A Revolutionary Boxed: Joris Ivens Collection on DVD

110 years after Dutch film maker Joris Ivens (1898-1989) was born in Nijmegen, the European Foundation Joris Ivens presents a DVD-box. This DVD-collection is being released in three languages: Dutch, English and French. In Paris the Cinémathèque Française will organise a large-scale Ivens-retrospective in the Spring of 2009, when the DVD-box will be released in France by ARTE. In the US MoMA will organise a programme of Ivens films on the occasion of the collection’s release by Facets. For the first time twenty films from Ivens' oeuvre will be available for the public, from classics such as The Spanish Earth (1937; the box features two versions: one with the commentary tracks spoken by Ernest Hemingway and one by Orson Welles) and his cinematic testament A Tale of the Wind (1988), to The Tipi (Wigwam, 1912), a school-boy Western made with family and friends. All films have been extensively researched by the Ivens Foundation in numerous collections all over the world, and great care has been taken to digitally restore every film to its (most) authentic state. Apart from the films, a lot of unique bonus material has been included in the box-set, among them a previously unreleased film interview with Joris Ivens from 1983.

Ivens’ documentaries are not just the work of an inspired film maker who in the course of his career was awarded with both the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but they also have a huge historical relevance, both in a political and in a technical sense. Technically, because as much as Ivens was aiming for the same result as today's observational documentarist, due to economic and technical restraints his films were often scripted, with events reconstructed or acted out, in order to tell a story or to deliver a political message in a better way. Politically, because as Erik Martens remarks in the yearbook The Low Countries, Ivens was born in the same year as Bertolt Brecht and Hans Eisler. These three men display a number of striking parallels in their development. All three began their careers in the front line of the avant-garde movement. Their concerns were initially formal-artistic. Not long after, they embraced the communist doctrine and with great conviction produced work in accordance with the party ideology.

Ernest Hemingway (far right) with John Dos Passos (far left), Joris Ivens (back to camera), and Sidney Franklin in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. © Bettmann/Corbis

That is why Ivens, although generally respected as one of the foremost documentarists of the twentieth century, has also been heavily criticised for his support for communist dictators like Joseph Stalin. According to author Stephen Koch in his book The Breaking Point, Ivens was an active member of Comintern. Among his tasks was to discredit American writer John Dos Passos, in the eyes of the international left, by having him labelled a ‘Trotskyist’. In other words: he first recruited Dos Passos, then ditched him in favour of the more famous and more talented Hemingway to help him produce and publicise The Spanish Earth. Ivens wanted to get his message out there and thus the orthodox communist seemed to embrace what conservative politician and statesman Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) once put so eloquently: ‘I would rather be an opportunist and float than go to the bottom with my principles around my neck’

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