CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 9 . . . . January 3, 2003
Defining the Moment.
Wintonick (Director). Adam Symansky & Éric Michel
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 1999.
102 min., 40 sec., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9199 173.
Motion pictures and history.
9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
by Julie Chychota.
Much of the television
we now watch is rooted in the rebellion of the late 1950s and ‘60s
when a brave new wave of filmmakers threw away their tripods, burned
their scripts, and killed off the dinosaurs of old-style documentary.
They synchronized mobile cameras with portable sound equipment.
They shot first, and discovered the story later -- in the editing
room. It was an idea that revolutionized documentary. They called
this revolution cinéma vérité. This is the
story of how a small band of rebel filmmakers, armed with new equipment
and radical ideas, define the way we see the world today.
all documentaries were dull, basically, mostly, is that they were
lectures with picture illustrations, or interviews, which is the
same thing; that real life never got out of the film, never came
through the television set; and that we would have to drop word
logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened.
If we could do that, we’d have a whole new basis for a whole
new journalism, which is kind of hard to define, but I’ll
try: it would be a theatre without actors; it would be plays without
playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion;
it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial
times from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind
of fruit that can only be gotten by personal experience.
into the origins of a particular kind of filmmaking leads researcher
and interviewer Kirwan Cox, digital video specialist Francis Miquet,
and soundman, narrator, and director Peter Wintonick to interview
a core group of radical filmmakers in Cinéma Vérité:
Defining the Moment, a National Film Board of Canada (NFB) release.
These filmmakers rebelled against the dull and preachy documentaries
of the 1950s and subsequently forged a new genre known alternatively
as “free cinema” (Great Britain), “candid eye”
(Canada), “direct cinema” (United States), “kino
pravda” (Russia), and “cinéma vérité”
(France) -- the latter term quickly having gained predominance in
the English-speaking world. Liberally interspersed throughout the
contemporary footage of the Cox/Miquet/Wintonick crew are archival
NFB film clips, as well as excerpts of classics by these cinéma
vérité filmmakers that reflect the drastic changes overtaking
documentary midway through the twentieth century. The interviewees’
enthusiasm for the revolution they helped start still reverberates
in their voices as they share their thoughts regarding their films.
Out of this mix transpires a winsome one and three-quarter hour “show
and tell” that contains a “who’s who” of documentary
and provides insights into the technical, aesthetic, and philosophical
considerations of the time.
most documentaries, the typical cinéma vérité
film is shorter than a feature-length film, and its message is informational;
nevertheless, the cinéma vérité movement broke
into and broke up the reigning tradition of its time. Cinéma
Vérité: Defining the Moment effectively illustrates
this concept by inserting its collection of cinéma vérité
excerpts between the two halves of Basic Rescue 5. The Extension
Ladder, a textbook example of traditional documentary. This black
and white Civil Defense training film demonstrates the correct way
to set up and climb an extension ladder, but with its heavy-handed
didacticism, omniscient narrator, and linear, argument-driven script,
The Extension Ladder is the very antithesis of cinéma
vérité documentary: calculated, contrived, and condescending.
Cinéma vérité, on the other hand, values spontaneity
and serendipity, intimacy and innovation, traits made possible by
advancements in technology, as the Cox/Miquet/Wintonick interviews
with approximately 20 filmmakers reveal. Among the many celebrated
cinematographers that “define the moment” are Canadians
Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, and Michel Brault; the British Karel Reisz;
Americans Richard Leacock, Bob Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Bill Greaves,
Hope Ryden, Albert Maysles, Fred Wiseman, and Barbara Kopple; and
the French Jean Rouch and Jean-Pierre Beauviala. Essentially, cinéma
vérité films aim to capture real life as it unfolds,
thereby conveying the “truth” (“vérité”)
of what “really happened.” The emphasis is on showing
human experiences and emotions rather than telling about them, a style
Bob Drew describes as the “dropping of word logic in favor of
dramatic logic.” Or as Michel Brault eloquently explains, this
means that “the script mustn’t dominate; pictures and
sound must.” The quest to capture life “on the fly”
prompted the development of portable, handheld cameras and synchronous
sound recording equipment that closed the distance between filmmakers
and their subjects, be they celebrities (the Kennedy family, Jane
Fonda, Stravinski, or Eddie Sachs, to name a few) or ordinary citizens.
after 40 years, the film industry is still experiencing the ripple
effect of cinéma vérité, as the NFB crew demonstrates.
One need look only as far as the work of second-generation filmmakers
for examples: Barbara Kopple’s and Jennifer Fox’s TV shows;
Floria Sigismondi’s music videos; Greg Hale’s and Robin
Cowie’s The Blair Witch Project, a full-length, independent
movie; and Gillian Caldwell’s efforts for Witness, an organization
that advocates human rights -- all of these projects build upon aspects
of cinéma vérité. Cinéma Vérité:
Defining the Moment also celebrates Canadian presence in the worldwide
movement, as it remembers NFB contributions to the exchange of filmmakers
and ideas across national borders. In establishing links between the
past and present, the Cox/Miquet/Wintonick collaboration considerably
narrows the generation gap(s) for its audiences.
Vérité: Defining the Moment is a fascinating, if
somewhat lengthy, fast-paced production packed with information. As
a meta-documentary, that is, a documentary about documentaries, this
film may favor an academic audience, although it poses as a film for
the general public. In true cinéma vérité spirit,
the film invites viewers to deduce meaning for themselves from what
they observe and hear. Since it requires an audience intellectually
mature enough to comprehend abstract concepts and to make sense of
its circuitous structure, the film may be most accessible to the senior
high school age crowd and upwards. The issues and ideas at stake in
Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment would
lend themselves to discussions not only in film studies, but also
in language arts, philosophy, or interarts/interdisciplinary classrooms.
(In fact, there are some parallels between the start of cinéma
vérité filmmaking and the beginning of postmodern literature.)
Above all else, Cinéma Vérité: Defining the
Moment calls attention to the enduring allure and power of film.
It reminds us that there are times when words are inadequate, when
images can communicate what speech cannot. The evolving sophistication
of the documentary film testifies to that.
Chychota is presently living in Rosenort, Manitoba.
on this title or this review, send mail to email@example.com.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal
use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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