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After 45 years, cinema verité continues to inspire awe and heated debate. The movement began simultaneously in a number of countries—France, England, Canada, and the United States—and has been called a number of things—free cinema, direct cinema, and observational documentary. A number of important filmmakers came out of the movement—D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and Jean Rouch—and a number of memorable films—Don’t Look Back, Salesman, and Chronicle of a Summer—stand as the movement’s achievements. Cinema Verité surveys the movement by talking to a number of its practitioners.

The greatest strength of Cinema Verité is that it has gained access to the founders who remain more than willing to talk about the movement. Robert Drew discusses handheld cameras and mobile equipment—tools filmmakers take for granted today—that allowed the filmmaker to follow the story as it developed, shoot without a script, and to gain closer access to the subject(s). Films like Primary (1960) provided unheard of intimacy with candidates John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, while Crisis (1963) put the viewer in the midst of a tense showdown between the Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Governor George Wallace over segregation. The looser structure of these films also struck many people as more “real.”

Unfortunately, Cinema Verité only allows a short amount of time for each interview, making it is difficult to gain a sense of the differences within the movement and how the movement developed. The fairly sharp difference between filmmakers like Pennebaker, who remained a passive observer behind the camera, and Rouch, who directly questioned his subjects, is never really explored. The makers of this film seem surprised when Fred Wiseman bluntly states that being objective—a stated goal for many verité practitioners—is impossible. Instead of pursuing this, they let it pass. There is also a strange sequence that connects cinema verité to contemporary fiction films like The Blair Witch Project. While the connection is easy to identify, an interview with the makers of this movie adds little to a discussion about a documentary film style.

Peter Wintonick’s film will serve as a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the movement and offer a chance to see clips from classic cinema verité documentaries. It does a good job explaining the technical innovations that allowed for new methods of filming and provides a good survey of the important players within the movement. The coverage is balanced in that it reviews filmmakers from a number of countries and includes women and at least one African-American filmmaker. It fails, however, to offer an in-depth portrait, or to allow any critical point of view to enter into the fray. Cinema Verité leaves the spectator with an interesting series of interviews that only provide a brief outline of an important movement within documentary film.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Peter Wintonick—Director/Sound/Editor
Eric Michel—Producer
Sally Bochner—Executive Producer
Doris Girard– Executive Producer

John Marsh on September 3rd, 2006 at 8:56 am 

Terrrific overview of the verite movement.

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