Documenting Joris Ivens’ Long, Illustrious Career


A 13-film retrospective of Dutch documentary director Joris Ivens, in celebration of his 90th birthday, will be a part of the 66-film Anthropos 88 Festival sponsored by American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel. Ivens , accompanied by his wife, film maker Marceline Loridan, will be on his first visit to Los Angeles in decades. They will attend each screening of Ivens’ films, including the festival’s opening night premiere of his latest, “A Tale of the Wind,” at the Director’s Guild Theater in Hollywood, 8 p.m., Thursday. Other Anthropos screenings will be at Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica. Ivens recently gave the following interview at his home in Paris.

He was born the same year as Ernest Hemingway, with whom he later worked: In 1898, the year that British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone and French poet Stephane Mallarme died, Queen Victoria still had three years left to rule.

It is Joris Ivens’ 90th birthday and he sits in his snug Left Bank flat, a vibrant, affectionate and totally lucid figure with a mane of white. He is known as a maker of documentary films but his definition of documentary is wide: “Directors like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmush understand the role of the real in film,” he says. “In some ways, their films could be considered documentaries.”


A documentary, Ivens says, “must be cinematic, a dramatization of daily life. It must make people think and in an extreme militant sense, it can agitate. In form, it can go from newsreel to fiction.

“Authenticity, after all, isn’t necessarily truth. Fiction can be truer.”

His first film, made in 1911 when he was 13, was a fictional work called “Wigwam” inspired by the cowboy and Indian films he saw in the tents where films were shown before movie houses existed. His family played Indians--”good Indians, bad Indians,” he says, “and the film was rather avant-garde.”

His latest film, which won him the career achievement award at the last Venice Film Festival, is also fiction: “A Tale of the Wind,” filmed in such exacting locations as the Gobi desert, starring Ivens as an old man who wants to film the wind (anyone who has filmed so much water would, of course, care about wind), and directed by him and by his long-time companion and collaborator, Marceline Loridan. “Marceline and I are like the Taviani brothers,” Ivens says, smiling. “We don’t know who did what part.”

The story of a man trying to film the impossible provides an apposite coda to Ivens’ career. “The poetry that lies beyond reality is something I have encountered making films,” he says, “but this time I wanted to film it in itself. As an artist I felt the need to go further, into the no man’s land between the imaginary and the real.

“For many years I wanted to participate in the struggles that were being waged and that were a part of my own period. We perhaps didn’t, at the time, have a chance to think much about the reasons for these struggles and the nature of our aims. It isn’t that I am turning my back now on the struggles but that I have become perhaps more aware of the realty of people and things.”

Joris Ivens might have been born for the infant art of film. His father owned camera shops in Holland and his grandfather made portraits with the invention that Daguerre had generously given to anyone who wanted to work with it. Joris studied economics, chemistry as it related to photography, and learned about camera construction in a Dresden factory.

In Amsterdam he founded, in 1927, the Filmliga for film buffs and in 1929 he met the Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin, who invited him to Moscow, where he spent two years.

As a film maker in Holland, Ivens had become more and more outraged by social and political inequality, a rage that reached its peak when he tangled with Belgian mine owners and authorities when making “Boringage,” about a particularly repressive coal strike.

In Moscow, his worries about inequality became concretized in a political commitment which later diffused into strong and a non-doctrinaire sense of right and wrong.

In 1936, he went to New York and Hollywood, staying until 1944 when he accepted the Dutch government’s offer to be film commissioner of the then-colony of Indonesia. He resigned on his way there, in Australia, when he learned that Holland refused to accept its colony’s bid for independence. “High Dutch Government High Official Resigns for Political Reasons,” a New York Times headline read, and Ivens went on to make a powerful anti-colonial documentary, “Indonesia Calling,” in Australia.

When Ivens arrived in the U.S., screening of his documentaries were held--the New York Times compared them to the early canvasses of Van Gogh--and Ivens met King Vidor, John Ford, Paul Strand, Pare Lorentz and drank Irish whiskey with Robert Flaherty.

He joined the group called the Contemporary Historians, founded by Archibald MacLeish, Lillian Hellman, John Dos Passos and others, to make films on important contemporary events. Clearly the coming subject was the Spanish Civil War and Ivens made one of his most memorable documentaries, “The Spanish Earth” (1937).

Dos Passos was to write the scenario but it did not work out so Ivens was told to meet Ernest Hemingway at the Deux Magots in Paris to see if they could work together. They could, though from the first, there was a clear difference of approach.

“I want to speak the truth,” Hemingway said.

“Of course,” said Ivens, “but do you know what the truth is?”

Orson Welles was to speak the commentary but Lillian Hellman, worrying that his voice was too theatrical, suggested Hemingway read it instead. The film was a huge success and permitted the purchase of 17 ambulances for the Spanish Republican cause.

To contribute to the war cause, in 1944 Ivens tried to coax Greta Garbo out of her young retirement to star in a fiction film, written by her friend Salka Viertel, on a Norwegian member of the Resistance. Had the film come off (Garbo, he says was dissuaded by a representative of neutral Sweden who warned her of possible repercussions if Germany won), Ivens says he might well have ended as a contract director at Warners or Paramount.

In 1938, he had made a long documentary on the Sino-Japanese war called “The Four Hundred Million” (the title was chosen by Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett). Realizing that the young Zhou Enlai would like very much to film history as it was being made, Ivens left behind his 33mm hand camera and 1000 feet of film. The camera is now in a showcase in China’s Museum of the Revolution.

In 1976, Ivens returned to China, accompanied by Marceline Loridan, to film “How Yukong Moved the Mountains,” an extraordinary 13-hour study of daily life in China after the Cultural Revolution (one section, “The Pharmacy,” will be shown at AFI’s Anthropos). He had also made a film there in 1958 and had given film-making courses. It was natural that for his last film, “A Tale of the Wind,” he should again return to the country that has been crucial to his career.

Iven has seen to it that his influence on film making will be felt in its most concrete and laborious form. Conscientiously, wherever he has filmed--be it China or Cuba or Vietnam or the U.S.--he has taken the trouble to work with and train local technicians.

“It is a bit hard on the director,” Ivens admits. “But it means you have trained people; you have left behind a plant that will grow.”