Cinema Verite

The cinéma vérité revolution opened a window onto real life and real issues. It freed the documentary from stilted, staged shots.

Peter Wintonick

“It’s all art. There is no reality. It is all constructed” according to Peter Wintonick when interviewed at the 1999 Adelaide International Documentary Conference about his latest documentary, Cinema Vérité: Defining the Moment (1999). Throughout this interview, he traversed the debates and discussions central to the development of the documentary and the role of cinema vérité as a technique to closer approximate the recording of ‘truth’. Cinema Vérité: Defining the Moment is a comment on such historical documentary debates over time, including the more recent revolutionary development of new technologies and the wider changes in film language. This new film by Peter Wintonick can be seen as an extension of his earlier films and multi-media work, focusing on the contribution of cinema vérité to contemporary documentary and film culture.

Wintonick was co-producer and co-director (with Mark Achber) of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), the most successful theatrically released non-fiction feature in Canadian history. Wintonick’s company name Necessary Illusions attests to his attachment to the radical media activist Noam Chomsky who writes extensively on the construction of media, and he published a book also named Necessary illusions. Both Wintonick’s films – Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media and Cinema Vérité: Defining the Moment – discuss the construction of reality, notions of ‘truth’, and the media. “I have tried to combine a responsible look at my own profession with political substance and social consciousness”, he says.

Cinema Vérité is a sumptuous feast of old black and white vérité footage from some of the masters working in observational filmmaking. For the practitioner, it presents a landscape of historical figures that have made their mark. Embellished with his own crazed drawings, Wintonick elaborates upon the international development of cinema vérité, inter-cut with old footage of an audience looking on in utter disbelief at his presentation. Interviewed about his own work, Wintonick uses:

vérité along with essay form, archival footage and then mirrors it along with fiction. Whatever you choose from the pallet. You try to level and layer things so they are more complex. The world is a complex reality. You can never do it properly because if you look at media it is just a two dimensional thing. Great pure films are transcendent. It’s a delivery system of knowledge, premonition and encouragement”.

Cinema Vérité is testimony to the evolution of documentary, having superseded the preaching, polemic and educational mode. This film is transparent and casual, with the Canadian style inclusion of the film crew proceeding with the task of filming. Comical devices are part of Wintonick’s style, which we saw in his earlier film, Manufacturing Consent, with the mouse running over an article on Chomsky and Skinner in The New York Review. He projects Chomsky’s discussion about sport from a large football stadium screen, using the scoreboard to write text.

Wintonick is both funny peculiar and funny hilarious. He says of himself: “I am too much of a Buddhist to think about purity. I am too much of an impure Buddhist to think about things purely. I am too much of an Atheist”. His wit is evident in his film in its comical use of awful documentary footage about stepladders and early National Film Board footage discussing the difference between documentary and feature films. The difference according to the National Film Board representative, Bob, is that: “Generally speaking documentaries are shorter films, and they have to say some thing in the way of a message. They are informational films”.

Wintonick avoids any laboured discourse or loaded theoretical debate in identifying what the proponents of vérité filmmaking wanted to achieve. Cinema vérité includes hand held camera and the least directive approach to collecting film footage. “Vérité in all its variants remained faithful to its highest aspiration of recording the truth of artfully filmed reality”, says Wintonick.

The debate central to cinema vérité is the notion of remaining an unobtrusive observer, impartial and outside the process. However, impartial observation while filmmaking has long been refuted as unachievable. Although ‘the fly on the wall’ notion has been heralded as an ideal in documentary, it has also raised the important point of whether it is possible to get a ‘true’ picture of reality. Does your presence change the dynamics? It is now accepted that the filmmaker’s participation as an observer changes the dynamics. No longer can you claim to be an objective observer. You have a set of values or ‘looking glasses’ the moment you interact with a subject and the selection of a subject is value laden. Contemporary filmmakers do not want to be aligned with this naïve notion, but it has been central to the documentary being perceived as a more truthful or accurate account of events.

The other distinguishing factor central to cinema vérité was the move from constructed films to an exploratory form of documentary. Wintonick shows us how they convinced a film funding body to back a film that cannot be scripted and the early experiences of the filmmakers moving into this uncharted territory. Shoot, and discover the story within. The rebellious threw away their scripts and tripod, and moved to more portable synchronised sound and picture camera. It “was an upheaval of an old order of image-making which has had a tremendous impact on both sides of the camera on current media practice and on the way we expect visual media to look”, according to Wintonick.

Wintonick includes the following cinema vérité practitioners charting their personal discoveries through the process of filmmaking. Jean Rouch recalls making the personal distinction as a child between real and not real. He was watching Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and asked his parents if it was a ‘true story’. His mother replied that she thought it was real, but to ask his father. His father said it was real but that it was acted. Herein lie the complexities of documentary. Wintonick outlines these with discursive comments from a range of practitioners.

In the documentary, Koenig articulates that he is always “open to moments that reveal”. He gives his pearls of wisdom, with the analogy of a stringed set. “The intellect is the enemy” and that “it is about theatre – it’s all manufactured”. He uses the camera as a catalyst, rather than seeing it as a neutral object. Robert Drew wanted to see life’s essays on TV, using a dramatic logic as a new basis for journalism. “Using deductive logic we can see ‘truth’ through other peoples personal experience”. He felt journalism should be more spontaneous and human, and early documentaries were boring because they were invariably a lecture. Reisz wanted audiences to identify with detail, as opposed to using argument, polemic or offering conclusions. Brault states his intent is “to get close to people through picture or sound. Picture and sound must dominate”. Leacock, the great improviser of equipment, wants the viewer to feel like they were present at the time of the filming, to feel they were there. He asks the pertinent question: “If they had handicams at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, would that have helped very much? I don’t know”.

We also see the premature yearnings of Russian Dziga Vertov to create cinema of reality with sync sound but he is thwarted by the limitations of technology at the time. He was the early instigator of manifestos, wanting reportage based on real life. “Provda! It is the truth”. Maysles and Wiseman present the American psychological, and psycho-social exploration with vérité. Wiseman describes vérité as a pompous French term that has no meaning. For him it is about organising a sense of the dramatic. It is conscious manipulation. Kopple has moved from being a purist using vérité only. She feels it is good for action but chooses to use interviews to probe her subject. She describes a shift from the aggressive “image stealing” she learned in film school, “where you hope the subjects don’t know that you have taken them”.

These are radical departures from the constructed documentary and ‘the voice of God’ or anonymous voiceover that drove the early documentary. Reality based TV, newsreels, and TV literacy have dictated some of the changes. The introduction of sync sound and smaller cameras have also liberated documentary. Wintonick says: “Today, we see the influence of vérité in everything from music videos to feature films to TV news. Yet these things are not vérité films. The key difference, I think, is that today’s contemporary image industry is almost wholly devoid of thoughtful content; it is pure image without the sense of social self and social responsibility that vérité filmmakers brought to their work”. The end of the film culminates with the modern use of vérité as a style or film language to indicate reality. The reality of shaky-cam or handycam without the polish of the Hollywood machine.

One myth Wintonick leaves untouched is the confused idea that truth and poverty are related symbiotically. This is still apparent today with independent documentary remaining the poor cousin of the feature film. Keeping documentary filmmakers poor, however, does not make a more honest film.

About The Author

Katherine Speller is a documentary filmmaker (Maverick) and regular contributor to the online documentary journal, documenter.com.