Ethnography vs. Modernisation: Salt for Svanetia (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930)

The first independent film by the future master of Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying, 1957) and Soy Cuba (I am Cuba, 1964) appeared as a result of a string of happy accidents – at least, they turned out to be happy for its director. When, in the late 1920s, the “bourgeois specialists” who had created the cinema of Soviet Georgia were ousted out of the Republic’s Goskinprom studio on charges of nationalism, exoticism, and general aesthetic backwardness, they were superseded by a group of film professionals and consummate innovators from Moscow. Among them were literary theorist, screenwriter, and script-doctor Viktor Shklovsky; poet, journalist, and dramatist Sergei Tretyakov; and film theorist and director Lev Kuleshov. Before being dismissed in their turn, they found support in the avant-garde youth of Georgia, which included artists, poets, and wannabe and beginning filmmakers, such as Leo Esakia and Nikolai Shengelaia.

Lev Kuleshov, who had come under fire throughout the late 1920s for his adherence to the formal side of film production, including “American” fast editing techniques, dynamic action and movement, and the eccentric acting style of his “model” actors (naturshchiki), was supposed to make a historical-revolutionary film, Parovoz B-1000 (Steam Engine No. B-1000), based on Tretyakov’s script, which depicted “a biography” of a steam engine from the tsarist days to the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.

They found a novice cameraman and screenwriter by the name of Mikhail Kalatozishvili, who became known by his Russified name, Kalatozov. While waiting to begin principal shooting, Kuleshov made several newsreels with Kalatozov in order to test his knowledge and their ability to work together. He later reported in his memoirs that “Kalatozov showed his brilliant technique as a cameraman even in such seemingly unappealing and unphotogenic film as Fabrika kishok (The Casing Factory, ca. 1927). Kalatozov was able to film the mundane casings in dazzling backlighting so that on the screen they looked like “fairytale precious stones”.1 When Kalatozov, in his turn, found out that Kuleshov was writing his memoirs, he asked to be referred to as Kuleshov’s pupil. The production of Kuleshov’s film, however, was unexpectedly stopped and he returned to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Sergei Tretyakov became fascinated by Svanetia, a remote mountainous region in the northwest of Georgia. He wrote several “factographic” texts about it, including articles for Pravda, and a book of essays, Svanetia, published in 1928. He even suggested a play on the rebuilding of Svanetia for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theatre.2

One of the results of the trip to Upper Svanetia was his script Slepaia (The Blind Woman), a melodrama about a poor orphan girl living in a rich Svaneti household.3 Mikhail Kalatozov directed it, but the film was not released, because the director apparently “made a number of formal experiments; these experiments, however, were developed against the background of formalism. Shot composition is subordinated to various tricks of camerawork; the editing of shots has lost social meaningfulness, and the content of individual shots is not connected to the core of the theme.”4

Salt for Svanetia

Salt for Svanetia

The Blind Woman (Kalatozov, 130), though not released, was advertised in Soviet periodicals (Kino i zhizn 28, November 1930).

In his work as a screenwriter and critic, Tretyakov argued for scripts that would move from the given visual, social, historical “material” to the corresponding form, and not vice versa, as had happened so often before.5 At the turn of the 1930s, there were, however, certain prescribed themes that needed to be addressed on the basis of various “material” – and one of the most important of those themes was the industrialisation and modernisation of the country during the first Five-Year Plan. Tretyakov’s second trip to Svanetia in 1929 led to a new script idea: the cost of a pood of salt as it was transported to the almost inaccessible region. An old Russian measure of weight, the pood (about 20 kilograms) was still a recognisable measure unit but also referred to a proverb: “You know a man when you have eaten a pood of salt with him.” Tretyakov’s factographic approach allowed him to access his collective subject without taking them out of their natural context.6

Although The Blind Woman had been abandoned, its material then became the basis for a documentary exploration of Upper Svanetia and its backwardness, which needed to be overcome through industrialisation and acculturation. As a consequence, Salt for Svanetia, which Tretyakov also wrote, and Kalatozov directed and shot (together with Shalva Gegelashvili), retained traces of its fictional origins, which don’t quite blend in with the ethnographic exploration and political proselytizing. They also used footage from an ethnographic film by Kalatozov himself and some shots from another “scenic” film, Svanetia, or Serdtse gor (The Heart of the Mountains, 1928), which director and cameraman Iurii Zheliabuzhskii made for the Moscow-based Mezhrabpom-Film studio.

Ostensibly created as propaganda of the first Five-Year Plan, the film breaks contemporary genre boundaries, and this is what has allowed it to survive as a thing unto itself. The first part almost goes as far as to celebrate the self-reliant romanticism of these Georgian Robinsons (even avant-garde artists had been fans of adventure stories!). The proud austerity and self-reliance of the remote Svanetia, while explicitly referred to as backward, also calls to mind the increasing isolationism of the Soviet Union, which was moving, during the time of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-32), from dreams of the world revolution to the building of socialism in one country. This country, of course, included such remote regions as Svanetia itself.

While the plot moves from the description of the region and its traditions to an argument in favour of the necessity to break with the past through the construction of roads through mountains, the film grows increasingly abstract and metaphoric, prefiguring not only the aesthetics of the Thaw-era cinema in general, but the poetic Georgian cinema in particular. The review of The Blind Woman was, in a way, right in accusing Kalatozov of formalism – if by that one means following in the steps of the formal school of literary criticism. In order to break free of the tradition of exoticising Georgian nature and its ancient way of life, the film by Tretyakov and Kalatozov employed various defamiliarisation techniques (one of Viktor Shklovsky’s earliest explanation of his concept was: “making a stone stony again”). Various bodily fluids are juxtaposed with unyielding stone; extreme close-ups and constructivist angles abound. Indebted to Aleksandr Rodchenko’s groundbreaking photographs from the 1920s published in LEF and The New LEF (where Tretyakov was a major force), these methods, in their turn, were revived in Sergei Urusevskiy’s camerawork for Kalatozov in The Cranes are Flying, Neotpravlennoe pismo (Letter Never Sent, 1960), and I am Cuba.

Salt for Svanetia

Salt for Svanetia (Kalatozov, 1930): a point-of-view low-angle shot

Another defamiliarising technique is presented in multiple point-of-view shots, often combined with extreme angles, such as the dizzying dance of ancient battlements during the thrashing of barley, which would also echo in the whirlwind ring dance of birch trees in the death scene from The Cranes are Flying, a quarter of a century later.

Salt for Svanetia

A galloping horse in Salt for Svanetia (Kalatozov, 1930).

Finally, the shots of a horse which, according to the intertitles, needs to be ridden to death as part of a funeral rite, are least of all a realistic depiction of a primitive ritual, which is not mentioned in other descriptions of the traditional Svaneti funeral. Rather, they can be seen as an evocation of the pre-historic period of cinema itself. The galloping horse has become an epitome of cinema movement in the experiments of Marey and Muybridge, but, as befits a student of Kuleshov, Kalatozov finds that this gallop needs to be arrested; the living movement has to be broken into parts and then reconstituted through montage. The horse’s heart that bursts with the help of montage becomes a metaphor for montage itself. In Soviet Svanetia, horses have to make space for a steam engine and nature has to be exchanged for machines. Thus, the film itself enters into the project of acculturation of the region, even though it is the earlier, “romantic” part of Salt for Svanetia which today remains the most vivid.


  1. Lev Kuleshov, Sobranie sochinenii v 3-kh tomakh, vol. 2 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1987), p. 99.
  2. Irina Ratiani, “S.M. Tretiakov i kinematograf”, in Sergei Tretyakov, Kinematograficheskoe nasledie (Moscow: Nestor-Istoriia, 2010), p. 22.
  3. Ibid., 28-29.
  4. Quoted in ibid., p. 30.
  5. Ibid., p. 21.
  6. See, for example, Sergei Tretyakov, “From the Photo-Series to Extended Photo-Observation”, October 118 (Fall 2006): 71-77.

About The Author

Natalie Ryabchikova holds a PhD in Film Studies and Slavic from the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches at the American Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre School.