Cinema Direct vs. Cinema Verite - The Quest for Cinematic Truth

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 15, 2007 12:55pm | Post a Comment
Today marks the one billionth time the term "cinema verite" was applied incorrectly. This time it was in reference to a commercial for blue jeans or cell phones or something. I know what you're saying: "They're just words, man" or, "why do we have to categorize anything?"

Jay Ward's "Cap'n Crunch and Friends" $13.98 at Amoeba

Yeah, I see your point, Mr. Manson. Why don't I prepare for you a fro-yo topped with Cap'n Crunch, which is my term for rat poison? They're just words, after all. Oh, and the yogurt isn't really yogurt.

My point is, what is most often referred to as cinema verite is not only philosophically diametrically opposed to actual cinema verite but (more damningly), it conflates irreconcilable understandings of the nature of reality, God, the universe and everything else!

Cinema Direct -or- what pretty much everyone erroneously refers to as Cinema Verite

Cinema Direct is documentary genre that began in Quebec in 1958. The Quiet Revolution, a cultural assertion of the French-speaking majority under the rule of the Anglo-minority, encouraged the development of a distinct Quebecois identity.

The most unfortunate by-product of la Revolution Tranquille

As part of this cultural expression, filmmakers sought to re-instill truthfulness in the documentary genre, which, by the 1950s was usually studio-based propaganda rife with dramatizations and mickey mousing. In 1922's Nanook of the North, for example, Nanook (actually an Inuit named Allakariallak living in Inukjuak, Quebec) was built an oversized igloo to share with his wife (who wasn't really his wife) to allow a camera crew and sufficient lighting inside. He was filmed hunting with a harpoon. In the scene, Allakariallak looks in the direction of the camera laughing and smiling memorably. He only knew how to hunt with guns. You can almost hear Robert Flaherty taking him aside and asking, "Could you act... you know... more Eskimo?"

Historic Downtown Inukuak                                                            Robert Flaherty with some kids (not his)

Technological developments, like affordable handheld cameras, allowed for smaller film crews. Practitioners of Cinema Direct, in an attempt to more honestly capture reality, attempted to hide the film- making process by not interviewing subjects, not dramatizing, not adding non-diagetic music and not using talking heads or narration.

   Maysles Brothers                                            Robert Drew                    Dylan ignoring Pennebaker & his tophat

In Cinema Direct, often directors would spend considerable time with their subjects in the hope that they would become used to the small film crews and eventually ignore them. Personally, whilst I enjoy a good many examples of the genre, I don't find it much closer to achieving objectivity than fiction films. The attempt to hide the filmmaking process is a dishonest technique used universally in fiction films to keep viewers from thinking about the fact that they're watching a film. The impression of non-interference is false-- everyone acts differently in front of a film crew (unless they're unaware of it). One of my favorite examples of this happening in a Cinema Direct film occurs in Salesman. The salesman is welcomed into a home and (realizing he's being filmed) the homeowner walks over to his stereo and starts blasting what sounds like 101 Strings or Mantovani, clearly showing off his system. Even the idea of being strictly observational is untrue. The subject matter of the film itself and the manner in which the film is edited all present the director's view, not unfiltered reality.

The movement's pioneer was Michel Brault, whose film Les Raquetteurs (1958) marked the beginning of the genre with a short film documenting with as little interference as possible the rituals and ceremonies surrounding a snowshoe competition in Sherbrooke.

Michel Brault and friend looking totally Quebecois

Examples of Cinema Direct
  • - Pour la suite du monde - Michel Brault Marcel Carriere, Pierre Perrault, 1963
  • - Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment - Robert Drew 1963
  • - The Chair - Robert Drew 1963
  • - Meet Marlon Brando - The Maysles Brothers 1966
  • - Don't Look Back - D.A. Pennebaker 1967
  • - Chiefs - Richard Leacock 1968
  • - Salesman - Maysles Brothers 1968
  • - Gimme Shelter - The Maysles Brothers 1970
  • - Tread - Richard Leacock 1972

Cinema VeritÃe

Cinema Verite, when distinguished from Cinema Direct, is usually described as having subtle differences. Those differences strike me as rather profound. The term is a reference to Dziga Vertov's Kino-Pravda series of films from the 1920s and was inspired by the innovations of Cinema Direct. Sociologist Edgar Morin coined the term in 1960. He wrote, "There are two ways to conceive of the cinema of the Real: the first is to pretend that you can present reality to be seen; the second is to pose the problem of reality. In the same way, there were two ways to conceive cinema verite. The first was to pretend that you brought truth. The second was to pose the problem of truth."
Edgar Morin                                 Jean Rouch, hardly strictly observational with his subject

In Cinema Verite, no attempt is made at recording events as a fly-on-the-wall. Instead, the filmmakers accept the reality of their own presence. In 1960, Morin and filmmaker Jean Rouch (with aesthetic collaberation from Cinema Direct's Michel Brault) made Chronique d'un Ete, in which Rouch and Morin discuss on screen whether or not it's possible to act naturally in front of a camera. They then confront their French subjects, asking them if they're happy. At the end, Morin and Rouch review the footage and discuss the level of reality obtained.

In 2003 Robert Drew explained how he saw the difference between Cinema Verite and Cinema Direct "I had made Primary and a few other films. Then I went to France with Leacock for a conference. I was surprised to see the cinema verite filmmakers accosting people on the street with a microphone. My goal was to capture real life without intruding. Between us there was a contradiction. It made no sense. They had a cameraman, a sound man, and about six more--a total of eight men creeping through the scenes. It was a little like the Marx Brothers. My idea was to have one or two people, unobtrusive, capturing the moment."

Here's an easy way to distinguish the two schools with example from TV. Cops = Cinema Direct. Cheaters  = Cinema Verite. So why does the term Cinema Verite get applied to every cop drama, Paul Greengrass movie and Quizno's ad, instead of Cinema Direct? I suspect the appeal of the term "cinema verite" -- among its popularizers there's the fact that it has has three times the accents of Cinema Direct. You know the type, always spelling theater as "theatre" and mispronouncing habanero as habanyero, using chopsticks in a Thai restaurant.


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