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1929 constructivist film ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ (MMC), can be seen as the epitome of his work and showpiece for his ‘Kinoglaz’(cine-eye) and ‘Kino Pravda’ (cine-truth) philosophy. Experimental, innovative, and pushing the boundaries of both cinematic technology, structure and socially acceptable content, the film and indeed its subject matter can be regarded as a true hallmark of modernity. Apart from being in itself a product of the modern age, the very concept of film being a veritable phenomenon of modernity, the topics central to the film are of truly modernist subject matter. The film deals not only with the concept of the modern city, but is also based around the relationship between man and machine. Moreover, and relative to this study, the idea of the emergence of the woman into the social sphere is another important feature of modernity. Vertov’s basic aim was to use film to portray ‘Life-As-It-Is’ by ‘the direct recording of facts found in real life’1 , so the audience could decipher life, seeing through the cine-eye what the human eye could not. 2 In the film, women play a startlingly prominent role, featuring in the majority of its images. Thus it must be considered that the issue of women, in particular the presence ‘the New Soviet Woman’, was a prominent feature of the society in which Vertov lived. When analysing Vertov’s portrayal of women in MMC, ambiguous is the term that may best describe the picture he presents. Indeed, this idea in itself truly was a reflection of the position of woman in the new soviet society. The ambiguity of the role and nature of what the new woman should be as well as the attitude of the government and society towards women seems to be the hallmark of the woman question in the Soviet context. In this essay I will outline the position of women following the Soviet takeover as well as the construction of the ideal of the New Soviet Woman. I will analyse her role and portrayal in MMC, basing my interpretations on the film’s historical context. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Soviet government was the first in the world to claim an active commitment to the transformation of woman’s role in society.3 A proud boast, though in reality the large extent of this commitment was
1 Petric, Vlada. ‘Dziga Vertov as Theorist’, Cinema Journal, 18.1 (Autumn 1978), 29-44, p29. 2 Petric, p30. 3 McAndrew, Maggie and Peers, Jo. The New Soviet Woman - Model or Myth, Change International 1
but to produce the next generation of workers. p. The new woman’s duty was not only to be a worker in the cycle of production.9. unhelpful and uncooperative attitudes within most soviet institutions ‘made the work of women’s departments difficult. and apart from this aspect women’s other issues were not part of their agenda. male chauvinistic attitudes prevailed among many party officials. as Lenin described. the Zhenotdel.30. ‘unsympathetic. Reports.regarding the entry of women to the workforce. Red Women on the Silver Screen . political. This necessity for women to leave. Alexandra Kollontai. according to the 1920 Zhenotdel report. 2 . the state needed female workers. However. However. 5 McAndrew and Peers. her role in reproduction was also taken into account. 1981.due to a demographic crisis and the need for widespread support. 1993. seems to have been the driving force behind the notions of female emancipation. the role of the woman had changed. p. claim to the great emancipation of women can’t solely be attributed to an empathy with feminist ideals. the Soviet government’s. was founded. Although Marx and Engels acknowledged that there were ‘many facets’ to female oppression. rather than any particular desire for full equality between the sexes in any other aspects of life. 7 Despite claims at creating equality for the new woman.Soviet Women and Cinema from the Beginning to the End of Soviet Cinema. they were of the opinion that all social issues were results of class society. social and sexual needs. Lynne. The government recognised the duality of the female role as mother and worker. the only difference being that as well as her role in production. It worked to engage with propaganda among women as well as women’s health. Bolshevik government minister.8 6 Attwood. 7 McAndrew and Peers. Rivers Oram Press/ Pandora List. educational and political concerns. 4 McAndrew and Peers. p. has been acknowledged as one of the few who considered gender as a political issue6 and was dedicated to the cause of the new Soviet woman.5. She encouraged women to become actively involved with the Communist party and persistently called for more attention to be given to women’s economic.5. She was now expected to work just like a man. the ‘stupefying and humiliating subjugation to the eternal drudgery of the kitchen and nursery’5. strikingly one dimensional. 4 Moreover. p. p. In 1919 the woman’s bureau of the party. It was fortunate for the Bolsheviks that Marxist ideology happened to correspond with the political and economic needs of the state .
despite the film’s status as a key piece of avant garde work and thus having been studied and analysed by numerous experts and critics. p. The old family unit that Marx and Engels had predicted would eventually dissolve with socialist society remained largely in tact. As the broader context of the woman question was largely overlooked by the Soviet government. p.also to have certain ‘natural’ traits and behavioural patterns which made her innately suited to domesticity and childcare. 1989. the introduction of women to the workplace in theory necessitated the transformation of housekeeping into a social industry as well as childcare and education. Creating the New Soviet Woman . 1999. when women became the most expendable workers due to their relative low productivity compared to their male counterparts. p.4. According to McAndrew and Peers.2. ironically. so too are gender issues in studies of MMC. particularly with the introduction of NEP. 1999. 1922 .Maternity and female working legislation was introduced to create a balance between production and reproduction.’12 In many ways it seems. Vertov has perhaps triumphed in his mission for Cine-truth and 8 Attwood. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. Once again. Kino and The Woman Question: Feminism and Soviet Silent Film. Judith. 1999. ‘MMC is a film whose radical innovative structure and style have not been addressed adequately in terms of gender questions that they raise.155. 9 Attwood.Women’s magazines as Engineers of female Identity. ‘Soviet woman was expected to be an exemplary worker and to develop the qualities and traits which were appropriate to the work place . this idea never translated to a reality.’10 An increasingly contradictory image of the soviet woman diverged from the theoretical understanding of woman’s position under socialism.’11. and this ambiguity and duality of the simultaneously liberated and still oppressed woman is apparent throughout MMC.8 Moreover. 12 Mayne. p.53. to coincide with the woman question in soviet society . 9As the government increasingly tried to have women both ways. one of the few scholars to address the issue.3. in reality became awkwardly mixed with the more romanticised ‘bourgeois’ idea of the feminine homemaker.). As noted by Judith Mayne. 11 Attwood. p. the role of the new Soviet woman was decidedly ambiguous. (In reality this presented difficulties. 3 .3. The Marxist rationalism regarding the woman’s role as a factor of production.being an issue that was largely ignored or rather overlooked by the authorities. Due to economic priorities. Women did enter the workforce but now had the double burden of also taking care of the family. Lynne. 1999. 10 Attwood. Basingstoke : Macmillan.
<http://www. although limited in number. and ‘the association between inert material and female identity’. the government were committed to the liberation of women. 14 Mayne. p156. NEP women. voyeurism with regard to the female body. the komsomolka. MMC overflows with images of women and their pursuits.14 However. Judith Mayne acknowledges the ‘multidirectional flow’ of production in the film. she refers to Vertov’s apparent lack of concern regarding gender issues in his writings juxtaposed with their overflowing presence in his ‘masterpiece’. the motif of ambiguity in relation to women repeats itself. p. concern lay with the class battle. in soviet society there was often a lack of congruency between ideology and reality.16 This suggests that the film is open for interpretation. dancers. regarding the portrayal of women in MMC are quite varied. 13Again.the female presence in all its forms is palpable throughout the film. the sportswoman.175. J. Latteier discusses the absence of any comprehensive analysis of the issue. 18 Schaub. as I have argued. 19 Mayne. In one of the few existing studies of gender issues in MMC. the new soviet woman was by no means man’s new equal. and indeed.170. 18whilst Judith Mayne regards it as a piece filled with sexual objectification. p. not with that of the sexes. and machines in Vertov's man with a movie camera. ‘Presenting the Cyborg’s futurist past: an analysis of Dzigo Vertov’s Kino-Eye’. 17Joseph Schaub views the film as having a distinctly feminist standpoint. old women . As Lenin himself stated.the worker. As Latteier discusses. ’New women’ . p.19 It seems that this confusion regarding the interpretation of gender issues is once again a reflection of the 13 Latteier.com> Accessed 6 January 2011. peasant women. apart from her entry to the workforce and new status as a factor of production.26.15 For the new government. Although officially. The Free Library. Gender and the modern body: men.‘Life-as-it-is’. 15 Attwood. As with many subjects.C. ‘implying a refusal to assign it a set of closed meanings’. 17 Latteier. Pearl. 1993. 16 Mayne. Mayne insists that it is ‘impossible’ with regard to Soviet film of the 1920s ‘to relegate questions of gender and sexual opposition to secondary or purely referential status’. on the contrary. young women. women. questions of gender were of secondary status. 22 September 2002. Postmodern Culture 8 (1988) 40–53. Similarly. the interpretations. this seems perfectly fitting. 4 .thefreelibrary. ‘division into men and women has no great significance’. bourgeois women. In 1920’s Soviet society.
kept away in the private sphere. including her naked ring finger . the Bolsheviks. The scene feels distinctly uncomfortable. When the man with the movie camera films the woman on the bench.confusion regarding the woman question on the broader scale. the woman. We finally see her get up and she begins to wash and dress. in fitting with his ‘life-as-it-is’ ideal. Images of the woman’s body parts are interposed with images of homeless men waking on benches.the waking woman. At the same time. there is another aspect to this image. 5 . this scene. We also see images of women cleaning perhaps a reference to the continued role of the woman as housekeeper. The camera watches her dressing . powerless bourgeois woman. and on the other we have the delicate feminine woman. distinctly at odds with the new woman he moves on to depict.5. he moves into a close up on her bare legs. as well as her seemingly high class lingerie suggest distinctly bourgeois overtones. 20 Latteier. Indeed. there is reference to a popular film at the time .she is unmarried. As well as depicting men waking in public. One of the opening scenes of the film is the image of the window and the entry of the camera into the room behind it. p. implying the woman’s sexual awakening20. the camera also films an image of a woman waking on a bench. The camera focuses on various parts of her body. opposed preoccupation with ‘sexual excesses’ and ‘over stimulation’21 Observing the woman in this way presents her as powerless. the camera seems to objectify the woman. 21 McAndrew and Peers. Vertov’s derision of this woman seems clear. and no longer the bourgeois model.putting on her bra . Indeed. one of the few in which the private sphere is presented. waking up in public places.in a way mocking her privacy. which presumably was his intent. This could be interpreted as the idea of the old. In a film that is a celebration of collective activity. remains sexually objectified. connecting the bourgeois woman with sexuality and a level of eroticism. The relatively lavish setting of her apartment. On one hand we observe the dirty homeless men. The sense of voyeurism is palpable. despite encouraging easier divorce and the introduction of woman to the public sphere. perhaps as a way to mock and deride the bourgeois. Once again. ‘The Awakening of a Woman‘. While this may seem in some ways to highlight equality between the sexes. particularly when we are introduced to the occupier of the room . Vertov’s portrayal of woman is as seemingly complex as the situation of woman in Soviet reality. and Lenin in particular.
23 it is striking that in the film’s credits. on a private or industrial level. in the editing room. Unlike the man with the movie camera. she remains tucked away in the private sphere. it must also be noted that although we observe Svilova. It is also interesting that whenever we see her cutting images as part of the editing process. and we see women interacting with machines repeatedly. yet again. The film is largely concerned with the relationship between human and machine. This could be considered as symbolic of both mechanical and industrial progress as well as progress regarding the movement of woman from the home to the labour force.22 It uses women to address the issue of class. Elizaveta Svilova. Svilova is in fact referred to as ‘assistant editor’. 6 . it is interesting that she remains in a decidedly private space. often regarded most important position of editor being filled by a woman. The bourgeois character is again represented by woman when we see women in a carriage. Mayne argues that one of the films strengths lies in ‘its recognition and articulation of the difficulty presented by woman in an any social discourse’. These bourgeois images are interrupted with scenes of Vertov’s wife. a key part of the film production process. Men and women are still engaged in separate realms of activity. perhaps further emphasizing the complexity of the class issue itself. as a woman and factor of production. This of course is reflective of soviet society as Kollontai alone called for an end to such gendered stereotypes with the idea that all children. should learn to sew and 22 Mayne. Moreover. However. The image of the static sewing machine is juxtaposed with the work in a textile factory. to the advanced working woman. both girls and boys. the film’s editor. They seem happy and carefree and we observe their interaction with a woman who is obviously a servant. she is solely handling images of women and children. However. We move from the aimless frivolity of the bourgeois. despite arguments from Schaub towards Vertov’s feminist sentiments and the prominent. 24 Latteier. part of the public arena. it seems striking to me that the idea of the textile industry has markedly feminine connotations. is still considered ‘woman’s work’.the female body is a recurring motif throughout the film. Sewing. 24 We also observe other examples of the new woman at work. p179 23 Schaub. The juxtaposition between the bourgeois woman of the past and the new Soviet woman is clear.
When we do observe a woman mixing with men at a bar.8. The fairly innocuous image of the man’s crotch perhaps refers to the new woman’s other role as reproducer.25 As I have explained. to laughing female workers. to a woman on a switchboard. such movements were not considered important to the authorities. it appears in a somewhat negative light. Again. to a woman putting pencils in the boxes that the previous woman has made. to a woman typing. to Svilova’s hands in the editing room. 7 . women playing draughts together. to a woman getting a manicure. to a woman playing the piano. In the middle of all of this female activity. This could also be a reference to the NEP period which Vertov so despised with its return to private business and associations with excess. p. We do not observe women and men working side by side. The film moves from a woman getting her hair done. it reinforces the ideal that sexual liberation does not play a part of the liberation of the new Soviet woman.an indicator at the old bourgeois woman. The film runs at a distinctly quickened pace and we see women in a beauty salon. she is concerned with other things. This sequence highlights all of the attributes of the new woman. Is this sequence a summary of the new role of woman? We move from the images of the beauty salon . to a woman and machine. to a woman washing clothes. As Lenin suggested. The new woman is to be accomplished and well rounded. during leisure time. to a woman in a factory making pencil boxes. Women and men are largely segregated throughout the film. for the most part we see a segregation of the sexes.knit.playing the piano. Similarly. to a female cashier. we are also directed briefly to a man’s crotch. This wholesome image of the new Soviet man and woman is even more potent when compared with the sexually charged image of NEP society. like sport (or draughts!).men playing chess together. It highlights the new woman’s role in the cycle of production as well as her part in the extra curricular . Again. A particular sequence towards the end of the film is quite startling in its excess of female images. 1999. men and women are separated . and basic gender stereotypes failed to ever really be addressed. Once again we are drawn to the poster of ‘The awakening of a Woman’ and a return to sexually based connotations. to images of the new woman worker in various forms. Most of the montage is constructed of images of the new woman as 25 Attwood. The images of the bar contrast with scenes in a workers club.
and at the same time. serves to remind us that although the new Soviet woman is in some ways liberated. a newly married couple. The recurring motif of female hands is also quite conspicuous. 27 Attwood. The concept of the new woman and the possibilities for her are highlighted repeatedly throughout the film. while a woman lives on weeping over a grave. As well as highlighting the cycle of socialist production. Then we cut to a woman giving birth. a funeral procession for a dead man. and as I have discussed. mindless. perhaps referring to the idea of the emotional woman. 8 . this was her most important role. p181. It is the female who survives and reproduces. in reality this is not the case. the motif of her body is also emphasized. and a man and woman signing divorce papers. In each image. albeit in a somewhat ’condensed form’26 the idea of the human life cycle. These scenes are filled with emotion and emotional responses. In this section the woman once again plays a key part. contributing member of society. as well as now having the power to fend for herself as an economically self sufficient.14. Although ideologically she is seen for the most part as man’s equal.’27 As I have stated. the weaker sex. she remains observed and objectified by man. Again. 1999. she was to be both man’s equal. preoccupation with the female body remains a noticeable feature of the film and in my opinion. Vertov may also be seen to be alluding to women as ‘the future‘. ultimately the focus on her body reminds us that soviet society still entertained many culturally ingrained attitudes towards women. ‘glorified for her capacity to work like a man and at the same time celebrated for her nurturance and willingness to sacrifice herself for others. We observe an elderly woman crying over a grave. the film also approaches. yet alongside this. a woman giving birth. subordinate character. Vertov highlights the complexities of the woman question simply 26 Mayne. Indeed. I see this as a blatant reference to the idea that although in many ways the new soviet woman was liberated and had progressed from the position as a trapped. We see the funeral of a man. part of the complexity of the new woman and her dual burden was that she was. attention is drawn primarily to the female. p.worker. We also observe a couple signing a birth declaration.
Vertov insisted that filmmaking should not hide from facts or mask problems. 1999.29 He was not passing judgement on women or their new role. it is simply a reflection of reality.28 MMC cannot be described as feminist or anti feminist . are irrelevant. and Mayne’s criticism that it is somewhat the opposite. At one point we observe a woman with a rifle.10. in all her complexity .it is simply a reflection of life. As I have emphasized. a woman on a rowing machine with the camera focusing intently on her breasts. to the viewer. 28 Latteier. but simply showing the reality of it. concerned with her place in the life cycle. 30 Attwood. but this was also a reflection of the opinion of many and thus again a reflection of life as it was. Thus Joseph Schaub’s opinion of the film as a pro feminist piece. Yet juxtaposed with this we also observe topless women on a beach. ‘housebound’ femininity30. shooting at a Nazi figure. engaged in healthy. 29 Petric . independent and strong. It could be argued that Vertov’s subjectivity can be seen with relation to his obvious derision of NEP. the object of male attention as a definite sexual hierarchy remains in place. This was Vertov’s Life-as-it-was. The film is neither. a woman on some form of soviet ‘bucking bronco’ that almost appears to be some kind of sex-simulator. wholesome activities and adverse to sexual promiscuity. 9 . we see how far removed from this the new Soviet woman stands.by showing ‘life as it is’. both the potentially positive and negative aspects. removed from the old bourgeois model of delicate. well rounded . p. She is an active participant and still an erotic object. his success in adapting Kino-Pravda to the woman question.above all an important member of the workforce. At the same time she remains in many ways passive. It portrays the new Soviet woman as she was. p30. Vertov suggests that despite woman’s liberation to the workforce and possible equal status in this sphere. she remains to be sexually objectified. When compared with the bourgeois women preening themselves.
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