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“No documentary can ever show you the truth because there are multiple truths, but verité can at least relay the truth as seen by a single observer…”
—SHERIFF filmmaker Dan Kraus

Read a brief history of cinema verité and review a list of the genre’s landmark titles.

A black-and-white photo of filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, standing sideways wearing a black shirt
Frederick Wiseman

A black-and-white photo of filmmaker Robert Drew holding a large movie camera on his shoulder
Robert Drew

A black and white photo of Bob Dylan and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker: Dylan is on the left wearing dark sunglasses and smoking a cigarette and Pennebaker on the right, wearing a top hat, a suit jacket and jeans and holding a camera on his shoulder.
D.A. Pennebaker

The documentary as gritty, rough-hewn truth is a relatively new phenomenon. Documentaries made after World War II, in the 1940s and ‘50s, steered clear of unexplored places. Directors did not intend to rally social change. Instead, the films were propaganda-like explorations of current events—a pastiche of newsreel footage, staged interviews and even staged events. An omniscient narrator told audiences exactly what to think.

By the late 1950s and early ‘60s, however, directors began to break away from this documentary formula. For the first time, new lightweight camera and sound equipment made it possible to take cameras anywhere. The lens could now unobtrusively capture life’s most intimate, awkward or even mundane moments unfolding in real time.

Directors named this new style of filmmaking “cinema verité”—French for “film truth.” The genre eschewed the use of devices like interviews, music, narration and sound effects to tell stories. The footage alone had to speak for itself.

Some of the pioneers of the verité movement include Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School), Robert Drew (Primary, The Chair), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, War Story) and the Maylses Brothers (Salesman, Grey Gardens). These directors established a standard of truth in filmmaking that has continued to inspire a new generation of documentarians like Michael Moore, Ken Burns and Errol Morris.

Kraus, who filmed SHERIFF with a small crew from 1999 to 2001, said he was drawn to the verité style after he attended a Wiseman retrospective in Chicago.

Wiseman is known for his edgy and often controversial documentaries on subjects like a mental hospital, public housing, domestic violence and welfare. The films—which allow individuals to reveal their true nature through their own words and actions—have appeared on public television and screened around the world.

“SHERIFF was particularly suited to this style, because I was not interested in capturing a traditional storyline. I didn't care about plot. I wanted sights and sounds and actions,” Kraus said. “I wanted the end result to feel as I felt when standing in those swamps and crime scenes and assembly halls. When I reflect back on the production of SHERIFF, my memories look and sound very much like the finished film.”

Early and Influential Works of Cinema Verité

DVD cover for Primary shows an image of a young Jacqueline Kennedy, in profile, facing a larger profile of young John F. Kennedy. The word “primary” is written in lower case and the word “ground-breaking” in quotes stands out.

Primary, 1960
Producer: Drew Associates
Considered by filmmakers to be the most influential examples of “direct cinema,” this documentary closely follows Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail.

Two black and white stills from Chronicle of a Summer: 
Top: A white man is speaking, gesturing with his hands, to a black man who sits on a banquette looking up at him
Bottom: A white woman with blonde hair, wearing a bikini is with a black man with shortly cropped hair, out on a boat in a body of water. Her hand is on her head and he looks down.

Chronique d'un Été (Chronicle of a Summer), 1961
Director: Jean Rouch
Rouch uses the power of the camera provocatively, asking people at random, on the streets of Paris, if they are happy.

Movie poster for Don’t Look Back: Black-and-white close-up portrait of a young Bob Dylan

Don't Look Back, 1966
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
One of the first “rockumentaries,” Don't Look Back follows Bob Dylan during his 1965 UK tour.

Movie poster for Titicut Follies:  Drawing of the back of an elderly naked man kneeling on the ground with his arms raised, the type reads, “Don’t turn your back on this film if you value your mind or your life”

Titicut Follies, 1967
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Wiseman’s controversial debut film looks at life inside the Massachusetts State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater.

Movie poster for Salesman: Green tinted photo, shot from below, of a middle-aged Caucasian man, wearing a trench coat and hat, knocking at the front door of a home. A white silhouette graphic of a salesman carrying bags is below the photo.

Salesman, 1969
Directors: Albert Maysles and David Maysles
This classic follows four American Bible salesmen on their routes, as they travel door to door.

Movie poster for Harlan County USA:  Three Caucasian men aiming guns ahead of them—one wearing sunglasses and a hat—superimposed over an American flag. Type reads, “Magnificent! A great American document.”

Harlan County USA, 1976
Director: Barbara Kopple
An Academy Award-winning film that chronicles the heroic fight for dignity and fairness waged by mining families in Harlan County, Kentucky.

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