History Piece

 
The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)


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Both an entrepreneur and a bohemian, Ivens had always been fascinated with American culture. Indeed, he had written a script for his first movie, The Tepee (De Wigwam), after seeing a D. W. Griffith film on the American Indian. America still held this attraction for Ivens when he arrived in the United States in 1936. Having just left the Soviet Union where the communist authorities had attempted to censor his film projects, he found America to be an exciting place. Ivens, quickly losing what prejudices he may have had about America, found himself quickly accepted by the small cadre of documentary filmmakers in New York City. At first, he attempted to sustain himself by giving lectures and through the sales and showings of his films.

And initially, it appeared that he faced good prospects in America. The Museum of Modern Arts purchased two of his films. His films were also favorably and his films reviewed. “Joris Ivens is a name that is practically unknown over here,” Otis Ferguson wrote in a lengthy review in The New Republic (April 15, 1936). “He arrived here recently,” Ferguson added, “bringing some of his work with him. It turns out to be very good work.” Rain, Ferguson noted, “is about nothing but a shower coming up and passing over and the sun showing again, and really lovely.” But his favorite, this reviewer wrote, was New Earth, Ivens’s documentary on the story of the damming of the Zuiderzee. At the film’s final resolution, Ferguson noted, the audience had broken into spontaneous applause. “Like the rest of Ivens’ films (being shown around by the New Film Alliance),” the reviewer concluded, “it is more exciting than rapid fiction, and twice as beautiful.”

And even the Tennessee Valley Authority, on the recommendation of Sidney Bernstein, was interested in Ivens. On April 20, 1936, Herbert S. Marks of the TVA wrote Ivens that they were “anxious to see your work, and because of the interest you express in the possibility of making a TVA picture, they would like to talk to you about TVA’s plans for films.” “Naturally, because of the nature of the TVA project,” Marks added, in a note, “your ‘New Earth’ interests us most of all your work.” In reply, Ivens on May 15, 1936 forwarded reviews of his work and added that he was shortly “to leave for the coast for about a month to do some very interesting work” and that he hoped to stop by in Tennessee on the way back.

Ivens then left for Hollywood, which will be for him both a irresistible attraction - for its creative energy and money - and a repellant - for its frivolous films and blatant commercialism. Life as a pioneering documentary film maker, particularly for one who had never been particularly materialistic, was not easy. Things did not go well financially for Ivens on his trip to California. While in Hollywood, he was compelled to live off the generosity of his friends. In a poignant hand-written letter he wrote the TVA on June 26, 1936, Ivens confessed that he would have great difficulty in coming up with his travel costs to Knoxville. “You ask me to be honest about my financial position,” Ivens wrote, “so I have to inform you that I have to live from the lectures and showings I give with my films.” “And now in the summer, the possibilities are very little to organize lectures,” he added, “so I have no money.” “That is not easy,” Ivens noted, “and the prints begin to worn [sic] out so I must save some money to have in September new prints, and I don’t know how.” “I am tired of being always a guest from friends here, you understand this of course,” Ivens added, “and I do not even know if it was good to refuse every work here that hurts my independence.” Would it be possible, he asked, to have a public showing in Tennessee or was “the group of people who is interested in this kind of film to[o] small in Knoxville?” Could the TVA pay the fare from Hollywood to Knoxville? “I hope to get soon an answer about all these questions,” Ivens added, “you must excuse me, but my bad financial situation forced me to put them before you.” Ivens’ candid letter elicited some sympathy. Forrest Allen, an Assistant Coordinator for the TVA, wrote in a handwritten note to his colleague: “Thanks- He’s pretty close-hulled isn’t he? Men who cherish their independence to this degree pay a high price.”


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