Dawn of a New Cinema

Today the term “cinéma vérité” describes the look of narrative or documentary films – grainy, hand-held, real life (or at least real locations).

Advancement in film and sound technologies in the 1950s and the early 1960s lead the way for major changes in cinema. Lighter and smaller cameras allowed for hand held camera work. Film manufactures began developing 16mm film, allowing documentary filmmakers to shoot twice as much for the same cost of a reel of 35mm. Faster film stock allowed for the ability to shoot in darker locations – freeing the filmmaker from the need of additional lights. The development of smaller sound recording devices made capturing audio on location possible. All this technology lead to filmmakers asking “What kind of stories can we tell using this technology?”

Cinéma vérité is often used to describe the two major film movements – Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema. It is important to know the differences between the two. “They both valued immediacy, intimacy and ‘the real’; they both rejected the glossy ‘professional’ aesthetic of traditional cinema, unconcerned if their images were grainy and wobbly and occasionally went out of focus – in fact, these ‘flaws’ in themselves seemed to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable, eventually developing into an aesthetic in their own right.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 249-250. Print.

Where the differences are came down to the question of filmmaker intervention.

The French, lead by CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (1961) directors Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, were drawn to the theories of the Camera eye by Dziga Vertov. They used the camera as a tool to provoke their subjects. They intervened with their subjects. They used the process of filmmaking as a way to explore the lives of their subjects. The style they developed was named Cinéma vérité – a direct translation of “Kino-Pravda”

Robert Drew, who lead the American film movement, was interested in developing a new kind of journalism – that would be like “a theatre without actors.” He wanted to capture reality without interrupting it.

“The advocates of Direct Cinema were always quick to codify exactly what they thought was the ‘right’ way to make a documentary and what was the ‘wrong’ way, drawing up a kind of filmic ten commandments: thou shalt not rehearse, thou shalt not interview; thou shalt not use film lights; thou shalt not stage events; thou shalt not dissolve. Paradoxically, the filmmaking movement which seemed to stand for iconoclasm and freedom became one of the most codified and puritanical.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 250. Print.

In 1960 Drew Associates filmed PRIMARY using new technologies that were being developed. Part of the crew were using sync sound set up, while others were shooting with older “noisy” cameras and “wild” audio recorders. Ricky Leacock, one of the ‘associates’ commented on the experience. Ricky Leacock writes about the experience in his memoirs:

“It worked! We made a film that captured that flavour, the guts of what was happening. No interviews. No re-enactments. No staged scenes and very little narration. When we returned the New York we showed our film to a visiting British documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha, he was astounded and said, ‘…my God! We have been trying to do this for the last forty years and you’ve done it…’ He was in tears! We went out and got smashed!

“Soon thereafter we had the equipment we had dreamed of, and sometimes it worked. The important thing is that we were experimenting. All the rules were new. We were in fact, developing a new grammar which was entirely different from that of silent filmmaking and of fiction filmmaking. we were acutely aware that by this emphasis on sound we might be losing the visual basis for our medium. Looking back at the results it is apparent to me that the visual strength remained largely because of the avoidance of the interview, which I still regard as the death knell of cinematic story telling.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 253-254. Print.

Discussion Starter: In the Direct Cinema movement the freedom of the filmmaker paradoxically came with constraining rules – the above list of ‘thou shalt not’s. Why did Robert Drew come up with these rules? How did you see them used (or broken) in PRIMARY?

The Start of the Documentary Tradition

Discussion Starter #1 – The First “Documentary” Filmmaker
Robert Flaherty is often called the founder of the Documentary. As we discussed last week in class, documentary has it’s roots at the dawn of film itself. Flaherty finished NANOOK OF THE NORTH in 1922 – 30+ years after the dawn of film – and he is considered the founder? What did he do that made that much of an impact to the documentary world?

The answer is NANOOK OF THE NORTH. Nonfiction films before this tended to have no structure, or were structured as newsreels. What made NANOOK different? Simple: a narrative structure very similar to fiction films of the day.

Robert Flaherty created a narrative out of what seems everyday life for the Inuit. These people allow their lives to be recorded openly and honesty… as much as audiences of the day could tell.

Of course one of the things that we don’t know is that the film known as NANOOK OF THE NORTH actually was the 2nd film made about the Inuit. The first film, which Flaherty thought was bad, actually was lost in a fire.

In Flaherty’s own words:
“My wife and I thought it over for a long time. At last we realised why the film was bad, and we began to get a glimmer that perhaps if I went back to the North, where I had lived for ten years and knew the people intimately, I could make a film that this time would go. Why not take, we said to each other, a typical Eskimo and his family and make a biography of their lives through a year. What biography of any man could be interesting? Here is a man who has less resources than any other man in the world. He lives in a desolation that no other race could possibly survive. His life is a constant fight against starvation. Nothing grows; he must depend utterly on what he can kill; and all this against the most terrifying of tyrants – the bitter climate of the North, the bitterest climate in the world.

… The urge that I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them. This was my whole reason for making the film. In so many travelogues you see, the filmmaker looks down on and never up to his subject. He is always the big man from New York or from London. But I had been dependent on these people, alone with them for months at a time, travelling with them and living with them… I couldn’t have done anything without them. In the end it is all a question of human relationships.” (Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “Robert Flaherty Talking.” 1950. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print.)

Discussion Starter #1 – Flaherty clearly manipulates in NANOOK OF THE NORTH. Defend or criticise Flaherty’s decision to do this.

Discussion Starter #2 – “I am Kino-Eye”

“Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Denis Kaufman – better known as Dziga Vertov – was the eldest of three brothers who all had an impact on cinema history, but it is Vertov’s imprint that is most impressive.

Vertov believed that the camera (hand in hand with editing) could reveal truth that the human eye would usually miss. The kino-eye (cinema-eye), in Vertov’s opinion, was much superior to the human eye. The kino-eye could capture images over a huge distance, in slow motion, etc. Editing could allow people to see one scene from a multiple of perspectives. His kino-eye theory was central to all of his work.

His most important work, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, which falls into the classic “city symphony” films popular during the time, is essentially a film about the making of a film. Vertov’s cameraman (his brother Mikhail Kaufman) experiments with his camera to obtain some of the most fascinating film footage seen at the time. Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova, is seen in the film – furiously working away creating the very montages that we are watching. The camerawork and the editing is all brought to the forefront in the film.

In Vertov’s words: “Until now, we have violated the movie camera and forced it to copy the work of our eye. And the better the copy, the better the shooting was thought to be. Starting today we are liberating the camera and making it work in the opposite direction – away from copying.

The weakness of the human eye is manifest. We affirm the kino-eye…

I make the viewer see in the manner best suited to my presentation of this or that visual phenomenon. The eye submits to the will of the camera and is directed by it to those successive points of the action that, most succinctly and vividly, bring the film phrase to the height or depth of resolution… The camera ‘carries’ the film viewer’s eyes from arms to legs to eyes and so on, in the most advantageous sequence, and organises the details into an orderly montage study.”(Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “The Council of Three.” 1923. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print.)

Discussion Starter #2 – Comment upon Vertov’s Kino-Eye theories. Does he have a point?

Here is the entire film on Youtube. We stopped watching at the 52:00 minute mark.