A French film movement of the 1960s, born of the meeting between portable film equipment developed around WWII and a timely spirit of raw introspection borne by a desire to see truth revealed, Cinéma vérité greatly influenced global cinema, from the singular voice of Abbas Kiarostami to the populist conjurations of Christopher Nolan, and remains a vital and potent form of cinematic expression.
In the late 1950s, Swiss manufacturers created sound recorders that could sync in the field with film cameras; the field-worthy, light film cameras being fashioned during WWII for aerial and combat cinematography by French and German companies. It was natural for the filmmakers of this new, post-war environment to repurpose these military-industry tools to suit their cinematography— the art of writing with motion —and create new modes of truth expression, Cinéma vérité among them.
The ethos of Cinéma vérité grounds much of its roots in the pioneering cinema theory of Soviet filmmaker, Dziga Vertov. Co-creator of the prototypical newsreel series, Kino-Pravda (1922-5), he produced in collaboration with Yelizaveta Svilova, his wife, and Mikhail Kaufman, his brother, Vertov wrote, “the cinecamera [was perfected] to penetrate more deeply into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.” The camera is central to Cinéma vérité, acknowledged and understood within the document as an active, even confrontational presence— American documentarian, Michael Moore creates work that exemplifies contemporary use of confrontational camera aimed at uncovering truth. Raising a cry for revolutionary cinema based around “the ordinary people,” Vertov eloquently and boldly describes being one who looks at the world through a kino-glaz (cinema-eye; the eye that speaks with light), “a means of making the invisible visible, the obscure clear, the hidden obvious, the disguised exposed, and acting not acting. But it is not enough to show bits of truth on the screen, separate frames of truth. These frames must be thematically organized so that the whole is also truth.”
Taking this spirit of filmmaking to heart, and the borrowing the name of the Soviet news series— both Kino-Pravda and Cinéma vérité render as “Film Truth” in English —French documentarians, Jean Rouch foremost among them, used “Cinéma vérité” to express the geis under which they fashioned their art. With the freedom to explore, given a camera and mic untethered from studio locations, these artists were able to go anywhere they wished and record intimate moments of authentic circumstance. Two people could effectively cover the entirety of a film’s production phase, one on camera, one on mic. This physical and relatively economical freedom was coupled with a freedom of expression. During the war years, cinematic expression was dominated by propaganda and voices of establishment. Many realist forms of cinema arose after the war as filmmakers seized upon the newly made technology and exercised the freedom of speech enfranchised in peacetime, often to question the dominant narrative, particularly the heavily propagandized narratives of the warmongering powers. Feminist documentary filmmaking of the 1970s examined and challenged the dominant Patriarchal narrative, often utilizing methods à la Cinéma vérité in the pursuit of evoking truth unexpressed in society.
Unlike some other realist forms of cinema, such as Direct Cinema, a North American (particularly Québécoise) documentary style, which focused on catching the right moments, often through concerted planning, instead of creating situations, Cinéma vérité’s methods included a willingness, and indeed drive, to create situations that were not real in the sense of being free from artifice, instead being real or true because they expressed something fundamental beyond the instantaneous reality of the observed moment. To convey some abstract truth grounded in real life, the vérité cinéaste found it necessary to create situations, to incite people into genuine pursuit of specific action, to, with one’s kino-glaz, as Vertov writes, “avail [oneself] of all the current means of recording: ultra-high speed, microcinematography, reverse motion, multiple exposure, foreshortening, &c., and not consider these as tricks, but as normal techniques of which wide use must be made. Cinema-eye makes use of all the resources of montage, drawing together and linking the various points of the universe in a chronological or anachronistic order as one wills.” Jean Rouch notes that Cinéma vérité means not “the truth,” instead meaning “the truth of cinema,” a singular truth that arises from the juxtaposition of image and sound in motion over time, each iteration unique, as each person is unique, a truth not beholden to taxonomic rigour, left to grow, transform, be actually transmitted.
As a reviewable experience, the the truth of cinema is transferable and you are able to share the truth of others unimpeded by barriers of time, space, body and mind. When one makes a cinematograph vérité, writing one’s cinematographic truth, one invites you, an esteemed audience, to experience the film and find your truth reflected. The true montage of Cinéma vérité is this: the cinematographer’s truth and yours— a collaboration between artist, art, audience —from which arises a true expression in motion, always now, fresh, a film in conversation with all of us.
Vertov quotes and content from World Film Directors, vol. I, ed. John Wakeman. H.W. Wilson, NY 1987