Documentary filmmaking is as old as the motion picture format itself. There has always been a desire for film and video directors to 'tell the story as it happens'.
Just like any other story telling device, documentaries can be broken up into three types; Docudrama, Observational Documentation and Cinéma Vérité. Having shot all three styles, cinéma vérité has proven to be most challenging. Roughly described as 'Film Truth', cinéma vérité is the filmmaker's attempt to give an unbiased look at living stories.
The History of Cinéma Vérité
Influenced by the newsreels of turn of the century Russian reporter Dziga Vertov, French documentary filmmakers in the 1960s copied his style of 'unbiased' recordings of events and interviews. In honor of Vertov the French filmmakers called their version cinéma vérité. It was those early French Director's intention to create films that told the unbiased truth. Yet, they immediately ran into the paradox that by the very nature of being human, it is impossible to tell an 'unbiased' story. In fact, unlike Observational Documentation where the film subject is unaware of the camera, in cinéma vérité the presence of the camera often influences the opinions and actions of the subject!
That the presence of the camera causes the subject to change their normal behavior is not a stretch to imagine. We've all seen people freeze or ham it up the instant a camera is pointed at them. So it should not be hard to believe that the camera can influence the events being filmed. With that in mind, potential cinéma vérité directors should be aware of their unintentional tendency to color what is intended to be a film based on 'pure truth.'
So what does all this mean to you the prospective cinéma vérité documentarian? More than you would think. Whether aware of it or not, you've seen the style used in various flavors on the big and small screens by filmmakers like Ken Burns, Spike Lee, Michael Moore and many others. One of the best examples of modern cinéma vérité filmmaking is the television show COPS. True to classic cinéma vérité style, COPS gets close as a filmmaker can to shooting 'pure reality'. What takes the show beyond observational documentation is that the camera is visible to the subjects and therefore influences both the officers and perpetrators behavior.
The most important influence on your potential cinéma vérité project will be your own opinions and biases. Your own background, personality, expectations and ethics will shape the type of story you'll end up telling. So don't be disappointed when you set out to 'tell the truth as it happened' and realize you've bent the story according to your own beliefs. Don't worry, this is not a bad thing. Cinéma vérité is an art form and you, the filmmaker, will 'paint' your story according to your vision. Instead of a made-up narrative story created from a script, the 'colors' you'll use will come from real events and how your presence affected the real people involved.
Research is Crucial
Of course, with any type of filmmaking, there's 'good news and bad news'. Making a film in the cinéma vérité style is no different. The bad news is; starting out, making your first cinéma vérité film is hard. I say that because to get enough information to gain a clear idea of how best to cover your story, you'll need to do some serious research on the topic you're looking to shoot. Again, that's not a bad thing. Of course you could just run out and shoot, but you'll have a difficult time trying to piece together a proper story with a bunch of random footage. I've been there, done that and it is zero fun. Once you've researched your topic, you'll need a premise or theme for your film. The theme should be no more than three sentences that sum up your intended story. Once you have your theme then you'll need to plan out a schedule of who, when and where you can get the best interviews and footage to cover your story. » Continued on page (2/3)