This landmark of silent Russian cinema is a truly masterful documentary about the construction of a rail line in the late 1920s, between Turkestan in central Asia and Siberia, one thousand miles to the north.
Russia needs cotton. Isolated Turkestan is ideal for growing it, but is forced to use its land for wheat to feed the local peasantry. North in Siberia, wheat is plentiful, along with wood and wool. But between the two lie desert and mountains. Surveyors measure the land, planners draw up maps, and
work commences on the Turksib railroad line, connecting the distant lands. Toiling through countless hardships, the workers complete the project, and Turkestan gains the food and industry it needs.
"War on the primitive," a title card reads--an appropriate credo for the sentiments of the Russian industrialists, as well as the filmmakers themselves. Utilizing strikingly modern techniques, the documentary is cleverly structured to depict first the hardships of the Turkestan populace--toiling
by hands in the fields, gathering scraps of wood for sale by the pound, waiting anxiously for the thaw to bring them much-needed water from the mountains. Static shots of cracked earth, dry and empty bowls, collapsed animals eloquently illustrate their dire situation. Then in an oft-copied
sequence, trickles of melted snow become rivulets, streams, then rivers rushing toward the fields. Once the crops are harvested, it's time for the grueling trip across the desert to market--leading to a marvelously affecting sequence of a trader caravan caught in a "simoon" or desert storm,
battling the furious winds, camels bucking in fear and hunkering down to be buried in sand while the trading goods are torn loose and scattered across the desert.
A fascinating travelogue, the film is equally strong as propaganda, with its second half devoted to the mobilization of men and materials for Soviet modernization. Workers break the soil with jackhammers and spades, with explosives, with steamshovels. They fight the elements, the desert wind, and
bitter Siberian cold. In a rousing standout sequence, wandering nomads come to inspect the first engine to ride the rails; when the whistle blows and it begins to move, they scatter in fear. But soon they are excitedly riding alongside, trying to keep up on their horses and camels, only to fall
behind the steel wheels of progress. At the end, the successful project is shown not only to have brought food to Turkestan, but education and increased production, benefiting the entire country.
The film was an unexpected departure for director Victor Turin. Born to money, he was schooled in America and made a number of unexceptional studio picture's in Russia before changing gears for TURKSIB. Given an administrative post after the film was released, it was nine years before he directed
again--returning to straightforward dramatic movies. But his reputation rests firmly with this one picture, a model of documentary efficency, meticulously planned and structured like a work of fiction, groundbreaking in technique. Rapid-fire montage and aggressively designed graphics add to the
impact, as does the sequence of animated maps and marching design tools like a living futurist collage, and the long, meandering sentences of the title cards, often compared to the poetry of modernist icon Walt Whitman (and indeed to Dziga Vertov's ONE SIXTH OF THE WORLD, 1926).
TURKSIB (the studio wanted it called THE STEEL ROAD but Turin balked) was among the many Russian films initially refused entry to Japan for supposed revolutionary content; it was finally screened there in the early 1930s in an apparent attempt at cultural appeasement with the Soviets after the
Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Elsewhere the film inspired Richard Leacock to pick up a camera (and go on to fame as cameraman for the likes of Robert Flaherty and Robert Drew at Time, Inc.), as well as greatly influencing the development of the British documentary movement of the 1930s under the
leadership of John Grierson (who edited the English-language version of TURKSIB for British release).
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- Review: This landmark of silent Russian cinema is a truly masterful documentary about the construction of a rail line in the late 1920s, between Turkestan in central Asia and Siberia, one thousand miles to the north. Russia needs cotton. Isolated Turkestan is ide… (more)