What Is Cinéma Vérité? A Guide to This Vital Filmmaking Technique

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Photo Source: “Homeroom” Courtesy Hulu

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth 24 times per second,” says Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film “Le Petit Soldat.” Capturing the world has preoccupied humans since the first cave paintings, and no matter the medium, there is room for interpretation regarding realism. Godard was integral to the French New Wave in the 1960s, which also saw the birth of cinéma vérité within documentary filmmaking. This style spread and evolved, and its focus on an honest depiction has impacted the current cultural landscape and provided a foundation for reality television and mockumentary.  

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What is cinéma vérité?

cinéma vérité“Cinéma Vérité” (2011 Film) Courtesy HBO

The phrase translates to “truthful cinema,” or “cinema of truth.” The goal is to capture reactions and events without guiding a person on film with a detailed preconceived plan or script. While the filmmaker can insert themselves into the conversation, the idea is to make the audience feel like they are experiencing the situation firsthand. This genre of documentary filmmaking covers political, sociological, and cultural events. Along with non-actors, hallmarks such as shooting on location, natural lighting, and handheld shots add authenticity. 

By the mid-century, staged and scripted documentary style had become the norm. But a new generation of filmmakers began to inject realism into nonfiction storytelling using observational techniques to reveal truths rather than assert them. In “The Technique of Film Editing,” director Karel Reisz defines cinéma vérité as “a method of shooting and presenting material so as to preserve primarily spontaneity and flavor of the real event.” Letting the action unfold naturally leads to candid moments reflecting the subject’s reality rather than a stale interpretation.

What is the history of cinéma vérité?

When We Were Bullies“When We Were Bullies” Courtesy HBO

The French New Wave popularized cinéma vérité, but its roots lie in Soviet filmmaking. Between 1922 and 1925, Dziga Vertov directed the 23-part newsreel series “Kino-Pravda,” which captures everyday life in Moscow. Even with limited technology, Soviet filmmakers incorporated various techniques to deliver a realistic aesthetic. “Vertov had used hidden cameras in the streets in the 1920s,” writes Mark Cousins in “The Story of Film.” It would be nearly another 40 years before French sociologist Edgar Morin coined the term to define the style of revolutionizing documentaries—and they did so without secretly recording people.

Morin collaborated with director-anthropologist Jean Rouch on the seminal “Chronicle of a Summer” shot on 16mm film in Paris and Saint-Tropez during the summer of 1960. Rouch and Morin appear on camera (a function but not a necessity for cinéma vérité) in conversation about whether a person can be sincere when knowingly being filmed. The duo ask a range of people (including artists, factory workers, and students) political and emotion-based questions such as, “Are you happy?” The sociopolitical venture captured a snapshot of France in the early ’60s and gave rise to a new phenomenon. 

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Television also played a role in encouraging experimentation in the documentary field and creating the kind of material audiences now craved. “The film camera, not bound to the studio, was encouraged to become as direct as in interview situations,” explains Reisz. Technological advancements made it possible to venture out into different environments. Film cameras and tape recorders were lighter and capable of higher quality. “Finer 16mm stock capable of being blown up to 35mm without severe increase in grain was a help, too,” Reisz says. “The equipment is easily carried by two-man crews able to move in and around their subject unobtrusively.” 

Access to the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960 led to a watershed moment spearheaded by Robert Drew. The documentary pioneer worked at “Life” magazine in the ’50s, and this environment led to his desire to overhaul documentary filmmaking. “Real life never made it onto the screen,” Drew said of the stale state of non-fiction films. His production company, Drew Associates, paved the way for American cinéma vérité documentarians. 

In recent years, cinéma vérité influenced the advent of reality TV, led to the mockumentary comedy subgenre, and gave rise to low-budget box office sensations such as “The Blair Witch Project.”

How is cinema verité different from reality TV and direct cinema?

Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls“Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls” Credit: James Clark

The concept of “direct cinema” is similar to cinéma vérité but deploys a completely hands-off approach, with the filmmaker interfering as little as possible. Cinéma vérité, on the other hand, sees the filmmaker impacting the events, often through interview questions. In both cases, the narratives that unfold are affected by the fact that the subject knows they are being filmed. “The camera actively provokes the revelations it records,” David A. Cook writes in his exhaustive look at 1970s cinema, “Lost Illusions.” 

For Cook, the distinction is minimal: “In Rouch’s films no less than those of his American colleagues, it is the very presence of the camera when it is doing its mysterious work that provokes the revelations to which cinéma vérité aspires. And in their films as well as his, it is not reality as it is but reality as it is provoked by the act of filming that the camera documents.” 

Reality television is not technically “direct cinema” or cinéma vérité, as it does not capture its subjects in their natural environment. The contestants on “Survivor” or “Big Brother,” for example, don’t typically live or work in that setting. 

Reality television also has producers feeding storylines or manufacturing specific beats ahead of time. However, this isn’t always the case. “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” director Nneka Onuorah told Backstage that she used her documentary background to shoot vérité to avoid reality TV contrivances: “I was walking around finding organic moments that already existed, because those are the best moments.”

What are the benefits and drawbacks to using cinéma vérité?

Homeroom“Homeroom” Courtesy HBO

Unlike other genres of filmmaking, cinéma vérité is an accessible technique. There are several reasons why you might opt to use this form in your film. There are also drawbacks to consider. 

Benefits: 

  • Cost: The budget can be kept to a minimum thanks to technological advances. You don’t need to splurge on expensive camera equipment when films such as “Searching for Sugarman” were made using an iPhone. A minimal crew and no sets, lighting equipment, or props will also reduce costs.
  • Speed: No setups are required, so you can shoot footage without worrying about blocking or giving direction. Shooting on handheld cameras also gives the freedom to move. Technical perfection is not a must, so this format helps hone your skills.  
  • Passion project: Picking a subject you are invested in will shine through. You don’t have to be an expert, but it helps to have a foundation. If you believe your story is interesting, this will add to the narrative and sell it to the audience.
  • Hybrid: It is possible to use cinéma vérité for parts of your film cut together with other documentary styles such as talking heads, archival footage, and home videos.
  • Social Media: YouTube and other social media platforms ensure you can find a home for your film without seeking external distribution. 
  • An abundance of footage: Shooting as much as possible is much easier with digital than shooting on 16mm.  

Drawbacks:

  • Niche: Making a film that speaks to you as a filmmaker is essential, but it might be harder to sell or distribute your movie. Yes, YouTube exists, which means you can reach a wider audience. However, there are limitations even on social media, and you still need to entice viewers to click play.  
  • You can’t predict the final result: The point of cinéma vérité is finding the truth of a story, so you cannot guarantee what will unfold on camera. Perhaps it will be incredibly mundane.
  • Challenges shooting non-actors: Working with non-actors can be unpredictable, and the subjects might not respond to this technique or they may become too self-conscious. Moments like this can be edited out, but you might not end up with much usable material if this is the case. 
  • Preproduction investment: Immersing yourself in the community you are filming is one cinéma vérité element that can add to the shooting schedule and cost.

How to properly capture cinéma vérité

Immigration Nation“Immigration Nation” Courtesy Netflix

The effects of cinéma vérité can be witnessed in scripted productions with filmmakers using this aesthetic in movies and TV shows, including “The Office,” “United 93,” and “The Blair Witch Project.” However, documentary represents strict cinéma vérité, direct cinema, and observational cinema. Capturing this requires several elements:

  • Film on location with non-professional actors: Artificial settings are the antithesis of cinéma vérité (hence why reality competition TV shows aren’t strict vérité), and shooting on location will give your film authenticity. It is all about real people in real everyday situations in their natural environment.   
  • Choose accessible subjects: You can only uncover truths if you get close to the action. There is no point in saying you will focus on figures you don’t have access to or clearance to approach. Instead, look at who is impacted, whether outside a local bodega or at a community center. Finding beauty in the mundane is one way to dig deeper into your project, which will further add to the intimacy of the moment.
  • Use handheld shots and a loose shooting style: If you’re looking to buy or rent equipment, opt for lighter cameras and microphones with 16mm film. You can also achieve this look with less formal tools such as an iPhone, GoPro, or Webcam. This will keep down costs and ensure your gear is portable so you can move around easily.  
  • Capture unscripted action and dialogue: Feeding your subject exact lines or directing their emotional responses is the opposite of vérité. Strive for honest thoughts, remarks, and opinions without a prepared script.  
  • Leave room for improvisation: While you shouldn’t have a detailed plan or any kind of script, there is space to consider what you want to achieve. This includes the questions you want to ask your subjects and the material to shoot each day. While this doesn’t mean drawing up a shot list, be ready to pivot if necessary and always have your camera shooting.  
  • Consider the overlap between filmmaker and subject: As the filmmaker, you can appear on camera but never direct the subject or actions. Don’t be afraid to ask about challenging topics, as this will help uncover previously unspoken emotional truths.   
  • Utilize natural lighting: Because cinéma vérité traditionally doesn’t use lighting setup—it is not part of the everyday environment—this will impact the look of your film. What time of day will the light work best? Consider how natural and practical light impacts the aesthetic and adds to the “raw” and truth-telling visuals.
  • Explore social and political issues: Make sure your film is saying something. In the editing room, you convey a narrative that will grab the audience. Cinéma vérité, from its inception, has focused on breaking the boundaries of nonfiction storytelling, with social and political issues dominating this style of filmmaking.

Famous examples of cinéma vérité

“Primary” (1960)

The 1960 presidential election marked a shift from televised debates to camera crews covering the Wisconsin Democratic candidate primary in intimate detail. Drew Associates produced several films following the soon-to-be President Kennedy, capturing previously unseen elements of political campaigning.

“Chronicle of a Summer” (1961)

Rouch and Morin’s exploration of Parisian residents in the summer of 1960 gave rise to this filmmaking term. They set the standard for documentarians looking to uncover truths within cinema. 

“Happy Mother’s Day” (1963)

ABC commissioned Richard Leacock’s docu-short about a woman giving birth to quintuplets, but it was never broadcast. Leacock took it upon himself to make his version, and Cook refers to this moment as “cinéma vérité’s expulsion from network television.” From here, it became a movement of independent film. 

“Titicut Follies” (1967)

Frederick Wiseman spent 29 days shooting footage of the patient-inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. This unflinching portrayal of the inhumane treatment of patients by the people meant to care for them (that included stripping, force-feeding, and bullying) was banned in the US a year after release. In 1991, the state superior court ruled in favor of the public distribution of the film.   

“Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back” (1967)

There is an overlap between entertainers and cinéma vérité, which includes D.A. Pennebaker’s much-heralded chronicle of Bob Dylan’s 1965 England tour when he shifts from his folk beginnings to rock.   

“An American Family” (1973)

Long before audiences kept up with the Kardashians, the Louds became the first family on American reality TV. In its portrayal of the Louds, Craig Gilbert’s controversial PBS docuseries challenged the unrealistic television image of so-called traditional family dynamics and sparked widespread conversation.    

“Grey Gardens” (1975)

Albert and David Maysles are masters of this style, including the 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter,” which depicts the tragic events at The Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway. Perhaps one of the most famous documentaries of all time is ”Grey Gardens,” which has since gone to be dramatized in an HBO film and spoofed in the comedy series “Documentary Now!” This intimate look at a reclusive mother and daughter living in a dilapidated home is a defining film that captures the power of cinéma vérité.

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