________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 9 . . . . January 3, 2003


Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment.

Peter Wintonick (Director). Adam Symansky & Éric Michel (Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 1999.
102 min., 40 sec., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9199 173.

Subject Headings:
Motion pictures.
Motion pictures and history.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Julie Chychota.

***½ /4


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.

Peter Wintonick

...the reason 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.

Bob Drew

An investigation 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.

     Like 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.

     Even 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.

     Cinéma 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.

Highly Recommended.

Julie Chychota is presently living in Rosenort, Manitoba.

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