Joris Ivens: Documenting History


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Joris Ivens (1898-1989) was a Dutch documentary filmmaker and committed communist. Born Georg Henri Anton Ivens into a wealthy family, Ivens went to work in one of his father's photo supply shops and from there developed an interest in film. He completed his first film at 13; in college he studied economics with the goal of continuing his father's business, but an interest in class issues distracted him from that path. He met photographer Germaine Krull in Berlin in 1923, and entered into a marriage of convenience with her between 1927 and 1943 so that Krull could hold a Dutch passport and could have a "veneer of married respectability without sacrificing her autonomy."

Originally his work focused on technique - some argue that it had that focus at the cost of relevance. In 1929, Ivens went to the Soviet Union and, to his astonishment, was invited to direct a film on a topic of his own choosing which was the new industrial city of Magnitogorsk. Before commencing work, he returned to the Netherlands to make Industrial Symphony for Philips Electric which is considered to be a film of great technical beauty. He returned to the Soviet Union to make the film about Magnitogorsk, Song of Heroes in 1931. It was a propaganda film about this new industrial city which was mainly built by forced labourers, who however were portrayed by Ivens as communist volunteers. Ivens later referred to these forced labourers as "weed".

With Henri Storck, Ivens made Misère au Borinage (Borinage, 1933), a moving and militant documentary on life in a coal mining region. In 1943, he also directed two Allied propaganda films for the National Film Board of Canada.

Ivens next to Hemmingway

From 1936 to 1945, Ivens was based in the United States. For Pare Lorentz's U.S. Film Service, in the year 1940, he made a poetic documentary film on rural electrification calledPower and the Land. It focused on a family, the Parkinsons, who ran a business providing milk for their community. The film showed the problem in the lack of electricity and the way the problem was fixed. Ivens was, however, known for his anti-fascist and other propaganda films, including The Spanish Earth, for the Spanish loyalists, co-written with Ernest Hemingway and music by Marc Blitzstein and Virgil ThomsonJean Renoir did the French narration for the film and Hemingway did the English version only after Orson Welles's sounded too theatrical.. This film was financed by Archibald MacLeishFredric MarchFlorence EldridgeLillian HellmanLuise RainerDudley NicholsFranchot Tone and other Hollywood movie stars, moguls, and writers who composed a group known as the Contemporary HistoriansSpanish Earth was shown at the White House on July 8, 1937 after Ivens, Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, had had dinner with President Franklin D. RooseveltEleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins. The Roosevelts loved the film but said that it needed more propaganda. This 1937 documentary was considered his masterpiece.

The Spanish Earth

In 1938 he traveled to China. The 400 Million (1939) depicted the history of modern China and the resistance to the Japanese invasion, including dramatic shots of the Battle of TaierzhuangRobert Capa did camerawork, Sidney Lumet worked on the film as a reader, Hanns Eisler wrote the musical score, and Fredric March provided the narration. It, too, had been financed by the same people as those of Spanish Earth. Its chief fundraiser was Luise Rainer, recipient of the best actress Oscar two years in a row; and the entire group called themselves this time, History Today, Inc . The Guomindang government censored the film, fearing that it would give too much credit to left-wing forces.  Iven was also suspected of being a friend of Mao Zedong and especially Zhou Enlai.

In 1944, Ivens made Know Your Enemy: Japan for Frank Capra's U.S. War Department film series Why We Fight. The film's commentary was written largely by Carl Foreman. It was never distributed because Emperor Hirohito had been depicted and labeled as a war criminal; and as the film was due for release there had been an American government policy shift to keep the Emperor after the war as a means of maintaining order in post-war Japan. A combination of not being in step with the Truman Administration and owing to the emerging 'red scare' on known or suspected Communists by the US government after Roosevelt's death made Ivens leave the United States. Ivens' politics also put the kibosh on his first feature film project which was to have starred Greta Garbo. In fact, Walter Wanger, the producer, was adamant about "running him {Ivens} out of town {Hollywood}."

In 1946, commissioned to make a Dutch film about Indonesian 'independence', Ivens resigned out of protest of what he considered ongoing imperialism, the Dutch were resisting decolonization, and filmed Indonesia Calling in secret. For around a decade Ivens lived in Eastern Europe, working for several studios there. His position concerning Indonesia and his taking sides for the Eastern Bloc in the Cold War annoyed the Dutch government. Over a period of many years, he was obliged to renew his passport every three or four months. According to later mythology however, he lost his passport for ten years, which is not true - the fact that he would make it back to New York City to sit by the bedside of his old friend Paul Robeson when he was ill would belie that.

Trailer for Indonesia Calling

From 1965 to 1970 he filmed life in North Vietnam during the war: 17e parallèle: La guerre du peuple (17th Parallel: Vietnam in War) and participated in the collective work Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam). He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize for the year 1967.

Tom Paxton in Far From Vietnam

From 1971 to 1977, he shot How Yukong Moved the Mountains, a 763-minute documentary about the Cultural Revolution in China. He was given unprecedented access because of his old personal friendships with Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao.

Ivens was knighted by the Dutch government in 1989, and died on 28 June that year. Shortly before his death he made the last of more than 40 films Une histoire de vent (A Tale of the Wind).

Adapted from Wikipedia:

Learn more about Ivens' work at European Foundation Joris Ivens: