The European documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens was a respected member of the first European avant garde film movement, renowned for his dazzling thematic, geographic and technical range. He produced many films of sheer visual poetry, but mainly put his art and craft at the service of progressive social movements.

Recently, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a retrospective of Ivens’ work entitled “Cinema without Borders: The Films of Joris Ivens.”

The 1954 Song of Rivers is a passionate paean to the need for labor solidarity worldwide to counter the forces of greed. One of the strong points it makes is that even when foreign troops leave an occupied nation, the foreign businessmen remain to keep the same game going, transferring its wealth to their own countries and bank accounts. The only solution is for working people and their supporters everywhere to band together.

Shot by different film crews around the globe and featuring a somewhat bombastic score by Dimitri Shostakovich, lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and Paul Robeson on the soundtrack, it celebrates workers’ movements along six major rivers. There’s a very effective portrayal of the harsh reality of most working people’s lives, and the proclamation that you need a thousand poor men to make one rich man. Local organizing culminates in a gathering of representatives at a hopeful conference of the World Federation of Trade Unions in Vienna.

Although this monumental documentary is stylistically dated, it is truthful and dynamic.

Ivens’ powerful 1946 Indonesia Calling is one of the earliest anti-colonialist documentaries. It follows the efforts of a small group of Indonesian activists in Australia after World War II. With the support of many labor unions, they managed to thwart, at least in this one dramatic instance, the Netherlands’ attempt to reclaim its resource-rich former colony by force. Shot clandestinely, this is a riveting and inspiring tale.

The famous A Tale of the Wind, Ivens’ final film, was shot in China in 1988 when he was 90. It is a whimsical and poetic piece of self-reflection filled with exquisite compositions. Here the documentary form is combined with local mythology, philosophy and artful dream imagery, in pursuit of the mysterious wind, which serves as a powerful metaphor for the breath of life itself.

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