Earlier this week, the British Film Institute (BFI) published results from a first-of-its-kind poll, asking 340 film-makers and critics to vote for the best documentary of all time. The clear winner was Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera.
But this 1929 avant-garde exploration of the USSR didn't just eke by, it absolutely crushed the competition, surpassing second place by 32 votes. But even then, it really wasn't much of a surprise. You see, every ten years BFI polls a large swath of film professionals asking what is the best film of all time, and the results are then published in Sight & Sound magazine. In 2012, the most recent poll, Vertigo upset Citizen Kane (Let's all pour one out for Orson Welles), but sneaking in at No. 8 was Man with a Movie Camera.
This film had been gathering a collection of cobwebs in my Netflix queue for a while now, so I finally decided to commit. It's only 67 minutes long, though it took three years to film in three separate locations: Kharkiv, Kiev, and Odessa. The idea was to capture a "day in the life" in the USSR by simply travelling everywhere with a camera.
Vertov was the OG GoPro of the 1920s.
This documentary is cinematic jazz, an assortment of images and scenes rearranged to create a mosaic of life detailing a very specific time in a very specific place. By today's standards, Man with a Movie Camera would still be considered experimental. Even Vertov seemed unsure if his audience was really going to "get it" and prefixed his work with a directorial note:
"For viewers' attention: This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theatre. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theatre and literature."
Well, there's all kinds of stuff for a doc snob to latch on there, but to BFI's credit, they chose wisely. Yeah sure, the film's a little slow going at first and drawing forth any kind of plot is near impossible, but the conclusion builds up to something pretty remarkable, aided in part by Michael Nyman's score (Netflix version)—and is way more illustrative that any 20th century history class you've ever taken.
But hey, "Avant Garde" and "Experimental" can be scary words when all you want to do is veg out and maybe learn a thing or two. Luckily a few more contemporary choices also made the list, including Hoop Dreams (17), Man on Wire (37), and my personal favourite, The Act of Killing (19)—all available for your Netflix-viewing pleasure.
Stream on, my friends. [Netflix]