Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Spanish Civil War film reviewed

March 12, 2010

Nick Ravich at Art21:

Since I just saw it last Tuesday night, I definitely have to note it now: the New York-based documentary presenting organization Stranger Than Fiction (mentioned in last month’s post) screened Best of the Orphan Film Symposium, a collection of “lost” archival films — some so lost that they were essentially premiered. Here’s a better description from one of the co-presenters, the Orphan Film Symposium:

“What is an orphan film? Narrowly defined, it’s a motion picture abandoned by its owner or caretaker. More generally, the term refers to all manner of films outside of the commercial mainstream: public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies, independent documentaries, ethnographic films, newsreels, censored material, underground works, experimental pieces, silent-era productions, stock footage, found footage, medical films, kinescopes, small- and unusual-gauge films, amateur productions, surveillance footage, test reels, government films, advertisements, sponsored films, student works, and sundry other ephemeral pieces of celluloid (or paper or glass or tape or . . . ).”

The biggest treat of the evening was the world premiere of the recently rediscovered 20-minute, silent 35mm film, With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (1937-38). Shot by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the film is essentially a fund-raising ad for the famous troop of American volunteers fighting for the Spanish republican-loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Besides the beautiful portrait photography and the gorgeously weathered quality of the film itself, what was particularly fascinating was the live audio commentary that film researcher Juan Salas provided. Juan is the film scholar who recently discovered the 18-minute silent work in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at NYU’s Tamiment Library. He drew connections between the film and Bresson’s later well-known “humanist” photography, making the case that this film serves as an important bridge from his earlier, surrealist-influenced work; pointed out key historical players; and most interestingly, he marked the film’s varied and numerous historical inconsistencies (much of the action was unapologetically scripted and staged for Bresson’s camera).


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