Salt for Svanetia (1930)
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in 1929, folks... The imagery, the editing... both superb. This is one of the most visually inventive films I have ever seen, and any film buff or artist will, I think, agree with me wholeheartedly.
Prepare for some Soviet propagandist themes in this "documentary." I wasn't
sure that there weren't in fact a few professional actors in the cast -- there were some moments when the content came across as more drama than
documentary; several scenes felt staged. No matter, I was fascinated by the
people whose lives in the remote Svanetia village form the center of the story. And, it bears repeating, the cinematography is gorgeous, surprising at every
turn and just plain mesmerizing at times.
Definitely worth a look if you can find it.
"Jim Shvante" ( Salt For Svanetia ) (1930) was directed by Herr Mikhail Kalatozov and certainly is a brilliant, astonishing Soviet film masterpiece that must be watched by any worthy silent film fan.
The film is a semi-documentary about the Ushkul tribe, and their harsh conditions of life in their isolated region. Naturally the communists come to the rescue and provide a brilliant economic plan that brings the region into the twentieth century but of course their way of living and religion must go in the name of progress. It seems that Georgian film directors like Herr Kalatozov (who began his career as a cameraman), had a special fondness for documentaries, giving this film format an excellent opportunity to depict the special idiosyncrasies of the Georgian country.
"Jim Shvante" makes brilliant use of the camera and has man inventive technical tricks. Of course this is all in the service of propaganda but is aesthetically exciting Every shot in the picture is full of epic atmosphere and of course we have the contrast of Soviet progress and modernity (lots of close-ups of machinery and collective human efforts) with the underdevelopment of the Svans who are being held back by their religion and customs. The film is an inventive mixture of symbolism, ethnography and propaganda.
And now, if you'll allow me, I must temporarily take my leave because this German Count must continue his aristocratic isolation from the modern world.
Herr Graf Ferdinand Von Galitzien http://ferdinandvongalitzien.blogspot.com/
The film starts with some natural scenes, presenting the geographical setting and remoteness of Svanetia. We learn early on that the people of Svanetia live in hardship, struggling every day to survive. From a political and administrative point of view, the village has barely managed to get over the feudal period, with barons asking their due and attacking the community. Towers are an important way of protection, the pride of Svanetians. Resources are scarce and people work hard; the daily occupations of the villagers are beautifully captured by the director through shots of laboring with animals, taking care of cattle, weaving, building a bridge. Every community, however small, has its own individuality. In this case, Svanetians have their own hair-cuts according to their fashions and make things with the materials that are readily available to them. To depict these scenes, Kalatozov handles the camera excellently and knows when and what to capture: we have close-ups which present the often desperate and exhausted faces of the villagers; blurs and sharp focuses; and a wonderfully executed scene of the carriage encircling a field of barley, and the camera making circles, and circles, and circles.
Beyond the ideas that the film conveys and the evocative imagery, there exists a symbolic element. One of the important themes of the documentary is the lack of salt. Fast-paced scenes emphasize the alarming and potentially harmful nature of this fact. Animals look for salt and lick sweat, blood, and urine to satisfy this essential need. Men of the village go on an expedition to find this important resource, but die because of an avalanche. The desperation caused by the scarcity of the salt reaches its climax in the scene when a funeral and a birth happen on the same day. Instead of welcoming the new-born child into the world, the Svanetians are given to respecting their old traditions and superstitions, leaving the pregnant mother helpless to give birth in the fields. Her child dies, symbol that Svanetia is unable to look to the new things of the future, stuck in its hundred-year old traditions. Svanetia is now faced with an inevitable decision: move to the new, the modern, or stay in its old customs and traditions, oblivious at what happens outside. Religion is depicted in a very negative way, as preventing the villagers from progress. The salvation from all its worries is a new ideology that comes into action from the revolt of men and women tired of the old ways. The repeated explosions made to build the new road remind on of the explosion of force which was imminent with the October Revolution. Working for yourself and for the village seems the right thing to do and the documentary ends with a feeling that hope exists through modernization and embrace of communism.