He Said, She Said, They Did
The comment on the previous page about Vertov wanting Svilova to be more recognized is based on these words of his:
“As Penfold suggests, for all of Vertov’s films, Svilova performed a “unifying function”; she was “responsible for the overall aesthetic, pace and form of the films” while receiving almost no credit for it from the outside world. As Vertov wrote bitterly in his diary in 1934: ‘Comrade Svilova is the daughter of a working man who died at the front in the Civil War. She has twenty-five years of work in cinema and several hundred films under various directors to her credit. She can claim among her achievements the creation, through many years of effort, of a film heritage of Lenin. On the fifteenth anniversary of Soviet cinema, when all her students and friends were rewarded, Comrade Svilova was used as an example, punished with conspicuous disregard, and received not even a certificate. Only a serious offense could justify her lack of recognition. Yet Comrade Svilova’s only crime is her modesty!’”
— “Film Editing as Women’s Work: Ėsfir’ Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage” by Lilya Kaganovsky. The full text can be found in the Appendix.
When I decided to put up Svilova’s editing credit from Man with a Movie Camera, I asked my friend Keith Sanborn (who’s a filmmaker, a film scholar, and who also speaks Russian) how the screen credit would translate, since it obviously said more than “Montage”.
He wrote this back:
“It’s a weird title. I have puzzled over it for years. Not the typical one; the typical one is simple: Montage. Instead this says: Assistant on Montage, i.e., Assistant on Editing. To me it reads like Vertov wants to reserve the concepts of montage for himself and that Svilova simply assisted him in realizing HIS concepts. Montage is a very loaded term here, more than just editing.
Vertov’s own credit is equally strange. It’s something like “supervisor of the experiment”. The normal credit is “direction”. Shub uses the phrase “a work of Ėsfir Shub” — at least in Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. They are both trying to avoid the credits for fiction films.
Vertov’s own credit is comparatively modest. Something akin to “lead experimenter” in a scientific context, though I’m not sure of the exact phrase one would use in a scientific context.”
A few weeks later I was also talking to Karen Pearlman about it because she’s written scholarly work on Svilova and made a short film about her. (You can find her articles in the appendix.)
She had a different but related explanation:
“Re: Svilova and the ‘assistant on editing’ credit, it is important to remember that the job functions and actions that we associate with credits today have not been the same throughout film history. ‘Director,’ in fact, is a good example. There is evidence to suggest (see for example Annette Förster’s book, Women in Silent Cinema: Histories of Fame and Fate) that a director was not necessarily the person in charge of the ‘vision’ but might have sometimes been more like what we now think of as an assistant director, or first AD, who runs the set. So, in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, when editing was considered by many the most significant part of filmmaking, to say someone was an assistant editor was much more likely to attribute to them some creative agency in the decision making about putting together/making the film than otherwise. Certainly it would not have been to say that she was a technical assistant. Vertov writes a lot about Svilova’s centrality to their creative projects in Kino-Eye. Svilova herself writes about their films being put together to a considerable extent on the basis of intuition and the trying-out of “1,000s of variants” together, testing the “meaning, visual quality and rhythm” of the sequences “by ear,” with both of them “bent excitedly over the montage table” all through the night and into the morning (Svilova 1976).”
I showed this to Keith, who wrote back with a further comment, and then the two of them exchanged numerous other emails which made many keen observations and also raised a lot of interesting questions about how credits were recorded in Russia at that time, how Vertov might have seen Svilova’s position (his diary entry was written five years after they made the film in which this editing credit appears), how she might have seen his, etc.
It was fascinating but quite long for this page, so I’ll just try to summarize it here.
Put most simply, it seems to come down to a fifty-fifty situation.
On the one hand, Svilova was massively involved in every aspect of the film’s production but she was certainly the one who sat at the editing bench and did the cutting, so one should give her the credit as editor.
On the other hand, many directors take almost no part in the editing work (they don’t look at every bit of film, don’t sit and plan out an editing strategy, but instead come in when there are assemblies or rough cuts to view), but Vertov was someone who did—regardless of whether one wants to call him a director or a “supervisor of the experiment.”
In that case, would we say he was a co-editor?
And if we did, then wouldn’t we say that Svilova was a co-director or a “co-supervisor of the experiment”?
I would suggest that “Assistant on Editing” should turn into “Co-editor” in one’s mind if one feels compelled to include Vertov as the other Co-editor.
Or just call her the Editor.
But let’s scratch that “Assistant” nonsense once and for all.