Joris Ivens

Vincent van Gogh, The 'Laakmolen' near The Hague.


Considerations on the work of the filmmaker, a master of documentary

“For the documentary filmmaker, nothing is acquired forever. Reality is always stronger, it imposes its order and it is with it that it is necessary to measure oneself. I can say that there hasn't been a movie during which I haven't learned something, one way or another. Even today, after fifty years of practice, I still haven't managed to define, once and for all, a method of approaching men and filming them. It’s because that method doesn’t exist: each time is different.” (Joris Ivens).

There are few documentary filmmakers who – like Joris Ivens – emanate the essence of the social and the sense of the collective through their work; maintaining coherence, character and honesty, even in the most adverse and difficult moments of their lives and their professions; few people make their cinema not only a testimony of the world, but an instrument for understanding life and the relationship with reality and men, for the oppressed of any country or culture.

Joris Ivens documented several universes: Dutch (Wij Bouwen / We Build, 1930), Russian (Pesn or Gerojach – Komsomol, 1931), Chilean (Le train de la victoire, 1964), Spanish (Spanish Earth / Terra de España, 1937), Chinese (Before Spring or Lettre de Chine / Before Spring or Letter from China, 1957; 600 million avec nous / 600 million with us, 1958), Indonesian (Indonesia Calling, 1946), Polish (Pokoj Zwyciezy Swiat / Peace Will Win War, 1950), Italian (L'Italia non é paese povero / Italy is not a poor country, 1959), Cuban (village in arms, 1961), Laotian (Le peuple et ses fusils / The people and their rifles, 1969). These are films that make the image of the real a reference and point of discussion for current and future generations. They are the result of processes of coexistence with the struggles of different peoples against the imperialists in an attempt to keep their cultural identity, freedom and dignity alive.

His work, fortunately recognized during his lifetime, is a World Heritage Site for having recorded important aspects of world history in the XNUMXth century. It is insufficient to praise the importance of his filmography; redundancy to repeat what the newspapers, magazines and books have shown, and well, of his biography, the flying Dutchman present wherever men were fighting against injustice and poverty, and of his militant cinema – poetic and revolutionary.

Joris Ivens has documented societies in their everyday liberation struggles, from strikes and mobilizations, to bloody battles like the Spanish Civil War (Spanish Earth), the Sino-Japanese War (The Four Hundred Millions, 1939) and the Vietnam War (The sky, the earth, 1965; Le dix-septième parallele, 1967; Meet with President Ho-Chi-Min, 1969). She filmed men in their daily lives – in the construction of their citizenship, such as, for example, in the short, medium and feature films that make up the wonderful cinematographic panel. Comment Yo-Kong deplaça les montagnes / How Yu Kong moved the mountains (1972/1977), about the pros and cons of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Always maintaining its perspective of transforming societies, as shown in this interview by the magazine Screen 72, number 3: “The socialization of the means of production is not enough for the working class to hold power. If the infrastructure is socialist, but the superstructure is not transformed in a revolutionary way, the social division of labor is recreated, according to the principles of capitalism (…). Chinese workers and peasants told us: from these last few years, we had the hoe in our hands, but not the pen. Now, without cultural power, our power would not be maintained, as the class struggle continues even after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.”

Always maintaining his concern with artistic creation: “There is a false idea that needs to be fought, this old idea that documentary film is reportage that has nothing to do with art, that fiction film is the only artistic way of making cinema. . I believed that this conception was outdated and undervalued, but it returns to it, and this, paradoxically, at a time when the forms of cinema are diversifying, and there is great creativity in non-fiction genres. In some cases, documentary and fiction overlap and enrich each other. I believe that the documentary is a good basis for an authentically cinematic evolution of the film. In documentaries, the influence of theater and literature is smaller, it is the filmic image that commands much more than in a dialogued narrative. I thought this difference was well established, but today, the amalgamation and denial of the value of documentary cinema has fierce supporters. I fought for fifty years for documentary film to be recognized as having the same importance and the same need for cinematographic art as fiction film… For me, there is no contradiction or opposition between documentary cinema and fiction cinema. In documentaries where dialogue is used less, freedom and editing resources are much more considerable. In a second, one can pass from the microcosm to the macrocosm. Time and space can be juggled. This film genre is closest to poetry, while the fiction film is similar to prose. (Avant-scène du cinema, number 259/260, January 1981 “Special Ivens”).

There are many articles, theses and studies about his life and work, but the work that goes deeper into the interpretation of his existence is the book Joris Ivens ou la mémorie d'un regard [Joris Ivens or the memory of a look] by Robert Destanque and Joris Ivens, Edições BFB, 1982. Reading this book allows us to enter into a deeper understanding of his trajectory as a man and artist.

The book can also be seen as a novel: “A novel for youth (…) the adventure of young Ivens who lets himself be carried away by the enthusiasm and commitment of a filmmaker who puts himself at the service of a cause; the first, with his friendships, his loves, his illusions and disappointments, and the second, with his films, his convictions, his certainties and his doubts, form an inseparable whole. That is right there, I believe, the true dimension of my life, the one I want to write about today and offer reading to all those who question themselves about the world, about the meaning or non-meaning of human undertakings, and who are concerned about knowing whether it is necessary to shut up or shout, to plant, to engage or to accept.”

Really, we left the book as if we were leaving a magical cinematheque where we see and live all the memorable documentaries like land of spain, with all its production problems and Francoist machine guns: “One morning we stopped on a raised piece of land to observe the battlefield. We could have stayed in the car, but to better observe, we went down. We took our material and went around some ruins that were close by. A deafening explosion made us back up. A grenade had just hit our vehicle. There was nothing left of him. At the time, we thought only of saving what could be saved, and only later did we begin to shudder at the thought that we had just escaped death. That was Spain, this fragility of the future, without exaltation, without heroism, a type of uncertainty renewed incessantly that gave to our relations, to the smallest gesture sketched, to the smallest glance exchanged, the richness of a unique gesture or look. ”

Or how Le dix-septième parallele: “… but during the night, as soon as we started to advance, the attacks followed one after the other. Usually the first planes (F-105) passed over us leaving behind a series of shiny rockets. Through the thick tropical vegetation the light took on shades of green and pink that gave the forest the appearance of a fairytale landscape. It was the calm before the storm. The pilots made their approaches and took photographs and we had a few minutes of waiting before the bombers came with their loads of phosphorus bombs and napalm. We heard them coming from far away from the south, and they came steadily closer like a sound wave that took on amplitude, until it became a huge rumble of thunder right above our heads (…) there were bomb holes everywhere. Without a flashlight, without seeing where we put our feet, we would slip into one of these crevices and stretch out on the ground with the water that surrounded us up to our waists. It was lukewarm, greasy water, and we felt a tingle of little living things moving about. These holes were infested with leeches and snakes, but we didn't think about that, or if we did, it was to forget about the bombs.”

Or how Comment Yu-Kong leaves the mountains: “In my mind, I wanted this film about China to convey direct information from one country to another (…). Chu-En-Iai had told us: 'It's not worth hiding, China is a poor country, a Third World country. Our gigantism does not change this reality at all and we must not imitate the superpowers, this would be a lie, and it would turn against us. It's not about making a rosy movie, you should show China as it is today'. In directing these purposes to us, Chu-En-Iai alluded to local officials with whom we would be in contact and who would not fail to want to embellish reality. To convince us and take us where they wanted to go, local officials dragged us into unbelievable negotiations where politeness, patient repetitions of arguments and translation difficulties ended up exhausting us (…). What Chu-En-Lai had predicted for us was beginning to happen and we didn't have the means to defend ourselves, to counterattack. As soon as we moved to go with the team to one of the filming locations, there were at least five to six official vehicles that preceded and followed us with all our companions (…). With Marceline we hadn't completely abandoned the idea of ​​making a film about the Cultural Revolution, but we were overwhelmed by the immensity of the subject, its obscurities and the profusion of our material. We needed to master all these elements. But what concerned us above all were the contradictions of the Chinese reality and the difficulties of the regime (…). During the assembly, the great difficulty, more than political or ideological, was essentially artistic. How to reduce the one hundred and twenty hours we had to the size of a film without falling into schematism? A film that remained sympathetic without boring people, and that if possible, made them fall in love. The first assembly lasted thirty hours. It was a wonderful film, incredibly rich, but it was impossible to distribute it in this form. It was then that the real assembly began. We needed to shorten it, without destroying the content of our sequences and without falling into simplification. The great difficulty was precisely the problem of interviews and conversations and their correct translations, which we also needed to shorten, for several reasons. Time, of course, but also the limits of our material. Sometimes the picture was dull, or we had beautiful pictures, but the sound was mediocre. It was a true puzzle that we had to reconstruct: listening to the dialogues, viewing the images, choosing, assembling, viewing again, starting over in another form, and this trying never to distort the meaning of what was being expressed. We finally got to the end of the montage. Eighteen months of work and, in the end, twelve hours of film that seemed to sustain itself and made it possible to see China as we had crossed and filmed it.”

The book is also a good conversation with Joris: we hear his voice a bit hoarse, with a Dutch accent mixing with French, a hoarse voice from so many wars and travels. We see their wrinkled hands, whose fingers, knotted with age, vibrate in the air in broad and friendly gestures, like those grandparents we always had and dreamed of, who hug us and look at us with affection and identification. Not as a mirror, but as a fragment of an image to be reflected in the future.

In 1981, during the international festival of ethnographic and sociological films cinema du reel, held at the Georges Pompidou Center – Public Library of Information – in Paris, from April 04th to 12th, the then film curator of the Cinematheque of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Cosme Alves Neto, introduces us to the master documentary filmmaker. He greets us with deep sympathy, as if he has known us for a long time. Soon after, a photo with the French documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch and a debate with Henri Storck, a great Belgian documentary filmmaker, co-director of the famous borinage (1933), and the critic Louis Marcorelles. In this debate, the film cinema by Jean Rouch (1980): an interview with Ivens and Storck in Katwijk Aan Zee, Holland, the filming location of one of Joris's first films, Branding (1929, Ivens' first and only fiction film), and the documentary cinema of pioneers Dziga Vertov and Robert Flaherty would also be discussed. Later that year, the French Cinematheque would pay homage to Flaherty – the father of the documentary film – with the release of a sound version of Moana (1926), undertaken by his daughter, Monica Flaherty. Monica, almost forty years after her father, returned to the Samoa Islands (Oceania, South Pacific) with the original film and tried to rescue chants and rituals already forgotten by the inhabitants of the region.

On leaving the room, Joris Ivens: discreet, simple and lucid, asked about the sound of Moana, replied that the film was created to be silent and in function of a visual rhythm. Visual rhythm… This phrase would hang in the minds of film students who were there for a long time.

Still in 1981, and again at the French Cinematheque, the realization of the “Second debate of 81 of the International College of Cinema”, directed by Jean Rouch. This meeting would count on the presence of Joris, his partner and filmmaker, Marceline Loridan; Hélène Kaufman, widow of photographer Boris Kaufman, younger brother of Vertov; and Luce Vigo, daughter of the unforgettable Jean Vigo. In the dark room, the presentation of At the proposal of Nice (1929) by Vigo and Kaufman; Enthusiasm - Sinfonia Donbassa / Enthusiasm - Donbas Symphony (1930) by Dziga Vertov; From Brug / The Bridge (1928) by Joris Ivens.

From the debate after the screening, the memory of some phrases by Joris: “(…) Vertov's films are already so well known, always a force of nature, a whole visual force. Visual. And when he has the sound, well, he starts boldly, with great audacity (…) it's really great how he captured things, the montage of the work and, at the same time, the worker is always present (…) so you have to extract from the cinema this development that we take from Flaherty – and also from Vertov – and develop it in the current of our time! And in the rhythm of our time! (…) one can very well work with the camera (cinegrapher) and a director. As a unit. It's almost like a marriage: with all its difficulties. The joy and the difficulty (…) you have to be an alert man. Vigilant! Enormously vigilant. (...) The bridge it's also a modest film, about a man who starts in a country where there is no film school, no film magazine, nothing! So we start: we study the movement. What can a movement do with a very slow left movement? Does this give an impression of smaller or larger music? It's really learning in the ABC's of movement. Because we are two thousand years behind the other arts, and it is necessary, at least, to know a little.”

Joris Ivens lived in Paris, in a modest apartment at 61 Rive Gauche, rue des Saints Pères. In 1982, he worked with Robert Destanque on the book Memoires d'un régard and still found time to participate in a meeting of revolutionary films promoted by Iskra, an independent distributor of documentary films, founded by Chris Marker. In the cold and gray city, Ivens makes an exception in his duties and welcomes us for a conversation. Marceline was frying eggs in the kitchen and greeting us. Joris reads an article in the newspaper Liberation, not agreeing with the journalist's opinion. Carefully, he looked at some slides of the Amazon against the window light (his big dream was to make a film on the Amazon River). Afterwards, he showed us a shelf full of books about the city of Florence and talked about his project at the time: a documentary about the famous Italian city (Joris and Marceline Loridan hadn't filmed since Les Ouigours - national minority - Sinkiang / The Ouigours - national minority - Xinjiang held from 1973 to 1977 in China).

According to Ivens, the city hall of Florence would provide him with all the conditions for the production of work: “I've already read almost all these books, and I don't even know if I'll use anything for the film”, he said, giving us a lesson on the role of research – and humility – in the creation of a documentary film. With resignation and a certain amount of humor, he even commented on his physical situation at the age of 84: “… today I walk a hundred meters and my legs soon get tired”. Again, with his human warmth and friendliness – escorted by Marceline's kind smile – he signs his book for us: “… remain faithful to poetry in our art! And my best wishes for your work in your immense country. All my friendship…”.

With my return to Brazil, the following year, in 1982, contact with Joris would be maintained through letters, which, from 1985 on, would be rare due to the filmmaker’s departure for China where he would fulfill his great cinematographic dream about the civilization of that country, Une histoire du vent / A story of the wind (1984/1988). The Florence film was never made due to a problem with the producers. In 1986, Joris Ivens would be indirectly present in Brazil, through a tribute held by the XV Jornada de Cinema da Bahia, from September 08th to 15th, represented by the Dutch couple, Jan and Tineke de Vaal, then directors of Amsterdam Filmuseum, where the collection of Ivens is located. A major retrospective of his work was held, where, for example: regen / rain (1929); Komsomol (1931); Nieuwen Gronden / New Earth (1934); Indonesia Calling (1946); The Four Hundred Millions (1938); Before Spring (1958); and to valparaizo (1963). Many filmmakers and people linked to cultural cinema would then sign a card for Ivens, among the photos taken by the smiling Tineke.

Tineke and Jan would tell us about the serious health problem suffered by Joris in China. The French Minister of Culture, Jacques Lang, even sent an ambulance plane to pick him up. Ivens would arrive in Paris poorly, having even had a tracheotomy. According to Tineke, three months later, remade, Ivens said smiling that he was fine and that he would return to China to finish his film Une histoire du vent / A story of the wind project already sketched in Memoires d'un Régard: “It is a cinematic poem and I see it that way. As a background, the clouds. Above, infinite space, the purity of light and a strange vertigo that always takes me high. Below is the man. And in the silky thickness of the clouds shapes are drawn onto which my imagination projects images of legend, of battles, of characters from mythology. It is China's memory, its history. So, like my camera, I descend from the roof of the world and soar above the clouds. Suddenly, through a hole, I perceive the Earth; the cultivation lines follow the movement of the relief and I dive. In a second I am at the level of the man in the rice field, at the level of his gaze and his hand. Two children play under a tree, an insect crosses a ray of sunlight, I am in microcosm. I remain there for a moment and then I return, I return to the sky, and my vision extends again from the school of the cosmos. I am released from the laws of weight and space. When I dive again, I enter the ocean. I touch the depths of the China Sea. It's the silence, strange fish passing by..."

1988: Ivens in a magazine photo Cahiers du Cinema: seated, cane in hand, almond-shaped eyes even more closed, like an old oriental sage, during the filming of a production by a young French filmmaker. The impossibility of retaining time, of transposing the space between Paris and Brasilia. November 18, 1988: Ivens turns 91. The attempts to call you, the numbers that change, the time that flies, a photo and a postcard that were not sent.

Newspapers report that A story of wind had been presented at the Venice Film Festival. Admiration, stamped in our silences, for the man who overcame the disease, fulfilled his great poetic-revolutionary dream, always walked forward, on the edge of life. Always taking the cosmos as a reference.

May 1989: a special edition of the French newspaper Le Monde, “Cinéma et Libertés”, coordinated by Danièlle Heymann – on the international day of human and filmmaker's rights, which took place at the Cannes Film Festival. Among various testimonies and an image of Joris, white hair and a jacket loose in the wind, a long scarf, a peace flag around his neck, a cane in his left hand as if it were a hammer (a strange vertigo that always takes him to the top… ).

From his words, a quick statement transcribed below, hope: “Cinema… This great discovery of the Twentieth Century, good and bad fairies alike leaned over its cradle. Dictatorships of all kinds. Political powers, money powers... He lacked nothing. No one is mistaken about the strength of the image. To tell the history of cinema is to describe the wonderful world it invented, it is also to write the darkest pages of this century. Artists, creators, have not stopped fighting and conquering their canvas, their space. So many films that we owe to their talents, their courage, their resistance, their obstinacy. Is there any filmmaker who has never had to fight against the blows of scissors… On film… In his head? I don't believe it. And, so far, despite the path taken, isn't there a danger of the work becoming a notion of a “saleable product”? How many filmmakers from around the world feel the need to meet in France on the occasion of the bicentennial of the French Revolution? Is this not the most symbolic sign to reaffirm together, at a time when intolerances are growing, the will to defend cinema and freedom, cinema and its freedom?”.

Ivens would die at the end of the following month. More lucid and younger than ever, poet of wind and rivers. When Joris was filming in Vietnam and the soldiers and Party members didn't want him to go to the front because he might die, Ho-Chi-Minh would say, “Let him go. Ivens is a man who always comes back.”

* Marcos de Souza Mendes He is a professor at the Faculty of Communication at UnB. He directed, among other films, the medium-length Heinz Fortmann.

Originally published in the magazine cinemas no. 27, Jan-Feb 2001.


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