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?