This piece is part of an ongoing Independent Lens series exploring documentary film history. Check out the previous entry, Silent Real-Life Adventure Films, and stay tuned for more installments.
The birth of documentary filmmaking is the birth of cinema. The very first films were documents of people, places, and events, whether scientific studies or the moving picture’s answer to the still life painting. And ever since, documentary has always struggled with the challenge to present “truth” on film.
But of course there is no direct pipeline to truth and no film portrait is unmediated. From the beginning, the very choice of what to shoot, where to point the camera, which action to follow, and when to cut, not to mention the decisions that go into the editing process and sound mixing, imposes a vision on a film no matter what the intention.
Cinéma vérité (“truthful cinema”) was born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, developed independently in multiple countries as a response to the conventions of the documentary tradition. In France, where the term cinéma vérité was born, it developed amidst the energy and experimentation of the French New Wave (“nouvelle vague”) from the likes of Chris Marker and Jean Rouch. In the U.S., it was called Direct Cinema, a movement led by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles. And in Britain, Lindsay Anderson (see more on him/from him below), Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson spearheaded the Free Cinema movement.
All of these filmmakers reacted against the traditional approaches of non-fiction filmmaking — the formal structure, the talking heads interviews, the omniscient narrator framing the information, the dry, dull quality of so many documentaries — and encouraged a more direct engagement between filmmaker and subject. Technological advances produced lighter 16mm cameras and portable sound recording equipment, which gave filmmakers greater freedom and independence. It also allowed for greater flexibility and spontaneity on location and a more intimate connection with the subjects.
But just as in the laws of physics, which recognizes that the observation of a sub-atomic event has an effect on it, the observation of a human event with a camera clearly has an effect on the people being photographed no matter how small the crew. So the filmmakers of the cinéma vérité movement acknowledge the presence of the camera and the filmmakers while seeking a direct connection with the subject, sometimes through confrontation, sometime interaction, sometimes merely removed observation.
The legacy of cinéma vérité is obvious to anyone who has watched popular television in the past twenty years, and not just in shows like Cops (cinéma vérité as tabloid TV). You can see it in the handheld cameras and whip-pan punctuations of ’90s shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Streets (see example clip below), and the “you are there” camerawork, sudden zooms, and direct-address interstitials of such contemporary comedies as The Office and Modern Family. They are clearly written and staged scenes but they appropriate the conventions of documentary to create a sense of listening in on another life or catching chaos as it unfolds. And its spirit is alive in The Blair Witch Project and the “found footage” horror films that followed.
Here are some of the landmarks of cinéma vérité, most of which are available on disc, digital, or streaming formats.
Produced and directed by Robert Drew, Primary (1960) took the viewers into crowds and rallies and behind the scenes of the John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigns at the Wisconsin Democratic primaries as they competed for the party’s nomination for the Presidential race. This is not the Ken Burns style of documentary filmmaking. There’s no narrator guiding us through, no archival clips or montages of photos and documents, no dramatic music to set the scene or interview subjects offering their expertise. Drew and his crew simply follow the candidates, watch the events unfold in front of their cameras, and let the actions and words speak for themselves.
Observing Kennedy prepare for a television interview, for example, with his handlers carefully shaping his image with the lighting, the setting, his physical appearance, even his body language, showed audiences how candidates were packaged for the public. It changed the face of American documentaries to come and it trained a generation of filmmakers to carry on this brave new approach; Drew’s crew included cameramen Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles and editor D. A. Pennebaker, who all went on to careers as documentary filmmakers in their own right. It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990.
Richard Leacock and Robert Drew discuss the origins and philosophy of ‘Direct Cinema’.:
Paris of the Moment
At the same time in France, sociologist Edgar Morin and ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, inspired by both the revolution on the nouvelle vague begun by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and friends, and by the socio-political climate of France, decided to capture the culture of Paris of the moment.
Chronicle of a Summer (1961) offers a simple premise: a cross-section of Parisians — workers, students, artists, and others — are interviewed on the streets and in their homes over the summer of 1960, as public opinion on the Algerian War was turning (much like the Vietnam War in the U.S.). What begins as simple, open-ended Q&As (“Are you happy?”) eases into conversations with subjects who become more comfortable, and more open, over the course of the production. It wades into politics and sociology and social justice and ends with a dissection of the very documentary itself in conversation with the participants. It was to documentary what The 400 Blows and Breathless were to narrative drama, challenging conventions and expectations to the form and approach of non-fiction filmmaking.
Two years later, Chris Marker and Pierre L’Homme contributed their own portrait of Paris with La Joli Mai (aka “The Lovely Month of May,” 1963), shot in the summer of 1962 just after the ceasefire in Algeria. It’s both a bookend in some ways and a response to it, as much personal essay and political statement as social portrait.
Frederick Wiseman never liked the term cinema vérité — it is “just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned,” he once said — but his kind of non-fiction filmmaking is a case study in the philosophy and practice of its ideals. It all began with Titicut Follies (1967), a portrait of life for the patients/inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. It is now considered a landmark but practically speaking, it was unseen by the public for over 20 years due to an injunction by the hospital; it was shown on PBS in 1992 and has since been screened on film and released on home video. So it was High School (1968) that introduced Wiseman’s distinctive approach to the public.
Where Titicut was something of an expose of conditions, High School took Wiseman’s camera into Northeast High School in Philadelphia for an exploration of the culture within. Like his subsequent films, this expansive look at the flavor and variety of experiences at the school is less about the individuals within than the institution itself. From a disciplinarian counselor defending the system against the threat of adolescent insubordination to a fashion show advisor teaching the girls to “help themselves” by proper instruction in ladylike movement, Wiseman shows a place less concerned about the development of the mind than an education in social expectations and conformity. Refinements and adjustments aside, Wiseman has followed a similar model ever since: shooting over the course of four to six weeks, followed by up to a year in the editing room. It was selected in 1991 for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back
Don’t Look Back (1967), D.A. Pennebaker’s record of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, brought cinéma vérité into the mainstream. In addition to capturing his final performances as an acoustic performer, before he famously went electric, it shows him playful and boyish offstage with Joan Baez (with whom he broke up during the tour), Alan Price, Marianne Faithful, and Donovan, and then turn into surly Dylan tearing into journalists and playing the obtuse artist. You have to wonder if this is the real Dylan, a show for the camera, or simply the exasperated explosion of a man under the ever-present eye of the camera. “As far as I was concerned, it was never meant to be a documentary,” the director later confessed, yet it remains a classic of cinéma verité filmmaking and one of the great music documentaries of all time.
A chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American tour, Gimme Shelter (1970) is the other great cinéma vérité rock film. It was meant to be a musical celebration but it soured into the symbolic end of the Sixties as the notorious Altamont Speedway free concert became the grim bookend to the decade and Albert and David Maysles (partnering with Charlotte Zwerin) were there to film it. The film reconstructs the breakdown of the concert from a perspective that makes it all seem inevitable (the Maysles and their camera operators have an uncanny ability to pick out the people that are about to explode) and watches the music literally unravel as Mick Jagger pleads with the crowd to calm down, his swagger deflated in the face of the growing powder keg that finally blew up when a concert-goer is killed by the Hells Angels they hired for security. When the film pulls back to the band viewing a rough cut of the film in the editing room, stunned and morose, it reminds us just how perspective changes everything.
The Maysles Brothers and Shirley Clarke
Between these two films came a pair of powerful intimate studies: Salesman (1968) and Portrait of Jason (1968), both focused on individuals on the fringes. Salesman, from Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, follows door-to-door bible salesman Paul “The Badger” Brennan and his colleagues, capturing a veteran salesman losing his passion, his faith, and his self-confidence as younger men rise up through the ranks. Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, a stream of consciousness character study of gay hustler Jason Holliday, straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece as Jason plays the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner to the camera and skeleton crew, but between the performances he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in Sixties America.
Grey Gardens (1975), also from Albert and David Maysles, is the cult film of the cinéma vérité movement. The legendary, controversial portrait of Edith Bouvier Beale and her grown daughter, Little Edie, the reclusive aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis respectively, shows the two living in almost complete seclusion camped out in a single bedroom of the 28 room mansion overrun with cats (who use the floor as their litter box). The filmmakers were accused of exploiting the two women, but it’s clear that they also became part of their lives over the course of shooting.
They are constantly drawn into the bickering conversations of the two Edies and they shift their direction accordingly, catching glimpses of the sound recording equipment, seeing one another briefly passing before the camera, and even lingering on their reflections in the mirror. That intimacy also brings out the women as they rehash mistakes and missed chances with an accusing banter that becomes more stinging and angry as the documentary progresses. It becomes a disturbing and discomforting portrait of poverty, loneliness, self-imposed isolation, and sad codependent dysfunction. Grey Gardens spawned a sequel, a dramatic movie, and Broadway musical.
Full Circle Back to Primary
The War Room (1993), from Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, takes us behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, and brings us full circle back to Primary and the birth of American cinéma verité filmmaking. This isn’t an expose so much as a nuts-and-bolts look at the way campaigns are run on a day-to-day level as the campaign team schedules appearances, fields questions and requests from reporters, and reacts to breaking stories and the constant stream of new challenges. In fact, the candidate is largely off-screen and Clinton’s odd couple consultants James Carville and George Stephanopoulos dominate the film, which in many ways made them into stars. Over twenty years old now, it’s already a quaint era for media politics, with a slower news cycle, a smaller landscape of cable news channels, and no defining Internet presence. But the basic internal workings of the campaign still has resonance to today’s political landscape.