The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


CinÉma-VÉritÉ and the New Documentary


The introduction of portable, synchronous sound equipment around 1960 provided a decisive leap forward in documentary film-making. This was followed in the 1980s by the increasing availability of inexpensive video equipment, and, more than fiction film-making, documentary practice came to embrace video for purposes of production. Television came to provide the key exhibition outlet, usurping the non-theatrical networks that had developed in the post-war period. Television provided unprecedented levels of funding, but tended (though with a handful of creditable exceptions) to impose strict controls over approach, style, and ideological content.

Since 1960, documentary film has increasingly become an international phenomenon; and in the developed nations film-makers have emerged from more diverse backgrounds in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Documentary practitioners have also become theoretically more self-conscious; the perceived technological shortcomings of earlier equipment have been overcome, inviting greater reflection and speculation about the nature and potential of documentary forms.


Film-makers in France, Canada, and the United States led the way in the adoption of portable, synchronous sound 16 mm. motion picture equipment, complemented by faster film stocks for indoor and night-time shooting. In the hands of innovative practitioners, this new technology resulted in a departure from and transformation of previous documentary practice, and was given the labels 'direct cinema', 'cinéma direct', and 'cinéma-vérité. These terms have taken on different emphases, with direct cinema/cinéma direct suggesting observational methods, and cinéma-vérité a more confrontational approach. In practice, however, it has generally proved more useful to think of the cinéma-vérité film-maker operating as participant observer. An emphasis on the film-maker who intrudes into the pro-filmic space and provokes the subject has been most characteristic of French cinéma-vérité. A more observational method, in contrast, has been most often championed by the Americans, particularly by a group of film-makers who worked at Drew Associates in the early 1960s: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, Hope Ryden, Joyce Chopra, and James Lipscomb.

The breakthrough film at Drew Associates and for American cinéma-vérité was Primary ( 1960), shot during the Wisconsin state presidential primary. The film-makers followed the two principal Democratic candidates, John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and their wives as they presented themselves and their viewpoints to potential voters. The film juxtaposes two quite different kinds of personalities -- the self-confident, charming, urban sophistication of Kennedy with the folksy, anti-establishment, rural populism of Humphrey. Viewers are given a'behind the scenes' glimpse of the candidates, with the cameraman (Leacock) unobtrusively present. At other points we see the candidates posing or being posed for the media. One implication is that we have access to the 'real' Kennedys while others are seeing a carefully constructed image. However, the film-makers themselves seemed well aware that their subjects were performers who were constantly shaping their own self-presentations for others, whether for long-standing friends or for the newly portable sync-sound camera.

American cinéma-vérité came out of a journalistic impulse and has generally been fiercely anti-psychological. The camera does not seek to penetrate the subject's outer, public shell to reveal an inner or secret self, but to capture a range of self-presentations, from which the film-maker and the spectator can form an opinion of the subject. The Drew film-makers often chose public performers as their subject -- racing car driver Eddie Sachs in On the Pole ( 1960); actress Jane Fonda in Jane ( 1962); and the Kennedys again in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment ( 1963). They also sought to film moments of crisis, situations which could produce stories with a climax, resolution, and ending. The crises put these people under pressure, revealing something about their judgement and ability to cope with stress, and gave the subjects something more important with which to concern themselves than the camera. By following individuals for lengthy periods of time, the film-makers become part of their subjects' daily existence.

In contrast to prior practice, cinéma-vérité film-makers in America refrained from telling the subjects what to do or


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