An incursion into the most defining cinematic practices of the 1960s.
This article will discuss the key similarities and differences between “cinéma vérité” and “direct cinema”, two new and one might add revolutionary cinematic practices that developed during the same historical period – the 1960s, the former in France, the latter in USA and Canada, as alternatives to fiction films and traditional documentary forms. The first part will define the two concepts and focus on their similarities while the second half will take the analysis further by delving deeper into the areas of disagreement and discrepancy that highlight the wide variance in outlook and method that separates them. The films to be discussed in relation to cinéma vérité and direct cinema are Chronique d’un Été (1961), the locus classicus of the former, and Primary (1960) and Salesman (1968), to illustrate the doctrine of the latter.
At a basic level, cinéma vérité and direct cinema can be defined as two cinematic practices employing lightweight filming equipment, hand-held cameras and live, synchronous sound – the new ground-breaking technologies being developed in the early 1960s in Canada, USA and Europe that offered filmmakers the possibility to do away with the necessity of large crews, studio sets, tripod-mounted equipment and special lights in the making of a film. This is however an incomplÉté definition that emphasizes technology at the expense of filmmaking philosophy, the latter accounting for the major differences between them: beyond recording means, cinéma vérité and direct cinema represent two philosophical positions taken in regard to the world being filmed.
The term “cinéma vérité” was coined by Georges Sadoul who translated Vertov’s work Kino-Pravda into “Cinéma Vérité” in his 1948 Histoire du Cinema (Mamber 1974:5). Ethnographer Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, the two main proponents of cinéma vérité in France, found this concept relevant for describing their own work, Chronique d’un Été, a feature-length film experiment about the lives and mores of Parisians. Rouch also used the term to pay homage to Vertov and express his theoretical and aesthetic debt to this visionary film-maker whose methods and techniques influenced his own (Jean Rouch Interviewed by G. Roy-Leven in Macdonald & Cousins eds. 1996: 265). At the same time, in USA and Canada, a group of filmmakers amongst whom Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, Frederick Wiseman were shooting their own “cinéma vérité” films but due to their different outlook, methods and film-making philosophy they referred to their films as “direct cinema”, a term that implies the attempt to remove all barriers between subject and audience, be they of a technical, procedural and structural nature.
The distinction between the French school and the North American one is now well established in film criticism, being endorsed by Erik Barnouw in his widely used textbook Documentary:A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1974) but this has not always been the case. Rouch for instance has always considered the American filmmakers to be fellow practitioners of cinema-verite (Rothman 1997:87). According to him, defining cinéma vérité as a cinematic practice in which the camera engages in provocation as opposed to refraining from being provocative, as is claimed to be the case in direct cinema, is false and misleading considering that it is the very presence of the camera that constitutes a provocation. Also there was, and is, an Anglo-Saxon misunderstanding of attributing the central idea of direct cinema to cinéma vérité, even though that idea was reduced to a mere matter of long synch takes in available light (ten Brink ed. 2007: 298). Moreover, most contemporary documentary scholars including Stephen Mamber and Bill Nichols use the former term for both. However, there are major differences between cinéma vérité and direct cinema as this essay will show, which sometimes account for them being viewed in opposition.
At the very simplest, cinéma vérité refers to documentaries characterized by self-reflexivity i.e. films in which the film-maker puts himself in the frame as a guarantee of truthfulness/verite (also a reference to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle according to which the very presence of an observer modifies the reality being observed) and also actively participates in the film by interrogating or interviewing people. This is in contrast to the observational approach of direct cinema whose proponents were animated by a desire to observe in as unobtrusive a way as possible (ten Brink ed. 2007: 298), never intruding in “the reality” being filmed and eschewing from using intrusive methods such as interviews. In more graphic terms, the cinéma vérité approach can be described as “fly-in-the-soup” (observational AND participatory) whereas the direct cinema outlook is better defined as “fly-on-the-wall” – observational without being participatory (Winston 1995: 195-204).
As already mentioned, the two film movements share a number of similarities, one of them being the use of the exciting new technology being developed at the time e.g. lightweight equipment, hand-held cameras, synchronous sound. This may have also impregnated the films with a similar visual aesthetic. For instance, Primary (1960), a film on the Kennedy-Humphrey battle in the Wisconsin Democratic Primary Election, despite the fact that only a portion of it was shot with synchronized sound, is almost unanimously regarded as “a landmark film in the aesthetic development of cinéma vérité” (Allen & Gomery 1985: 224), by reason of the equipment used: “For the first time we were able to walk in and out of buildings, up and down stairs, film in taxi cabs, all over the place, and get synchronous sound” (“Interview with Richard Leacock” in Cameron & Shivas quoted in Mamber 1974: 30). The new equipment is responsible for the new stylistic elements that the film introduces: fast, monochrome footage with restless and wandering camera movements, blurred, grainy images with sometimes unintelligible sound which is preferred over authoritative voice-over narration. Unlike the planning behind most documentaries, the film was shot with minimal preparation with the camera crews coming in at the last moment (Marcorelles & Labarthes 1963:19), typical of the direct cinema approach and something that imparts it with a spontaneous, energetic quality. The use of portable equipment allows the filmmaker to follow action without dominating it, in total contrast with the traditional paraphernalia of studio shooting – tripods, heavy lights, cables – that would have never made possible this new way of recording reality. Due to the fact that it was the first work to perfectly capture a politician’s impact and charisma on film, Primary marked a cultural shift in USA to a political system dominated by media influence (Grant & Sloniowski eds 1998:236), hence the enormous importance of direct cinema for future film-makers.
Similarly in the case of Chonique d’un Été it is the invention of the lightweight synch-sound camera that gave Morin the idea to persuade his friend Rouch, who at the time was shooting ethnographic films about African tribes, to return to Paris and make a film about ordinary Parisians, “his own tribe” – a film promising to change the way they live and think. In Chronique, the most famous scene using the new technology (shot by Michel Brault who was specially brought in from Canada for this purpose) is that of Marceline walking along Place de la Concorde recalling aloud her memories of being taken to a concentration camp during the occupation.
Another similarity between cinéma vérité and direct cinema is their concern with truth, authenticity, reality, the refusal to tamper with life as it presents itself. For instance, the intention behind Primary was “to show what really goes on in an election” (Leacock quoted in Mamber 1974:39) and whether or not the filmmakers achieved that goal, the degree of revelation on the workings of American politics is unprecedented. For this purpose, Drew and Leacock had to persuade Senator Kennedy to agree to the new technique of being followed everywhere in the course of the campaign. Consequently, the ability to shoot in private situations as well as public ones proved very effective as some of the most interesting scenes in the film present the thoroughly fatigued candidates when they are out of the public eye. Referring to an intimate glimpse of Humphrey leaning back in his car to catch a few minutes of sleep as he travels from one small town to another, George Bluestone remarks: “That one sequence gives us more insight into the bone-crushing fatigue of a primary campaign than a thousand narrative assertions” (1965:52). Through this technique of attaching value to little moments that do not necessarily advance a story, Primary humanizes an impersonal process and it shows us a side of elections we rarely see.
Similarly in Chronique, the concern for “truthfulness” is brought into discussion in the very opening scene in which the filmmakers ask Marilou, one of the people participating in the film, whether she thinks her behavior would be altered by the presence of the camera. Although she answers in the negative, it is clear that in the process of making the film Rouch and Morin do alter reality, either by intervening and interviewing their subjects or by thrusting them together (as in the “screening” sequence). However this is done with the aim of accessing a higher degree of “truthfulness”, the premise being that the new dynamics could potentially disclose something essential, something that would not reveal itself willingly for the camera hence the need for its being teased out instead. Rouch admits that he does not film reality as it is but reality as it is provoked by the act of filming (Rothman 1997:87).Nonetheless, according to him, this new reality which the film “documents” reveals a new truth, a cinema truth, hence the name cinéma vérité. In his own words, film has the power “to reveal, with doubts, a fictional part of all of us, which for me is the most real part of an individual” (Rouch quoted in Eaton 1979:51). The camera is capable of provoking people to reveal themselves as the creatures of imagination, fantasy and myth which, in Rouch’s view, is what constitutes their most authentic selves. Thus it can be deduced from this example that although the concern with capturing reality/truthfulness/authenticity is similarly present in both cinéma vérité and direct cinema, the methods of achieving it are entirely different, the French filmmakers taking a more philosophically sophisticated (albeit vulnerable) position in relation to it whereas the direct cinema practitioners seem to equal observation with objectivity and impartiality. This is in keeping with their contrasting views of the filmmaker: cinéma vérité sees the filmmaker as a “diver” who “plunges” into real life situations while direct cinema’s conception of the film-maker is that of a reporter with a camera instead of a notebook.
A focus on the individual, the everyday, the contemporary is another element that cinéma vérité and direct cinema have in common. This is closely linked to the act of filming real people in uncontrolled/undirected situations where the filmmaker does not function as a “director” or screenwriter. The use of real people develops from the commitment to uncontrolled shooting and the use of professional actors is entirely forbidden, unless they appear in their capacity as actors. In a cinéma vérité or direct cinema film, no one is told what to do, although, the degree of intervention is higher in cinéma vérité than in direct cinema, the latter asking nothing of the people being filmed except their permission to be filmed.
The Maysles brothers’ work Salesman is very illustrative in this case, being a rigorous attempt to capture the mundane and prosaic aspects of contemporary American life and culture and refusing to deal with a famous personality or event, as Primary did. The film depicts the activities of four Bible salesmen and takes place primarily during a selling trip in Florida. All four men are shown in independent sales attempts and although the film’s dramatic focus is clearly on one of them, Paul, whose lack of progress is progressively played off against the relative success of the others (a conventional dramatic development edging back into the kind of manipulation that direct cinema originally reacted against), the merits of the film consist in the circumstances that produced it: the fact that it deals with ordinary people who are really Bible salesmen, that they were not told what to do, that nothing was restaged. Mamber relates a very useful quote from David Maysles: “The great achievement in Salesman […] was that you could take someone from everyday life and make a film about him” (in Mamber 1974:169).
In Chronique the focus on the individual, the everyday and the contemporary constitutes the substance of what the film is about, the documentary ultimately revealing a way of life haunted by alienation and fear of death. Although the questions Morin hoped the film to answer (how do Parisians live their lives? Are Parisians happy?) remain partly unanswered, no other Rouch film focuses so intimately on the realm of the private, treating the people in it as characters in depth and taking such a vivid interest in them as distinctive individuals worthy of acknowledgement in their own right. The ways people quest for love, the ways they pursue happiness, the ways they work, live and think about their everyday lives are given centre stage in Chronique and contemporary issues of the day, such as the Algerian war, are passionately debated.
Regarding the rule of uncontrolled/undirected filming, this apears to be faithfully observed in Salesman, whereas the filmmakers behind Chronique refuse to adhere to it in several instances, their intervention being obvious for instance in the scene in which Marceline reveals her distaste at dancing with a black man and Rouch quickly intervenes to ask Landry if he has noticed the number tattooed on Marceline’s arm. Such an overt on-camera manipulation of the conversation is however justified as necessary for the film to achieve its ultimate purpose which is to make manifest the mentality of his subjects, in this case to reveal that the racist Marceline has herself been the victim of extreme racism. As already mentioned, according to Rouch, this manipulation does not detract from the authenticity of the scene and falls entirely within his expanded notion of legitimate documentary intervention.
This interventionism that the proponents of cinéma vérité endorse for the reasons exposed above constitutes one major difference that separates it from direct cinema whose practitioners attempt to deny and absent their own perspective and keep authorial intervention to a minimum. The mission of direct cinema is thus to “show things as they are and […] collapse the boundary between subject and representation (Bruzzi 2000:68), showing people and events in as unadulterated a state as possible. As Nichols remarks, direct cinema “appears to leave the driving to us” (Nichols 1983:52), hence the refusal to use techniques such as voice-over narration, interviews or the actual presence of film-makers in the frame which are considered “false” mechanisms (Bruzzi 2000:69) that detract from objectivity and the possibility of accurate representation. For direct cinema practitioners film is merely a means of recording events which nevertheless has the extraordinary ability to relay faithfully what it records and through the use of the observational method they believed to be able to get to the truth. The belief that film could/should be objective made direct cinema the target of polemical attacks. Emile de Antonio considers it “[…] a lie and […] a childish assumption about the nature of film” (quoted in Rosenthal 1978:7) due to the fact that its practitioners appear devoid of feelings and convictions, and Errol Morris is quoted as saying that direct cinema “set back documentary film-making twenty or thirty years” (in Arthur 1993: 127). Despite its detractors, direct cinema is often viewed as the single most significant intervention into documentary filmmaking history and its influence, as seen in the case of Primary, is enormous.
Chronique d’un Été is similarly accused of being “a whole work of lies” (Rothman 1997:85) and this is revealed in the concluding sequence in which Rouch and Morin walk the corridors of the Musee de l’Homme in Paris discussing the feedback from the screening event. After having screened rough-cut sequences from their work-in-progress to the people who are in it (this self-reflexivity and self-referentiality is another element that differentiates cinéma vérité from direct cinema), they received criticisms that the people in the film came across either as actors who masked their true selves, or else as exhibitionists who stripped their souls bare to the point of indecency. Morin however declares himself certain that the people in the film were not acting and laments the audience’s inability to recognize sincerity.
Another reason for which Chronique is accused of being a work of lies is its editing, which is another subject on which cinéma vérité and direct cinema practitioners differed. In putting the film together, Rouch followed the conventions of classical cinema almost as consistently as any Hollywood movie. He used continuity editing, “eyeline” matching, adhered to the conventional categories of shots – close-up, shot-reverse-shot, point-of-view shot and also observed the conventions for their use.
In contrast, the proponents of direct cinema had very specific views on this topic in their attempt to revolutionize the art of editing by cutting on “picture logic” as opposed to “word logic” (Mamber 1974: 23). Also, editing should aim only to re-create events as the filmmaker witnessed them and the film should not contradict the real events through an ordering of shots, juxtaposition of sequences, or use of other manipulative devices at variance with the filmmaker’s own response as an actual witness. In other words the filmmaker will try not to shape his material on the basis of limiting preconceptions.
If Primary seems to adhere to this rule, cutting back and forth between the two candidates who are given fairly equal treatment as they are filmed giving speeches, competing in the street for votes, holding TV appearances and waiting in their rooms for the results on election night, in Salesman the editing makes the film appear as neatly constructed as if it were scripted, with devices being employed that are more the province of fiction film. The film begins with a sales transaction of each salesman, all four scenes ending with a name and nickname (“The Badger”, “The Gipper” etc) superimposed as titles over a shot of each salesman, which gives them a fictional quality and turns them into “characters”. At an early stage in the film Paul emerges as the central dramatic focus through being placed in antithesis with his more successful colleagues, and this structure of contrast in maintained throughout the film. Also Paul functions as the narrator of the film in scenes where he discusses the other three while driving alone, and as he does so, each is illustrated with another selling scene. Another structural device relying on Paul as the central character transpires from the manner in which footage of a Chicago sales meeting is introduced: the first speeches at the meeting are presented as flash-forwards, being intercut with images of Paul on the train on his way to the actual meeting, presumably as reflections of Paul’s expectations or fears of not being successful. This is a dramatic device whose construction is developed entirely through editing and the degree of manipulation it entails is entirely at odds with direct cinema’s philosophy. Apart from its non-chronological editing and extremely selective focus, the film violates other codes of direct cinema: it uses non-diegetic music on two occasions (The Beatles song superimposed over an unsuccessful selling attempt by Paul) and it also makes ironic use of music (Paul singing “If I was a Rich Man”). This stands to show that despite their strict doctrine, the output of direct cinema filmmakers is rather disparate and there are differences within the work of one country, or even one filmmaker.
One last important point to be made in relation to cinéma vérité and direct cinema is that their film aesthetic and philosophy did not sprout full-grown in the 1960s out of a theoretical vacuum. As already mentioned, the writings of Dziga Vertov anticipate some of their key concerns. Vertov regarded his films as experiments and as a branch of science (Vertov 1962:55), much as ethnographer Jean Rouch and sociologist Jean Morin would later. Vertov’s goal was to “combine science with cinematic depiction in the struggle to reveal truth…to decipher reality” (ibid.) and to “observe and record life as it is” (ibid., italics in original) – which concisely encapsulates the aims of direct cinema. Vertov was also opposed to the use of actors and to inventing a plot, his core philosophy being that a filmmaker should not invent but rather dÉtéct his plots out of the immense variety of real life: “He does not […] build an illusion of life; he thrusts the lens of his camera straight into the crowded centers of life (Tretyakov, S. quoted in Jay Leyda 1960: 177). Vertov also anticipated the need for synchronous sound – he developed the concept of “Radio-Ear” and considered it inseparable from his “Kino-Eye” theory. This is an outstanding observation considering that cinéma vérité and direct cinema came about only since the technical battle for synch sound was won. Vertov also spoke of the need for a camera that could go anywhere, that is as mobile as the human eye. His attempt to capture life as it happens and refusal to re-enact past events anticipates another concern that filmmakers forty years later had. Vertov’s statement – “I do not write on paper, but on film” (Vertov 1962: 58) – is reminiscent of Rouch’s use of camera as a means of note-taking and doing research in the field: “I became a filmmaker because I discovered that you have to have a camera to do research” (Jean Rouch Interviewed by G. Roy-Leven in Macdonald & Cousins eds. 1996: 265).
Another filmmaker that prefigures key elements of cinéma vérité and direct cinema is Robert Flaherty whose interest in studying real people in their actual surroundings was confirmed by his 1922 film Nanook of the North. His method called “non-preconception”, which implies the absence of preformed opinions, biases or attitudes concerning the subject to be filmed, and also his view of the filmmaking process being a “ritual of discovery” (Flaherty 1960: 11), “an art of observation and afterward of selection” (Griffith 1953: 165) are entirely in keeping with the direct cinema perspective whose proponents aimed to shoot first and find the story later in the editing room.
For all their differences, cinéma vérité and direct cinema represent two avant-garde cinematic practices that attempt to eliminate the accumulated conventions of traditional cinema with the aim of discovering a reality that is closer to the truth of a situation. Their respective practitioners achieved this goal by eschewing the authoritative devices of previous documentary e.g. narration, archive, thesis-led structures. The two schools also followed opposing methods and techniques (interventionism and self-reflexivity in the case of the former and pure observation in the case of the latter) which account for the main differences between them. Being neither documentary, as usually practiced, nor fiction, although they often tell a story and employ devices typical of the fiction film, cinéma vérité and direct cinema can be viewed as two alternative kinds of cinema emerging in the 1960s whose use of new technology and specific cinematic philosophy had a tremendous impact on subsequent generations of filmmakers, their influence being still felt today.
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Chronique d’un Été(Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, France, 1961)
Primary (Drew Associates, USA, 1960)
Salesman (David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, USA, 1968