The documentary form, like every other kind of onscreen storytelling, is a very recent development in human history. Yet we tend to take for granted the way in which it constructs our sense of reality---from not only much-maligned reality TV, but also endless loops of cable news and Netflix channels. But the man widely credited with the invention of documentary film, Dziga Vertov, made decidedly anti-story movies, particularly his Man With a Movie Camera (watch it online here)---a film that jars contemporary sensibilities. With no narrative to speak of, the movie contains roughly 1,775 separate shots from three cities, shot over four years time, and edited together by his wife. Its viewing is indeed a dizzying experience, and its director Vertov---born David Kaufman---truly illustrates the aesthetic of his pseudonym, which means “spinning top.”
Vertov’s radical experimentation did not begin and end with Man With a Movie Camera or his other avant-garde documentaries and animations. (Find eight of Vertov's films here.) Once a psychology student in Petrograd, the future filmmaker started his artistic career as a writer of futurist poetry and science fiction. Entranced by emerging recording technology and committed to disrupting traditional forms, in 1916 Vertov began, writes Monoskop, “experimenting with the perception and arrangement of sound.”
He created “sound poems,” and produced “verbal montage structures.” Of his audio art, Vertov remarked, “I had an idea about the need to enlarge our ability for organized hearing. Not limiting this ability to the boundaries of usual music. I decided to include the entire audible world into the concept of ‘Hearing.’”
After the Russian Revolution, Vertov embraced Bolshevist agit-prop; his “Kino-Pravda,” or “truth films,” celebrated industrialization and the Russian worker. His first sound film, Enthusiasm! The Donbass Symphony (1930)---a “paean to coal and steel workers”---integrates his experiments with sound recording in an entirely novel way. Ubuweb describes the film and its accompanying soundtrack as “Vertov’s most revolutionary achievement: a symphony of abstract industrial noise for which a specially designed giant mobile recoding system was constructed (it weighed over a ton) in order to capture the din of mines, furnaces and factories. For Vertov, the introduction of sound film didn’t mean talkies, but the opportunity to collage, montage and splice together constructions of pure environmental noise.”
You can hear three excerpts of this industrial sound collage above and the remaining seven at Ubuweb. Listen to them first as examples of “sound poems,” then watch Enthusiasm: The Donbass Symphony at the top for a better understanding of why Vertov remains such an influential, indeed essential, film---and audio---artist widely credited with freeing new media from the aesthetic confines of the stage and the page. Just below, listen to one of Vertov's early experiments with documentary sound art, from 1916. Just as he sought to create an international worker's visual language through film, "Through radio, he attempted to establish auditory communication across the whole of the world's proletariat by way of recording the sounds of workplaces and of life itself."