The concept of Cinéma Vérité is more than an approach to filmmaking, it is a concept that speaks to the heart of humanity. Cinéma Vérité was an organic documentary style adopted all over the world, however one man, one of the earliest pioneers of the style, began it all with his movie camera.
Although, often regarded as one of the fathers of Cinéma Vérité, Dziga Vertov, was born with the name David Abelevich Kauffman in Białystok, Poland to a Jewish family. He later changed his name to Denis Arkadievich. (Early Soviet) “This sort of Russification,” an effort to better reflect the culture of his new home, “was typical for the young members of the Russophilic Jewish milieu in which he grew up,” after fleeing from the invading German Army. He was recruited by the musical section of a military academy, and never returned to his studies in the Psychoneurological Institute in St. Petersburg. In his free time he began experimenting with “sound collages,” expressing an early interest in audio engineering. He remained at the academy until the Revolution of 1917, after which time he left for Moscow. (Dziga)
However, Vertov was not the only talented filmmaker in his family, his younger brother, Mikhail, was also his, “main cameraman and the central character in their most famous film, Man with a Movie Camera.” (Barnouw, Media 185) While his youngest brother, Boris immigrated to Hollywood after WWII, and was pressured by McCarthyism, forcing him to “renounce his brothers, stating he had no living relatives in Russia.” (Boris Kaufman)
As previously mentioned, Dziga Vertov is most notably known for the documentary approach of Cinéma Vérité. “In homage to Vertov, the film makers called their technique Cinéma Vérité-translated from kino-pravda, film truth. It indeed had echoes of Vertov, particularly of Man With the Movie Camera, in that it was a compendium of experiments in the pursuit of truth. Some people promptly applied the term Cinéma Vérité to what others called direct cinema-the cinema of the observer-documentarist. But the new approach was in fact a world away from direct cinema, although both had stemmed from synchronous-sound developments. The direct cinema documentarist took his camera to a situation of tension and waited hopefully for a crisis…The direct cinema artist aspired to invisibility; the Rouch Cinéma Vérité artist was often an avowed participant. The direct cinema artist played the role of uninvolved bystander; the Cinéma Vérité artist espoused that of provocateur…Cinéma Vérité was committed to a paradox: the artificial circumstances could bring hidden truth to the surface.” (Barnouw, Documentary, 254-255)
The writings of Dziga Vertov “reflect a deep awareness of issues related to Cinéma Vérité. Vertov coined the term Kino-Pravda, which was applied to a series of 23 films he made between 1922 and 1925, each organized around a specific theme or idea.” (Mamber, 5)
Furthermore, Vertov’s attitude toward filmmaking, his interest in the development of technology especially in the area of sound and camera portability, and his approach to editing are instrumental in the shaping of our media landscape. “In the strongest possible terms, Vertov denounced all forms of theatrical, fictional cinema, calling for an end to the dependence of cinema upon literature, drama, and music, in other words, the characteristics of nearly all films made to that point.” He argued that cinema is “a branch of science and of each film as an experiment.” He challenged himself and his fellow filmmakers by setting the precedent, “To combine science with cinematic depiction in the struggle to reveal truth . . . to decipher reality.” (Mamber, 5-6)
Meaning, his goal was to observe and record life as it is, in its rawest form. ” However, his methods were and still are considered a bit radical, “He was also opposed to the use of actors, except when they are presented as real people in a film that attempts to study the relationship between their feelings and the roles they must play.” (Mamber, 5-6) For example, in Man with a Movie Camera, his brother, Mikhail, was both cameraman and actor. Mikhail not only shot much of the footage used in the poetic documentary, but also portrays a cameraman in Man with a Movie Camera. (Barnouw, Media 185)
An authoritative critic on Cinéma Vérité wrote on Vertov’s methods in 1929 commenting, “The director ordinarily invents the plot for the scenario – Dziga Vertov detects it. He does not, with the aid of authors, actors, and scenery carpenters, build an illusion of life; he thrusts the lens of his camera straight into the crowded centers of life.” (Mamber, 5-6) His unique way of filmmaking was executed in all of his films.
Another aspect that makes Vertov a revolutionary in the field of Cinéma Vérité and cinematography in general is his sense of camera awareness. For example, his “interest in hidden camera and telephoto and infrared lenses, his use of slow and fast motion, his extensive preplanning of filming according to a particular theme, and especially his emphasis on strong editing control in many ways correspond more closely to other forms of documentary than to Cinéma Vérité. Still, he was phenomenally prescient in this area, even if the direct path of influence goes off in a different direction.” (Mamber, 6-7)
However, his approach was only successful by the crucial implementation of editing. He explained this process through metaphor, equating shots of film as a unique brick, “With these bricks, one could build a chimney, the wall of a fort, or many other things. And just as good bricks are needed to build a house, in order to make good films one needs good bits filmed.” (Mamber, 5-6)
However, his innovation of the industry was not limited to cinematography and editing. He also experimented with sound his entire life, beginning with “sound collages” while studying in school. (Early Soviet) He recognized, “the importance of sound and, even more crucial, the need for synchronous sound…he developed the ‘Radio-Ear,’…Vertov’s recognition of the technical goals went even further, for he spoke of the need for a camera that could go anywhere under all conditions. He wanted the ‘Kino-Eye’ to be as mobile as the human eye.” (Mamber, 6-7)
As one of the founders of the concept of Cinéma Vérité, Vertov, explains, “tries to capture life as it happens and is not a reenactment of past events.” Meaning it attempts to “study the lives of individual people” an idea at the very heart of his films. He explains, “The difference was that I could not write on film events that had already occurred. I can only write simultaneously as the events are occurring…The endless process of observation with camera in hand.” (Mamber, 6-7)
Georges Sadoul, a French journalist and cinema writer, (Histoire générale) commented on Vertov’s interesting trend found throughout Man with a Movie Camera. He writes, “They chose people who were sufficiently absorbed in some spectacle or violent emotion so that they would forget the presence of a camera.” He continues, speaking specifically about the party scene featuring people drinking and listening to Jazz, “those being filmed became more used to the presence of the cameras as the evening wore on until they were behaving in the same manner as if they were not being filmed.” (Mamber, 6-7)
The concept of Cinéma Vérité has not been lost, but continues to be incorporated in culture. Within the last one hundred years the application has changed, however the method of setting a camera and capturing life as it happens remains the same.
For example, David and Albert Maysles, documentary filmmakers, implemented the concept of Cinéma Vérité throughout their careers. Often considered as the force that reinvigorated the concept of Cinéma Vérité into the industry, beginning in the 1960s. Their body of work includes: Salesman, (1968) Gimme Shelter, (1970) and possibly their most famous documentary, Grey Gardens. (1975) (Chalk) Although, not completely using the method of direct cinema, as the feature length documentary does include some interviews; but many scenes show the eccentricities of mother and daughter by playing out in front of a recording camera. Filmmakers, Maysles brothers, set up the camera and captured the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, as it unfolded naturally in their decaying mansion in East Hampton, New York. (Grey Gardens)
Another example of modern day Cinéma Vérité is the documentary, Warrendale (1966) directed by Allan King. “Warrendale is a documentary about the treatment of several mentally ill children at the Warrendale Treatment Centre. The film and the treatment centre caused a great deal of uproar about the invasion of privacy and the treatment of the children.” (Chalk)
Possibly the most well known documentary that incorporates elements of Cinéma Vérité, is The War Room, (1993) “a behind-the-scenes look at the politics of Governor Bill Clinton.” The documentary followed the then candidate from primaries, throughout the presidential campaign trail. (Chalk)
Although, as times have changed so has the location where you can find Cinéma Vérité today. Currently, the most likely place to find aspects of direct cinema is not in documentaries as Dziga Vertov had intended, but instead on the internet. Websites like Youtube, were originally designed to host videos containing everyday unfiltered moments.
Short Cinéma Vérité examples such as “Sneezing Panda” are the type of videos that originally made Youtube famous. The simple 10 second video documents exactly what its title suggests, a sneezing panda. Although, even though you know what is going to happen the 10 seconds of footage is still just as entertaining. (AllFamousVideos)
Another amusing example of Cinéma Vérité in which Youtube is famous for is “Afro Ninja.” This 7 second video features a man attempting to demonstrate martial arts, however he falls off camera instead. This video captures the attempt of staging action in front of a camera, but instead records life as it happens. (AllFamousVideos)
However, a new style of media has emerged within the last fifteen years, with a title that suggests Cinéma Vérité, but is anything but the capturing of truth. Ironically, this genre of television described as “Reality TV” is the farthest thing from Cinéma Vérité. For example, show titles like “Real Housewives” lead audiences to believe what they are watching is authentic. In fact, reality television shows are scripted and operate under the guise of unfolding in front of your eyes. In reality, the taping and editing of the footage distorts any semblance of reality the content originally had.
Reality television and the belief that is it real has become such a cultural phenomenon, that scripted shows have comedically pointed fun at it. On the Fox television procedural, “Bones” in Season 6, Episode 3 “The Maggots in the Meathead,” Dr. Temperance Brennan believes the reality show, “Jersey Shore” is a documentary series on the lifestyle of young people living in New Jersey. (“The Maggots in the Meathead”) The gag conveys a common belief held by most audience members, that reality shows are reality, and echo Cinéma Vérité. However, this desire to watch life as it happens, illustrates a universal hunger found in people from all walks of life, a hunger for real life.
In conclusion, Dziga Vertov’s intention behind Cinéma Vérité and cinema as a whole, was to reflect reality, and connect his audience by showing truth through images, unfiltered moments, and allowing life to happen in front of the camera. For this reason, as well as being one of the pioneers of Cinéma Vérité, Vertov. is considered to be the “‘father of the documentary’” in Russia, as Robert Flaherty is considered by the United States. (Barnouw, Media 185) Works Cited
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