Documentary and History on Film

Brian Winston looks back at some of the ways in which history has been presented on the screen, and sees the documentary based on archival footage as intrinsic to its success.

Being a woman, a revolutionary Communist and a mere film editor are considerable obstacles to establishing a rightful place in the twentieth-century cinema’s pantheon of great film-makers, as a comparison of the career and subsequent reputation of Soviet newsreel editor Esfir Schub (1894-1959) proves. Yet Schub, who was all these things, richly deserves acknowledgement for overcoming such obstructions because it was she who created one of the most enduring and popular of all documentary film types – the historical archival compilation.

The idea that cinema might provide a vivid new sort of historical record was realized very early. Boleslaw Matuszewski, a Pole working in St Petersburg in the late 1890s as a cinematographer, wrote a pamphlet calling for the establishment of a ‘cinematic museum or depository’. In 1927 Schub confirmed the potential of his idea. She was a Ukrainian from a fairly privileged background who threw her lot in with the Bolsheviks and became a film editor. She proved well able to hold her own in the brilliant and fractious group who created the propaganda masterworks of the Soviet cinema – Battleship Potemkin and the rest – in the late 1920s. That she turned out to be a film editor of genius was no disadvantage.

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