The resolution of the congress included an appeal to public associations for “production and distribution of the films, illustrating primarily the life of our country in all its variety, both contemporary and historical, as well as life in other countries in most representative scenes”. The years before the First World War saw the appearance of such “useful” films, produced in some cases against market rationality. In 1911, the Khanzhonkov film company, one of the largest in Russia at the time, organized a “scientific department”, making The Defense of Sevastopol (1911), a 100-minute feature film, which included staged scenes from the Crimean War (1853- 1856) interspersed with photographs of military actions and takes of the Crimean War veterans. A year later saw the production of the historical film 1812 glorifying the victory over Napoleon, and the moralizing Alcoholism and its consequences. Both were the early examples of the future directions in the so-called “cultured” cinema: history (inspiring and patriotic) and everyday customs (outlining desired and non-desired behavior). …