This essay traces the evolution of the idea of “international documentary” during the early Cold War through the history of the World Union of Documentary (1947–50), an association spearheaded by documentarian Joris Ivens that aimed to articulate a common purpose for postwar documentary and to facilitate the international exchange of films, professionals, and knowledge in the field. I investigate the links between the association and contemporaneous international initiatives, chiefly film festivals and the peace movement, focusing throughout on Eastern Europe, where the World Union was headquartered for most of its existence. Indeed, the association's history is inextricable from that of Ivens's 1949 film about the East European “new democracies,” The First Years (Pierwsze lata). Both projects, I argue, were impeded not only by the polarized political atmosphere of the period but also by complex political, administrative, and generational dynamics within the documentary community and the international Left.

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