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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Harvard Film Archive Releases Rare Film on DVD

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The cover of the newly-released two-disc Miss Mend DVD.

March 17, 2010 – A rare, Soviet-era silent film, Miss Mend, is now available for the first time on DVD and is expected to be of particular interest to film scholars and other researchers, Harvard Film Archive Director Haden Guest said. The recently-released DVD was produced using the HFA print of the film, considered the finest print available outside the former Soviet Union, and highlights a rarely-seen dichotomy of Soviet culture – while the film portrays capitalists as evil, Soviet audiences of the era were hugely enamored with American film.

“Today, the most avant-garde works of Soviet cinema have been canonized, but this film reveals the national obsession and fascination with everything American, and with American popular culture and action genre films,” Guest said. “It’s really a very thrilling and beautiful film, but it’s rarely seen today. Producing this DVD is one of the ultimate forms of access – that’s one reason we were pleased to work on this project. Now any institution that has a DVD player can hold a copy of this film.”

The project to create the DVD began nearly two years ago, when Visiting Professor Yuri Tsivian asked Guest to program a film series for his class on Soviet silent cinema. The HFA’s print of Miss Mend was among the films screened for students, and touched off a discussion between Guest and Tsivian.

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“Yuri and I realized that this was a particularly splendid print, and we started discussing the idea of making a DVD of the film,” Guest said. “We contacted David Shepherd, a film historian and archivist who has done a lot to promote silent films – through him we were able to work with Flicker Alley, a company which has produced similar DVDs.”

Part of the challenge in producing the DVD, Guest said, came in the material itself. Aside from the fragile nature of the film itself, the film’s limited appeal demanded extra care in creating the packaging and background material.

Though presented as a single package, Miss Mend is actually a three-part serial, created in the mold of American silent serials. The film’s heroine is Vivian Mend, a secretary who, with the aid of three reporters, thwarts a secret organization of capitalists from destroying the Soviet state. Though widely derided by Soviet critics upon its release as “Western-style” entertainment, the film was nonetheless hugely popular, and became one of the most successful Soviet films of the 1920s, and broke box office records across the country, Guest said.

“You can’t just release a silent film like this on DVD,” he said. “It needs to be presented to a knowledgeable audience that wants to learn more about this particular mode of cinema or this particular historical period. In order to present a film like this requires a larger package. This is a presentation of a film that is contextualized, so it can be used for study by researchers and students.”

Part of that larger package comes in the form of rigorous academic material which places the film in a historical context. The DVD’s packaging includes a new essay, Miss Mend and Soviet Americanism, written by Harvard graduate students Ana Olenina and Maxim Pozdorovkin, who also worked to create English subtitles for the DVD. Other extras include a 25-minute documentary about the film and a documentary about the creation and recording of the new score created for the DVD.

“There was a huge amount of work that went into making this DVD as attractive as it is,” Guest said, explaining that all the work, from the transfer of the film to digital format to the production and printing of the booklet, were done at no cost to the HFA. “Although there’s very little profit in a project like this, for me, the payback is being able to make this film more widely available.”