The Soviet Influence: From Turksib to Night Mail DVD+Blu-ray
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Directed by Viktor Turin
Produced in 1929
Main Language - Silent / English with English subtitles
This 'at home film school' from the BFI presents five films that show the clear influence of Soviet film on the British documentary film movement. Graeme Hobbs takes us along the railroad.
That early British documentarists were influenced by Soviet film is known, but to have it so clearly demonstrated in this collection, in which Viktor Turin's majestic 1929 film Turksib is followed by five British films that took lessons from its style, is valuable indeed for an understanding of the shaping of British documentary film. A comprehensive accompanying booklet ties all the links together.
It's also good to see a number of films from the EMB - Empire Marketing Board - making it on to DVD, as the films made in its name have so far missed out on the attention given to films from the likes of the GPO Film Unit.
Turksib is a film on the grand Soviet scale in which men and machines take on - and win - the challenge of constructing a 1445 km railroad tol weld Turkestan's burning heat to Siberia's frosts; it is a paean to labour, might, communal will and ingenuity needed to overcome the the desert that lies in between. 'Stubborn is nature - still more stubborn is man and his machines' exclaim the intertitles, with the urgent stated need for the railroad being that of freeing up land in Turkestan to grow cotton instead of grain - 'cotton for all Russia' - with the railroad to supply the grain deficit from Siberia.
With such landscapes and such a subject, it's no surprise that Turksib is a thoroughly elemental film. Nowehere is this more in evidence than in 'Act. 1. Water', which revels in the excitement of water flowing down from the mountains and over parched fields, the film acclaiming its tumble, flow and sparkle as grain crops wave in the wind in celebration. Through the film the land shows its power, threat and bounty; by the end, even the trains' pistons join in the elemental surge. At times, Grierson's intertitles threaten to burst the frame in irrepressible excitement. (They didn't impress HG Wells however - according to Basil Wright, he described them as 'epileptic'.)
With such majestic visual poetry - especially allied to constructive social purpose - it's no wonder that Turksib made such an impression on the young filmmakers who saw it. Basil Wright (The Song of Ceylon, Night Mail) for example praised its 'cinematic lucidity' and said that it 'was the only Soviet documentary ... which really influenced me permanently.') Evidence for the influence of the film comes with the films included in the collection, which see directors attempting to honour the Soviet influence by adapting its aesthetic - imaginative use of intertitles, the fusing of visual poetry with exhortation in message, avant-garde angles accentuating speed and might, people and livestock delineated heroically from below - to Britain's more parochial concerns.
The two most interesting of these films are Basil Wright's The Country Comes to Town (1933) and Paul Rotha's The Face of Britain (1935), both of which also show the influence of Dovzhenko's Earth in their style, and - in the case of the former - its earthy sensibility too. Sponsored by the Central Electricity Board, The Face of Britain, whch advances the argument of how to make 'Britain a land designed for living' in a new age of scientific planning and collective working, is a major documentary film that (unfortunately for the thrust of its contention) fuses thrilling, rhythmical industrial montage with hopes for clean energy in a new age, revisiting the wonder of water's sparkle from Turin's Turksib along the way. With its spare narration and occasional foregrounding of natural sounds, from birdsong and church organs to market trading and coal mining, it also nods forward to Humphrey Jennings' refinement of such techniques in his Listen to Britain.
Lastly, seeing Night Mail is a pleasure - seeing Night Mail is always a pleasure - especially here, where it has been removed from its cosily familiar background and placed in a context of the liberating style - and ideals - which helped to shape it.
Graeme Hobbs on 1st September 2011
Author of 277 reviews
In the early 1930s, a small number of Soviet propaganda films were shown in Britain that excited filmmakers such as John Grierson, Paul Rotha and Basil Wright – luminaries of the British documentary film movement who were then developing their ideas of film as an art form. This unique and fascinating release explores this influence through the formal and thematic relationships between Viktor Turin's extraordinary, little-seen silent documentary Turksib (1929), and a number of British documentary films, including the celebrated Night Mail (1936).
Turksib is a bold and exhilarating film which brilliantly illustrates the problems faced by regional farmers and trades people, and highlights the need for the Turkestan-Siberian railway. Dazzling, arresting, and yet curiously overlooked, this fine example of Soviet montage cinema was presented to British audiences in 1930 in a version prepared by documentary pioneer John Grierson.
That same version is included here, newly remastered to High Definition and with a newly commissioned score by Guy Bartell from celebrated electronic outfit Bronnt Industries Kapital. It is accompanied by a collection of archival British documentary shorts, all of which were made in the wake of Turksib by filmmakers whose debt to the film is very much in evidence.
The British films contained are: The Workers’ Topical News No 1 (1930): the newsreel shown at Turksib’s British premiere; Australian Wine (Paul Rotha, 1931): charming and lively promotional film employing Soviet-style montage techniques; The Country Comes to Town (Basil Wright, 1931): a celebration of the importance of the British countryside; Shadow on the Mountains (Arthur Elton, 1932): expressive titles and cinematography are deployed in this lyrical film about farming; The Face of Britain (Paul Rotha, 1935): a passionate and ambitious appeal for socialist planning; Night Mail (Harry Watt, Basil Wright, 1936): this seminal film applies the aesthetic lessons of Soviet cinema to a very British tale.
Length: 163 mins
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Format: DVD+Blu-ray Colour
Released: 19th September 2011
Cat No: BFIB1130
- 2 discs
- Presented in High Definition & Standard Definition with new HD transfer of Turksib
- Newly commissioned score for Turksib by Guy Bartell (Bronnt Industries Kapital)
- New musical scores for The Workers’ Topical News No 1, Australian Wine and Shadow on the Mountains by Neil Thomas
- Extensive, 36-page illustrated booklet which draws on the writings of John Grierson, Basil Wright, Paul Rotha and others to chart the Soviet influence in the development of British documentary filmmaking.