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 "cinéma vérité" was used in a manner with which I don't agree. This time it was in reference to a shaky-cam advertisement for blue jeans or cell phones or something. 

Cinéma Direct

Cinéma 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. 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 Cinéma 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 Cinéma 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 Cinéma 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
Thread - Richard Leacock 1972

Cinéma Vérité

Cinéma vérité, when properly distinguished from cinéma direct, is usually described by the descriptor as having subtle differences from it. However, 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 cinéma 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 cinéma vérité, no attempt is made at recording events as a fly-on-the-wall. Instead, the filmmakers accept and even embrace the reality of their own presence. In 1960, Morin and filmmaker Jean Rouch (with aesthetic collaboration from cinéma direct's Michel Brault) made Chronique d'un Eté, 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 cinéma vérité and cinéma 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 television. Cops = cinéma direct, Cheaters  = cinéma vérité. So why does the term cinéma vérité get misapplied to every cop drama, Paul Greengrass movie and Quizno's advertisement whereas cinéma direct is a concept only familiar to a fraction of film lovers? I suspect the appeal of the term "cinéma vérité" -- among its popularizers -- is that it has has three times the accents of cinéma direct. You know the type, the pretentious theatergoer who though American always spells "theater" as "theatre," the hypercorrectionist who mispronounces "habanero" as "habanyero," and the misguided authenticist who demands chopsticks at Thai restaurants -- don't be that guy -- embrace the direct.


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