Cinema Verite

The previous chapters have discussed different approaches and techniques involved in making documentaries, focusing generally on the basic documentary. It would obviously be useful to examine all the documentary types in depth, from the biography and profile film to the exploration and investigation essay, but in a work such as this one, there are space limitations. Nevertheless, five kinds of films raise complex and acute problems, which I will discuss in detail in these final chapters. The genres in question are cinema verite, documentary drama, historical documentaries, family films, and industrial and public relations films.

Cinema verite, or direct cinema, as it is sometimes called in America, is actually a method of filmmaking, rather than a type of film of the "profile" or "nature" variety. Cinéma vérité was the name given to the radical experiments in filmmaking undertaken in the United States, Canada, and France in the early 1960s. Robert Drew, Ricky Leacock, and Don Pennebaker were among those working furiously to perfect a system whereby lighter, shoulder-borne cameras could be used with lightweight, synchronized tape recorders. Their technical breakthroughs produced nothing short of a revolution, radically altering structure and approach in documentary.

Some of the practitioners of the new cinema tentatively suggested that cinema verite would do away with the old fiction cinema. Though the approach varied from person to person, the general method of filming necessitated the following:

• An evolving story with plenty of incident

• No prestructuring

• Following the story as and when it occurred

• A tremendously high ratio of shooting, up to forty or fifty to one

• No prompting, directing, or interviewing between the director or cameraperson and the subject

• Minimal or no commentary

• Finding and building the film on the editing table

The results of this approach were tremendously fresh and exciting, certainly as compared with the well-crafted but rather dull, static, and predictable documentaries of the networks. Today, it is hard to recall any of the news documentaries of CBS, NBC, or ABC from the 1960s, whereas the cinema verite films of that period are still constantly viewed.

In general, cinema verite films of the 1960s examined personalities, crises, and pop concerts, with some limited political coverage. Starting from that base, filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s helped extend the range and possibilities of the form, which is still tremendously popular. For various reasons, cinema verite seems to be the most attractive option open to young filmmakers. It is associated with perhaps the greatest films of the 1960s. It also has a veneer of excitement and seems to promise intimacy, truth, and an ability to transcend the crass barriers of old-fashioned documentary—altogether, an attractive canvas.

One student described cinema verite this way: "It is less manipulative —more human. It gets to the heart of things, and it's more real and direct." However, I am not entirely convinced that that is so. Cinema verite may be all that is claimed above, but I suspect there is another reason for its popularity; it seems to involve less work than do the older documentary forms. You apparently don't have to do any research. You don't have to write boring scripts and boring commentary. You don't have to bother with preplanning; you can just go ahead and shoot. And if you screw things up, never mind; everyone knows the film is made in the cutting room. Indeed, despite its many attractions, cinema verite also has immense problems that are underrated by beginning filmmakers. You must consider them before you race ahead.

Film Making

Film Making

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