Cinéma vérité and the New Documentary

Chronique d'un été (Paris 1960) (1961)

"Between 1958 and 1963, documentary filmmaking was transformed. Documentarists began to utilize lighter and more mobile equipment, to work in smaller crews, and to reject traditional conceptions of script and structure. The new documentary sought to study individuals, to reveal the moment-by-moment development of a situation, to search for instants of drama or psychological revelation. Instead of staged scenes dominated by a voice-over narration, the new documentary would let the action unfold naturally and permit people to speak for themselves." [2]

"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. [1]

Several factors influenced the new approach. Most generally, Italian Neorealism had intensified documentarists' urge to capture everyday life. "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, candid cinema, uncontrolled cinema, observational cinema, or cinéma vérité ("cinema truth"). These terms have taken on different emphases, with direct cinema 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. [1]

Moreover, television needed motion pictures to fill airtime, and network news organizations sought a fresh approach to audiovisual journalism. In the United States, Canada, and France, documentarists affected by these conditions forged distinct versions of Direct Cinema.

The United States

Robert Drew

"In the United States, Direct Cinema emerged under the auspices of the photojournalist Robert Drew. Drew wanted to bring to television reporting the dramatic realism he found in Life magazine's candid photography. In 1954, he met Richard Leacock, who had worked on Native Land (1942) and had been cinematographer for Flaherty's Louisiana Story (1948). With the backing of Time, Inc., Drew hired Leacock, Don Pennebaker, David and Albert Maysles, and several other filmmakers. [2]

Primary (1960)

"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. [1]

Primary (1960)

"Leacock, Pennebaker, the Maysleses, and Terence Macartney-Filgate all worked as cinematographers. Although the film contained some lip-sync sound, its visual authenticity attracted more attention. The camera followed the politicians working the streets, riding from town to town, and nervously relaxing in hotel rooms. Primary's drama was heightened by crosscutting between the two candidates and by voice-over news reports, which largely replaced explanatory commentary.

Shortly afterward, Drew and Leacock were commissioned to make several films for ABC television, notably Yanki, No! (1960), an examination of anti-US feelings in Latin America, and The Children Were Watching (1961), a study of school integration. Between 1961 and 1963, Drew Associates made twelve more films, including Eddie (1960), Jane (1962), and The Chair (1963). Ten of these films became known as the "Living Camera" series. By now they fully exploited direct sound.

Primary (1960)

Drew, who exercised editorial control over most of the films made by the company, saw documentary as a way of telling dramatic stories. "In each of the stories there is a time when man comes against moments of tension, and pressure, and revelation, and decision. It's these moments that interest us most." For Drew, Direct Cinema gripped audiences through what came to be called its crisis structure. Most Drew-unit films center on a high-stakes situation to be resolved in a few days or hours. The film arouses the viewer's emotion by showing conflict, suspense, and a decisive outcome. Primary exploits the crisis structure, as does The Chair, which shows lawyers' struggles to save a reha bilitated convict from execution. The crisis puts the participants under stress and reveals their personalities. Often, as in Eddie or Jane, the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, and the film ends with a scrutiny of his or her emotional reaction.

Drew used multiple crews on most films, tracing out several lines of action and intercutting between different forces racing against the clock. He encouraged each cameraman to efface himself, to accustom the subjects to his presence, and to respond intuitively to the developing drama. The approach was that of feature journalism, in which the reporter balances respect for the facts with subjective judgments about selection and emphasis.

Salesman (The Maysles Brothers, 1968)

Soon Drew's filmmakers left the unit to form their own companies. The Maysles brothers departed to make Showman (1963), a study of film producer Joseph E. Levine, and What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964). Far more episodic than the Drew films, the Maysleses' projects avoided the crisis structure and offered casual, sketchy portraits of show-business celebrities. What's Happening!, the first Direct Cinema film in the United States to omit voice-over narration entirely, was simply a diary of the Beatle's tour, rousing one professional television producer to complain, "As most documentary filmmakers understand the film, it was hardly a film at all." [2]

"The Maysles' post-Drew contributions moved away from the 'crisis' style of early cinéma vérité films to focus on the mundane. They continued, however, to feature prominent personalities such as Marlon Brando (Meet Marlon Brando, 1965). Salesman (1968) was notable for its look at a group of 'ordinary Americans', men making a marginal living by selling bibles door to door. Once again the subjects were performers, but here the film-makers were indeed seeking to penetrate an individual's public persona; the camera plays the role of psychoanalyst as we watch Paul Brennan go through a personal crisis. Brennan has lost his ability to sell, to manipulate customers, to perform. His cynicism gives way to a new sincerity - perhaps prodded by the camera - and he no longer believes his own routine. The exploration of a subject's inner, psychological world is pushed further in Grey Gardens (1975), which looks at Edith and Eddie Beale, a mother and daughter who live in a rundown house in exclusive Easthampton, Long Island. Their superficially supportive, though mutually destructive, relationship is a study in family pathology. The film-makers move away from an observational approach and act as catalysts in this film, actively interacting with their subjects. The Maysles' growing affinity with cinéma vérité techniques was already evident in Gimme Shelter (1970), a look at the Rolling Stones' US tour, which ended with a free concert at Altamont, California, and the death of a guntoting fan who was butchered by the Hell's Angels. Mick Jagger, unaware of the killing until later, was brought into the editing room to view footage of the murder, enabling the Maysles to exploit the violence even as they offer a self-reflexive critique." [1]

Don't Look Back, 1967

D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock also left Drew Associates, forming their own firm. Pennebaker made a study of handicapped twins (Elizabeth and Mary, 1965) and specialized in films documenting American popular music. "D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look back (1967) chronicles Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England. Dylan fends off reporters trying to 'understand' and pigeon-hole his music, politics, and personality while Pennebaker, a tour insider, quietly films those situations that animate the singer as he flirts with fame. In Dylan's low-tech music (he sings solo, playing an acoustic guitar and harmonica) Pennebaker sees a counterpart to his own film-making (with its images derived from a 'home-made', one-man camera). Pennebaker went on to make Monterey Pop (1968), an early and successful concert film (or 'rockumentary'), in which his camera-work responds to, and complements, the performer and his music - particularly in the sequence featuring Jimi Hendrix.

Richard Leacock (1921-2011)

Richard Leacock became a controversial teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an advocate for Super 8, one-person film-making. Such equipment, he felt, was less intrusive and a further rejection of commercial technologies. Leacock and several of his students (Marisa Silver, Jeff Kreines, and Joel DeMott) returned to the documentary mainstream when working on Peter Davis's documentary series Middletown (1982). Leacock (camera) and Silver (sound) made Community of Praise (1983), examining one family's desperate search for faith and religious meaning in Muncie, Indiana. Kreines and DeMott followed a group of high-school seniors, focusing on a white woman engaged in an interracial romance with a black student. This controversial film was ultimately banned from commercial airways." [1]

"Leacock, the most proselytizing of US Direct Cinema filmmakers, advocated what he called "uncontrolled cinema." The filmmaker would not interfere with the event; the filmmaker simply observed, as discreetly and responsibly as possible. Leacock believed that a selfeffacing crew could become so integrated into a situation that people would forget they were being filmed.

The purpose of uncontrolled cinema, Leacock claimed, is "to find out some important aspect of our society, by watching how things really happen as opposed to the social image that people hold about the way things are supposed to happen." Leacock 's concern for Direct Cinema's power to reveal social institutions through face-to-face interactions was to prove significant for a generation of filmmakers. [2]

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. In contrast to prior practice, cinéma vérité film-makers in America refrained from telling the subjects what to do or how to act; they refused to 'direct' the film. Subjects would occasionally acknowledge the camera or even talk to the film-makers, but it was considered preferable for the subject to interact directly with the outside world on his or her own terms. If the subject sought direction, then that wish for guidance becomes a proper and revealing moment worth including in a film. The film-maker's goal was to respond to these presentations of self rather than to re-present, and therefore construct, the subject according to his own preconceptions. Many cinéma vérité films thus credited the producer, camera crew, and editor but refused to name a director - in fact the cameraman was typically seen as the film's 'author'. [1]


"Television was a major impetus for the emergence of Direct Cinema in Canada. The creation of national broadcasting in 1953 encouraged documentarists at the National Film Board (NFB) to shoot in 16mm and rapidly make topical works. Two movements emerged at about the same time, one among English-speaking Canadians, the other among Francophones in Quebec.

The Back-breaking Leaf (1959)

The NFB's B unit made several films for Candid Eye, an English-language series broadcast in the fall of 1958 and 1959. These films took a candid-camera approach, with hidden cameras and telephoto lenses. With a few exceptions - notably the first film in the series, The Days before Christmas (1958) - they did not employ lip-sync sound. Terrence McCartney Filgate encouraged use of the hand-held camera in this film, in his study of the Salvation Army (Blood and Fire, 1958), and in his examination of the plight of migrant tobacco pickers (The Back-breaking Leaf, 1959).

Avoiding scripts and letting the structure emerge from editing, the "Candid Eye" directors shared Drew's belief in an objective, observational cinema. Whereas Drew was influenced by Life photojournalism, the Canadian group looked instead to British Free Cinema and to photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who sought the exact moment of insight that illuminates everyday, unspectacular incidents. Thus the "Candid Eye" films lack the crisis structure of the Drew unit's work.

The "Candid Eye" series ended by 1960, but filmmakers associated with it went on to other documentaries. The most distinctive was Lonely Boy (1962), a portrait of singer Paul Anka by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor. This ironic expose of how popular music exploits both its stars and its public showed how Direct Cinema techniques could be used to slant the viewer's attitudes. In one sequence, we hear Anka explain how he calculates a gesture while we see him onstage making the gesture, which might have seemed spontaneous without his voice-over. The filmmakers present Anka as confessing to manipulating his fans.

Les raquetteurs (1958)

The NFB's move to Montreal in 1956 had created more French involvement in the agency. In 1958, three French filmmakers shot Les raquetteurs (The Snowshoers), a humorous and affectionate report on a convocation of snowshoe enthusiasts. Although shot in 35 mm without direct sound, the film was a landmark for Direct Cinema in Canada. The cinematographer Michel Brault plunged into the action in a manner that looked forward to the Drew unit's wide angles and fluid camera.

Praise for Les raquetteurs encouraged the NFB to establish a French-language unit consisting of Brault, Gilles Groulx, Claude Jutra, Marcel Fournier, and others. La lutte (The Match, 1961), Golden Gloves (1961), and Québec-U.S.A. ou L'invasion pacifique (1962) revealed the French team's proficiency with the new equipment and the members' dedication to a committed version of Direct Cinema. Unlike the Candid Eye group, which embraced an aesthetic of obj ectivity, the French team identified with the people and their urban popular culture.

The urge to explore the social identity of the Francophone community came to the fore in the feature length Pour la suite du monde (For the Rest of the World, aka Moontrap, 1963). Cameraman Michel Brault, the poet Pierre Perrault, and their sound recordist lived for a year in an isolated French Canadian village where a variant of seventeenth-century French was still common speech. Consisting primarily of interviews with people recalling the community's history, Pour la suite du monde illustrates what Perrault called Cinéma vécu ("lived cinema"). "Nothing is more real than an old man telling of an event he has lived through. Often the facts themselves may not have any value but the telling of them has." Perrault brought to light the history and customs of the French Canadian population through several later films." [1]


Edgar Morin

"American cinéma vérité can be contrasted with the French approach championed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (the sociologist who coined the phrase cinéma vérité). In an article written in the January 1960 issue of France observateur Morin declared that 'a new cinéma vérité was possible', one in which the documentary captured 'the authenticity of life as it is lived'. In this approach, the film-maker becomes an active participant and helps to create a sociodrama for the camera. The subject is given the chance to play out his life before the film-maker, a game 'which has the value of psychoanalytic truth, that is to say precisely that which is hidden or repressed comes to the surface'. The emphasis on psychology and the filmmaker's active participation in the mise-en-scene distinguishes this approach from the observational style of the Americans.

Morin and Rouch collaborated on Chronique d'un été (Paris 1960) (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), a film that elaborated on the methods they had advocated, turning ethnographic insights towards the metropolitan centre. Shot in Paris and the south of France during the summer of 1960, the film employed the still emerging technology of portable cameras. For Chronique d'un ete, Morin and Rouch filmed a gradually widening circle of people, asking them if they were happy and how they lived. They set up scenes (Marceline walking through the Place de la Concorde and talking to herself, her dead father, and the microphone) and arranged meetings among the principals (Angelo, a factory worker, talks with Landry, a student from West Africa). Not only do the film-makers routinely challenge their subjects with questions and frequently appear in front of the camera, they sometimes turn their subjects into film-makers: Marceline, for example, does a series of man-in-the-street interviews and also carries the tape recorder during her monologue. At the end, those associated with the film view the edited footage and comment on what they have seen. The documentary concludes with the two film-makers, the participant observers, walking through the Musée de l'Homme and discussing the sometimes unexpected responses of their participant subjects. Edgar Morin remarks, "to see now that people that I like very much, like Marilou and Marceline, are criticized, that upsets me. I believed the viewer would like the characters that I liked." As he concludes, "That's the difficulty of communicating something. We are too implicated."

Chronique d'un été (Paris 1960) (1961)

Morin and Rouch made choices that differed substantially from those of Drew and his associates. Both groups favoured a mobile camera and long takes, but the Americans tended to focus on celebrities who were in some ways skilled at presenting themselves to a spectator, to a public (and often even to a camera). Drew sought to 'cover a story' within the conventions of mainstream journalism, with a clear demarcation between the filmmaker reporters and those people appearing in the documentary. The French operated more within an anthropological framework, which had little interest in a story-line: the film unfolds in loose chronological fashion. The film-makers embrace their subjects but end up questioning the very process of documentary film-making, recognizing its possibilities for exploitation and perhaps celebrating its unpredictability. [1]

"Chronique's prologue calls the film "a new experiment in cinema-truth (cinéma vérité)." The important word is 'new', since Morin believed that the emerging technology and the willingness to explore everyday life permitted filmmakers to go beyond Vertov's Kino Pravda ("film-truth"). But the label got applied to far more than Chronique, and even American filmmakers began to call their work cinéma vérité. A 1963 conference of filmmakers found it too biased a term, but up to the present, cinéma vérité remains a synonym for Direct Cinema.

A more hybrid version of Direct Cinema was explored in two films by Mario Ruspoli, shot by Michel Brault (cameraman on several French Canadian films as well as Chronique). Les inconnus de la terre (The Unknown Ones of the Land, 1961) studies the poor peasants of the Lozere region, observing peasants discussing their problems; and Regards sur la folie (A Look at Madness, 1962) visits an asylum in the same area. Ruspoli's films lie midway between the American "observational" method and the Rouch-Morin "provocational" one. At times, the camera style is discreet, even surreptitious. Yet, even more than Rouch, Ruspoli flaunts the act of recording, showing his crew and ending Regards sur la folie with the camera turning from a conversation between doctors to advance toward us. We are continually aware of the filmmaker's presence even if the subjects are not.

Le joli mai (1963)

A direct criticism of Rouch and Morin's method is to be found in Chris Marker's Le joli mai (The Pretty May, 1963). Marker could not embrace the Direct Cinema trend, preferring always to retain the voice of a narrator who reflects on the images before us. Le joli mai absorbs Direct Cinema techniques into a larger meditation on freedom and political awareness.

The first part of the film inquires into the state of happiness in Paris in May 1962, the moment when the Algerian war ended. Marker's aggressive questioning of smug or oblivious people pushes the camera-as-catalyst tactic to the point of rudeness. He also criticizes the limited, apolitical notion of happiness from which Chronique began. (Marker ironically dedicates his film "To the happy many.") A clothes salesman says that his goal in life is to make as much money as possible; a couple in love are indifferent to social issues. Part two, opening with mysterious evocations of terrorism and right-wing reprisals, consists of interviews with people who seek political solutions to contemporary problems.

Harsh and acerbic, shot through with Marker's quirky humor and poetic digressions, Le joli mai asks cinéma vérité to recognize the complexity of life and the political forces governing French society at a historical turning point. Yet Marker's meditation has its base in Direct Cinema; his evidence consists partly of his lipsync interviews. "Truth is not the destination," he conceded, "but perhaps it is the path."

Jean Rouch

The American, Canadian, and French exponents of Direct Cinema were keenly aware of each others' work. Many of them first met at a 1958 seminar. At a conference at Lyon in 1963, Direct Cinema documentarists debated their differences. Should the camera observe, empathize, or challenge? Is it more authentic to film with several cameras at once? Should the director be the camera operator? Above all, what is the responsibility of the director to the people, their lives, and the event recorded? Direct Cinema, apart from its technical and technological innovations, raised perennial issues of the ethics of documentary film." [2]

"Not all countries or film-makers embraced the technology and techniques of cinéma vérité so enthusiastically. In eastern Europe and the Soviet Union prestige documentaries were still shot in 35 mm. However, in general, during the 1960s, documentary enjoyed a prestige and popularity that were unprecedented, at least in peacetime." [1]

"By the mid-1960s, several sophisticated 16mm and 35 mm cameras offered all filmmakers the flexibility of Direct Cinema. The trend revolutionized documentary; after the early 1960s, most documentarists utilized the hand-held camera to snatch bits of arresting action. Direct Cinema also gave ethnographic filmmaking a new flexibility. It shaped the course of several national cinemas: the French Canadians Groulx and Jutra moved into features on the basis of their NFB work, while directors in Third World countries made Direct Cinema central to their style.

The open-ended, episodic narratives of Direct Cinema also reinforced tendencies in the fiction films of the art cinema. Stylistically, most of the new waves from 1958 to 1967 pledged themselves to the hand-held camera, available light, and apparently off-the-cuff shooting. (Few directors, however, undertook the harder task of recording direct sound.) More mainstream films, such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), and A Hard Day's Night (1964) invoked Direct Cinema techniques when a sense of spontaneous action was required. Even fiction films set in the distant past or the future could intensify their realism. And Direct Cinema became a central tool of western militant cinema of the 1960s, which relied on unstaged interviews, footage shot on the fly, and the ease of taped sound. In both technology and technique, Direct Cinema exercised a powerful international influence throughout the 1960s and 1970s." [2]


  • Blood and Fire (1958)
  • Les raquetteurs (1958)
  • The Days Before Christmas (1958)
  • The Back-breaking Leaf (1959)
  • Eddie (1960)
  • Primary (1960)
  • On the Pole (1960)
  • Yanki, No! (1960)
  • Aga Khan (1961)
  • Chronique d'un été (Paris 1960) (1961)
  • Golden Gloves (1961)
  • Furyo shonen (1961)
  • La lutte (1961)
  • Les inconnus de la terre (1961)
  • The Children Were Watching (1961)
  • The Exiles (1961)
  • Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)
  • Jane (1962)
  • Lonely Boy (1962)
  • Québec-U.S.A. ou L'invasion pacifique (1962)
  • Regards sur la folie (1962)
  • Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)
  • Le joli mai (1963)
  • Pour la suite du monde (1963)
  • Showman (1963)
  • The Chair (1963)
  • Faces of November (1964)
  • Happy Mother's Day (1964)
  • What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964)
  • Elizabeth and Mary (1965)
  • Meet Marlon Brando (1966)
  • Dont Look Back (1967)
  • Titicut Follies (1967)
  • Warrendale (1967)
  • High School (1968)
  • Monterey Pop (1968)
  • Salesman (1968)
  • A Married Couple (1969)
  • Medium Cool (1969)
  • Gimme Shelter (1970)
  • Hospital (1970)
  • Wanda (1970)
  • Punishment Park (1971)
  • Cocksucker Blues (1972)
  • Eat the Document (1972)
  • Grey Gardens (1975)
  • C'était un rendez-vous (1976)
  • Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
  • Community of Praise (1983)
  • Brother's Keeper (1992)
  • No Quarto da Vanda (2000)