A FISH PROCESSING FACTORY IN ASTRAKHAN (Anonymous, 1908)

In Moscow, in a small production studio owned by Charles Pathé and his brothers in Paris, Aleksandr Drankov initially made documentaries, thus helping to introduce the Russian people to cinema. Another Aleksandr, Khanzhonkov, also lit this path, beating Drankov at his own studio by releasing the first Russian feature film. Drankov himself likely directed the unsigned documentary “Zavod Rybnykh Konservov v Astrakhani,”* part of the Picturesque Russia series.
     It opens with a startling moving long-shot surveying a dock where barrels of fish are being unloaded from boats; the camera itself is stationary, its simulated motion the result of its location: an out-of-frame motor boat.
     The remainder of the eight-minute film consists of static shots. These, closer in, show workers weighing the catch, gutting the fish, delivering the salt with brooms, salting the fish. Gradually, the workers come to the fore, quite literally leaving the fish behind. The scene that effects this shift is a sustained shot showing the workers washing their hands; the degree to which they wash and wash conveys the effort involved in relieving themselves of the stink. It is also a practical preparation for the activity that follows: a communal meal in a room full of long tables. The image overflows with animated conversation and convivial atmosphere. The film ends jubilantly, with two woman workers, arms around each other, facing the camera and smiling with seeming sincerity and spontaneity.
     Therefore, the film moves from a portrayal of labor as social contribution to the laborers themselves, their sparkling humanity and individualism. It is a case of putting the best face forward, for tsarist Russia was a place of terrible poverty, cruelty and oppression. Those who have work to do hide from view those who do not and starve.
     Ironies abound.

* Marty Cohen, a dear friend, wrote me the following in an e-mail:

I was ready to go all snarky on you — “A Fish Processing Factory in Astrakhan — now there’s a name to reckon with!” — until I read on and found a great humanistic sympathy. Looking beyond the work to the people who perform the work was the center of my work for a dozen years, at fish factories, insurance agencies, and silicon fabs alike.

(And our ritual visits to fishing piers and sardine-canning facilities in Massachusetts in my youth…I remember still the bandaged thumbs of the lobstermen and the writhing of the sea-beasts that had broken through their bands. My dad, whose Yahrzeit was this week, came from Fall River — no legend.)

Thank you for a beautiful vignette.

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