Cinema verite is a genre of filmmaking that celebrates the simplicity and authenticity of reality through the obscure eye of a lens. Film was born in the late 1800’s in France from the inspiration of Edison’s Kinetoscope, which displayed moving images in a box (Rabiger 37). Auguste and Louis Lumiere enhanced Edison’s technology, combined with the functions of a sewing machine, and created the first hand-cranked camera. This led to the first films consisting of 50-seconds and scenes of the natural occurrences within the lives of people surrounding the Lumiere brothers. Their film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1986), authentically exhibits people waiting on a platform for their train to transport them; its simplicity elegant and beautiful, yet the naturally flowing allure of a mundane moment such as this had never yet been captured. This new immortality brought to a scene of life has been called “the present eternal.” Cinema verite is spontaneously brilliant, as its magic can never be pre-produced or planned. The 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens, directed by Albert Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde, and David Maysles, is an exquisite piece of film that is a prime example of unpredictable imagery and emotion that can arise when cinema verite filmmaking is put into action. Although its concept is simple, a film about the life of two relatives of Jackie Kennedy, Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, living in the Hamptons, New York, whose unpredictably come to life when the camera is pointed at them. These ladies had no direction or sense of authority while being the subject of this film, and possibly because of this fact, cinematic magic was made. Although cinema verite illustrates real life, perhaps the filming of this documentary contributed to the exaggerated eccentricity of the Edies. This in no way means authenticity was not captured though, as the unexpected swagger these women exuded only represented their personalities, and their lifelong battle for attention and wishes of fame. In a scene where Little Edie, as she had been nicknamed, is speaking directly to one of the Maysles brothers, she confidently expresses the reasoning behind her outfit, or as she calls it, “costume” of the day. In a centered medium shot, the camera slowly pans toward whatever article of clothing Little Edie is pointing at and describing, Little Edie herself seeming to be the director of the scene. She talks about how her mother wishes she worn a Kimono, which caused them to have a fight. Little Edie tries to exude cockiness in this scene, as if her outfit choice was absolutely superb, yet the audience gets a sense of tension when she brings up what her mother would have wanted. There is so much emotion and longing for attention within these women and the directors fabulously capture this with extreme close up shots of their facial expressions, and simply allowing the camera to naturally pan and follow their lead. This necessary sense of spontaneity has been questionable in other documentary filmmaking however.
Robert Flaherty, a director famous in the 1920’s, has been time and time again questioned for his biased and objective motives during his documentary filmmaking process of films such as Man of Aran (1936) (Rabiger 43). Flaherty has been slammed for putting together a family whom he thought was photogenic, as opposed to shooting an authentic kin. He had also focused Man of Aran on the Aran Islanders’ historical issues with nature while neglecting their important stresses of abuse within an outrageous social system. What here lies is a case of an artist, one with aesthetic preferences, a soft spot for the treasures of boyhood, and interests that outweigh necessities. These qualities that Flaherty possesses does agree with cinema verite, which led to controversial intentions and an unauthentic finished work. Flaherty’s work brought up questions of truth in documentary filmmaking, this rose a debate whether anything can be completely true if there is a camera involved. Flaherty was blind to his own personal theoretical assertions in terms of narrative preference and creative explorations in terms of aesthetics, which results in his films lacking in truth.
Although cinema verite involves simplicity, even in terms of limited equipment, which includes a hand-held camera, it also “indicates a position the filmmaker takes in regard to the world he films” (Mamber 1). When it comes down to it, the filmmaker should not have a strong position, he or she should be there to simply document an uncontrolled reality, often a reality that is hidden behind the scenes. Although film is an art form, cinema verite involves almost no artistic insight. After footage is shot of “real” people in an uncontrolled environment, the director may edit the video in order to accurately display how he or she witnessed it, any more than that may be manipulative and unauthentic (Mamber 3), which is why Robert Flaherty’s work is so controversial.
Dziga Vertov, a Russian filmmaker active in the 1920’s, has stated that, in relation to cinema verite filmmaking, “there was no one truth, that editing could serve to support any truths (or lies) that one wished” (Mamber 5). Vertov’s standpoint argues that there is always in fact influence of the director. Perhaps the same reality could be told in more than one way, which is contradictory to the definition of cinema verite, but maybe these grey areas are unavoidable. In the documentary film High School (1968), directed by Frederick Wiseman, there is a scene exhibiting some sort of sex “education,” a word that should be taken loosely in this case, assembly in front of only male high school students. A male gynecologist gives a crude speech about sex to these male students, making extremely inappropriate jokes bragging about the hymens of his patients, and even using the slang term, “cherry.” His cocky attitude and “cool guy” approach made the teen boys erupt in laughter, the audio very aggressively capturing their enthusiasm, clearly hyping up the gynecologist’s ego. This is filmed as a medium shot, but as his speech continues, the camera zooms in to a close up, capturing the emotions of pleasure and satisfaction on his face. The camera pans back and forth between the students and the gynecologist. This raises the question, was it necessary for the camera to zoom in on facial expressions, is that implying something? Does the director want us to notice a change in mood in this man as these young boys praise him, or is he being a ham for the camera? Although this scene is superb and shocking, these choices, as well as Vertov’s points, are all things to be noticed.
High School was a pretty eye-widening film, as it exposed Philadelphia’s Northeast High School for its extremely questionable treatment of its students and the abuse of authority taken place there. Much of the documentary includes scenes where students are belittled and/or treated unfairly. For example, a scene exhibits a fashion design teacher having her students walk on stage wearing the garments they created for class, while she proceeds to make negative comments on their appearance like “she has a weight problem, she knows it.” Situations like this, and the sex education scene, are not favorable, which is why the school was not happy with the documentary. “The very style of cinema verite documentary made it the perfect form for an ‘enquiring and critical press’” (Grant 225). Cinema verite allows the public to see what is usually kept under wraps, which is quite moving in a situation where there is some sort of social injustice. It is interesting to realize the fact that the subjects of the film are the ones exposing the truth about themselves, rather than being exploited, which is part of what makes cinema verite so powerful (Grant 225).
It also must be considered that the filmmaker has the power to choose when to start filming, even if it is a spontaneous decision based on a favorable occurrence (Bordwell 337). Yes that is right, it is very easy for cinema verite to become biased, even if it is unintentional, which goes against the whole authenticity factor. High School would be a lot less interesting if it consisted of shots of students simply learning trigonometry or eating lunch, which likely did happen, but did not make it into the feature. It seems almost impossible that 80 minutes can be picked out from 40 hours or raw footage without some personal insight creeping in, which leads to death of neutrality. Angles and framing can also skew neutrality, as those are also decisions that can emit from creativity or political/social issues (Bordwell 337). Examples of this can also be seen throughout director D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967), a documentary illustrating the events that occurred during Dylan’s 1965 England tour. Much of the documentary shows Dylan acting somewhat bratty to be perfectly honest. Dylan does not seem very appreciative or enthusiastic about much while on tour, his cocky attitude seeming to define him throughout the film. A scene shows a man trying to talk to Dylan, Dylan hardly giving him any attention as he loudly plays his guitar, the audio vividly picking up every strum, possibly to accurately show how rude Dylan is being. They talk about friendship, and Dylan seems to taunt the man, teasing him and questioning him about what makes his friends truly his friends. Dylan tells the man that some of his recent interviews consisted of “lies and rubbish.” The man starts getting frustrated as Dylan loudly plays his guitar and barely looks at him, obviously not so enthralled with the conversation. He questions Dylan’s attitude and Dylan exclaims that he has an attitude when he doesn’t like or know a person. Dylan cockily questions the man about his motive and purpose in life. This awkward encounter goes on for quite a while, and the director captures it all very well. Although the director gets both of their faces in the frame at certain points, Bob Dylan is the star of this frustratingly-cringe-inducing conversation. The director keeps his camera pointed at Dylan for quite a while, getting extreme close ups of him as he smugly furrows his brow and smokes a cigarette. The audience hears the whiny voice of the man getting more and more upset with Dylan, but the audience sees Dylan’s reaction to all of his surroundings. Now the director could have used a medium shot to absorb the emotions of both people, but rather chose to focus on Dylan. It’s hard not to pay attention to him and his pill-like behavior, and it seems as though Dylan feeds off of this attention, so was this the goal? Some of Pennebaker’s work is seemingly suggestive, encouraging the audience to feel a certain way about Dylan, whether or not that was entirely Dylan’s own doing, and this may just be an unavoidable circumstance of humanity seeping into the morals of cinema verite.
When it comes to ethics in cinema verite filmmaking, consent from the subject is one of the most important factors to consider, as that is what gives the filmmakers the A-okay to use footage (Pryluck 256). However, getting consent to use footage can be examined as somewhat manipulative. “The method of obtaining consent is stacked in the filmmaker’s favor. The ethical problem raised by such approaches is that they give the potential subject no real choice: the initiative and momentum of the situation favor the filmmaker” (Pryluck 256). Large, fancy camera equipment and a crew of people all wanting the same thing from you may seem intimidating, and because of this, subjects often give in to consent. All of this may seem harmless in goofy prank hidden camera shows like Allen Funt’s Candid Camera (1948), but when capturing more serious topics and personal lives of the subjects become the goal, this slanted form of achieving consent may be more sinister. The fine lines of ethics in cinema verite start to blur “when we use people in a sequence we put them at risk without sufficiently informing them of potential hazards” (Pryluck 258). This particular question of ethics can be present within Frederick Wiseman’s startling, yet powerful film Titicut Follies (1967). While it documents the daily lives and horrors that occur in a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane, the differences between exposing and exploiting start to get fuzzy. On one hand it is debatably downright necessary that the abusive conditions were brought to public attention, but on the other hand it is hard to say how much consent was given from the actual patients of the hospital, considering they are mentally disabled, some more severely than others. One particularly graphic scene focuses on a patient being very aggressively force fed through a large tube, which is shoved up his nose in a motion that is anything other than slinking. The man who stands above the nude patient barbarically pours some sort of liquid food into a funnel attached to the tube while simultaneously smoking, ashes falling onto the patient’s skin. This shot is not shy at all, the director constantly panning and zooming in to extreme close ups of the patient’s skin-and-bones body, as well as the faces of the men who are holding him down and the man who is doing the force feeding. In this particular scene, audio is extremely important, as the audience can hear that these men who are attending to the patient are just bantering about irrelevant nonsense, as well as loads of commotion happening in the background. Nothing here is private, the scene feels so exposed, easily being one of the most anxious scenes within the film. The patient is speechless, uttering nothing in this catastrophic moment. There is a sense here that the director was completely eating up this scene, the great attention brought on the graphic details of this horrendous moment never interrupted. As important as it was for this treatment to be brought to the attention of the public, perhaps the patient’s decency was not appropriately considered. This can be harmful, especially considering this mentally ill patient may not have fully understood the hazards of being exploited in this way.
Cinema verite style filmmaking is in my eyes beautifully simplistic, but perhaps an unattainable goal. I do not believe there is a way to record real life without inducing one’s own thoughts and biases into the work. Nor could anyone be exactly like his or her truest self when completely aware of a camera in his or her face. Existentialism will always win when it comes to this particular battle. Although techniques within this genre are often controversial and contradicting, overall cinema verite aims to honor the realism that is not always visible in society from a quiet and unbeknownst perspective.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. “High School.” Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. N. pag. Print.
Grant, Barry Kieth, and Jeannette Sloniowski. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of. Detroit: Wayne State Univ, 1998. Print.
Mamber, Stephen. “Cinema Verite : Definitions and Background.” Introduction. Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary. Cambridge: Mass., 1974. N. pag. Print.
Pryluck, Calvin. “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming”. No1 ed. Vol. Vol. 28. Illinois: Illinois, 1976. Print. Journal of Univ. Film Assoc.
Rabiger, Michael. “Documentary History.” Directing the Documentary. Burlington MA: Focal, 2015. N. pag. Print.
Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, D. A. Pennebaker (1967)
Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hoyde, David Maysles (1976)
High School, Frederick Wiseman (1968)
Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman (1967)