From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Cinéma vérité is a style of filmmaking, combining naturalistic techniques that originated in documentary filmmaking, with stylized cinematic devices of editing and camerawork, staged set-ups, and the use of the camera to provoke subjects. It is also known for taking a provocative stance toward its topics. The name is French and means, roughly, "cinema of truth".
Cinéma vérité aims for an extreme naturalism, using non-professional actors, hand-held camera, genuine locations rather than sound stages, and naturalistic sound without substantial post-production mixing or voiceovers.
As Bill Nichols points out, the reality effect of a new mode of documentary representation tends to fade away when "the conventional nature of this mode of representation becomes increasingly apparent". In other words, new modes initially appear to be true, unvarnished "reality" on the screen, but as time goes by that mode's conventions become more and more obvious. Such is certainly the case with cinéma vérité whose conventions can now appear quite mannered and open for critique.
The term originates in Dziga Vertov's Kino-Pravda (Russian for "cinema of truth"), a documentary series of the 1920s. While Vertov's announced intention in coining the word was to use film as a means of getting at "hidden" truth, largely through juxtapositions of images, the French term refers more to a technique influenced by Vertov than to his specific intentions.
Cinema-verite / direct cinema, unlike most types of filmmaking, is dependent on specialized camera and sound technology. In the late 1950s, filmmakers in the US (Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker, and later Al Maysles) and in Europe (Jean Rouch working with Éclair) struggled to develop quiet cameras that could be used with portable tape recorders (first Perfectone, then Nagra and Stellavox, though primarily Nagra) to record synchronous sound on location. These first rigs (like Morris Engel's 35mm system used for "Weddings and Babies" - a fiction film) were large and clumsy. A prototype rig that didn't really work was used on "Primary" - generally considered the first American cinema-verite film. Most of the sync drifted horribly, but was repaired in editing -- the film showed what might lie ahead if the technology was perfected.
Ricky Leacock had a revelation after seeing an early Bulova Accutron watch - it used a 360 Hz tuning fork as a time base -- he realized this was all a timing problem, and that if the camera motor were driven by a tuning fork (later crystal) and the tape recorder recorded a reference signal from a similar tuning fork, cable-less sync sound was possible. Using money from Time-Life (enabled by Drew Associates) this was developed, with the help of engineer Mitch Bogdanowicz. Drew Associates had some very interesting converted Auricon Cine-Voice cameras in the early 60s. In the post-Drew days, DA Pennebaker made major improvements -- he shortened the camera viewfinder so the camera could sit on one's shoulder, added a handgrip, and improved the electronics. Al Maysles did similar things in building his very unique "bazooka" rig.
These rigs permitted a crew of two people -- cameraperson (usually the "filmmaker") and soundperson -- to be the entire crew of a film.
In the 1970s, Jeff Kreines and Joel DeMott felt this was too constricting, and worked to develop the "one person sync rig" -- which used the Nagra SNN spy recorder built into a CP16 non-reflex camera, fitted with a 10mm Switar prime lens and Leica optical viewfinder. The filmmaker held the microphone in their left hand, shot with the right, and was completely self-contained. They use this for all their films, eschewing zoom lenses and wireless microphones. Some of their students, including Ross McElwee and Mark Rance, have adopted this working method.
The technique began in earnest in France and Quebec (particularly at the National Film Board of Canada) in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s. The aesthetic of cinéma vérité was essentially the same as that of the mid-1950s "free cinema" in the UK and "Direct Cinema" in the US. Some filmmakers in France and Québec found the term cinema vérité to be pretentious, and called it "cinéma direct" instead. Some American filmmakers prefer to use the term "non-fiction film."
There are subtle yet important differences among these terms. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera's presence. This is essentially what is now called a "fly on the wall" documentary. Many therefore see a paradox created by drawing attention away from the reality of the camera and simultaneously declaring the discovery of a cinematic truth. Others argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinema vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. It should be noted that few agree on the real meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described.
This is the case for filmmakers like Pierre Perrault who sets situations up, and who then films that, for example in Pour la suite du Monde (also known as The Moontrap) where he asked old people to fish whale. The result is not a documentary about whale fishing, it is about memory and lineage. In this sense cinéma vérité is also concerned with anthropological cinema, and with the social and political implications of what is captured on film. How a filmmaker shoots a film, what is being filmed, what to do with what was filmed, and how that film will be presented to an audience, all were very important for filmmakers of the time.
In all cases, the ethical and aesthetic analysis of documentary form of the 1950s and '60s has to be linked with a critical look at post-war propaganda analysis. The best way to describe this type of cinema is probably to say that it is concerned with notions of truth and reality in film.
As Edgar Morin wrote in an introduction to an event held on cinéma vérité at Pompidou: "There are two ways to conceive of the cinema of the Real: the first is to pretend that you can present reality to be seen; the second is to pose the problem of reality. In the same way, there were two ways to conceive cinéma vérité. The first was to pretend that you brought truth. The second was to pose the problem of truth."
Feminist documentary films of the 1970s often used cinéma-vérité techniques but very soon this sort of 'realism' was criticized for its deceptive pseudo-natural construction of reality.For example, in 1979 Michelle Citron released Daughter Rite, a feminist pseudo-documentary which deconstructs the conventions of cinéma vérité.