Salt for Svanetia (1930)

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

This box set ends, therefore, by taking us more or less to the beginning of the curious career of Mikhail Kalatozov, who we’ve seen a few times on this blog… I actually had no idea this kind of began life as a fiction film, and it’s an odd doco indeed that does so (though many unkind folks would probably say many Soviet documentaries were fictional), but so it evidently was; after his fiction feature The Blind Woman was banned, apparently he cannibalised parts of it and added some ethnographic footage he’d shot in Svanetia while making it (alas, the loss of the first film means we’ll likely never know exactly how the two related). The end result was… whatever the hell you call this; it’s even more transparently staged and re-enacted than most films of this sort so “documentary” is kind of stretching things… But whatever it is, it’s kind of amazing. I first saw it back in 2000 in David Stratton’s Continuing Education film history course; in hindsight a decidedly strange choice, but hurray for non-obvious selections. I’d seen Letter Never Sent by then, of course, so it was particularly fascinating to see that, long before he teamed up with Urusevsky, Kalatozov already had some solid ability as a cameraman himself and an eye for some startlingly angled compositions (though, certainly, it would’ve taken a special dickhead not to work wonders with that setting). However, although at least Salt got released, the authorities still weren’t pleased, apparently drawing the confused mixed reaction that it was overly harsh in depicting life in this isolated Georgian backwater (and that the local customs the film presented were actually faked) and that at the same time it wasn’t interested enough in the Soviet solution to making Svanetia emerge into the modern world. I don’t know about the ethnographic aspect—maybe it really is the Soviet answer to Nanook of the North?—but the latter point is easier to agree with… much as I felt Kalatozov’s heart in Nail in the Boot was more in the battle scenes than the Soviet trial at the end, so too Salt does rather give the impression that, whether honestly depicted or not, his interest was really in the Svan people and not their brave Communist liberators; somewhere under the officially sanctioned tut-tutting at this barbarism, there’s almost a sneaking admiration for the Svans’ survival in the face of undeniably staggering hardships.

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