General Criticisms

Over the years, cinema verite technique has run into a barrage of criticism, and it's useful to be aware of the main negative arguments before you embark on a cinema verite film.

1. Cinema verite films are simplistic and nonintellectual: This argument has been used mostly against Fred Wiseman by critics who maintain that his films merely portray the surface of institutions. Without greater sociological or economic explanations (which he avoids), the films are of limited interest.

2. Casting is all: The criticism here is that no talent is needed to make a cinema verite film; all you need is a head for casting. Find the right charismatic talent, for example, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, or a race-car driver, and your film is in the bag.

3. The portraits are superficial: One of the early claims of verite was that it managed to dig deeper into personalities, that it would penetrate the outward veneer and find the "real" person. This claim is now under severe challenge as critics argue that even with verite, the subject is as much on guard as in the old films.

4. The method is unethical: Here the main argument is that the subjects are unaware of what the film is doing and will do to their lives and their privacy and that the filmmaker is merely exploiting them for his or her own fame and fortune.

Many of these criticisms have to be taken quite seriously. On the whole, though, I think the criticism is overdone. Looking back, it is clear that cinema verite has been handled with compassion and sensitivity by the majority of serious filmmakers, and their works have provided an understanding of people, families, institutions, and social actions that would have been quite impossible with any other method. In short, they have enriched the whole documentary tradition and created an honorable path well worth following.

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