Custom «Documentary Cultures Essay» Essay Paper Sample

Documentary Cultures Essay

The history of film has developed consistently since the 19th century. As a result of these developments, film had grown from a mere carnival novelty to a tool of communication and entertainment. Over the recent years however, film production has grown from fiction to an era where filmmakers focus on relating films to reality, emphasizing the roles that cinema plays in the organization and understanding of the world. This genre of relating or depicting reality in film is referred to as realism cinema. Realism cinema is a bi-faceted approach to cinematography. In the first approach a film maker tries to reproduce reality using the characters, events and locations while in the second, the filmmaker actually films the reality in a real life occurrence. It is this second approach to realism cinema that has led to the development of the concepts of cinema verit, direct film and observational filmmaking.

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Cinema verit is the French translation for truthful cinema or as Robert Drew put it "living camera" (Jeanne Hall, 1991). Cinema verit refers to an approach in Documentary film making or realism cinema where the filmmaker takes a confrontational approach to film making. A confrontational approach to film making simply means that, the filmmaker approaches his subject with a camera and makes it obvious that shooting is going to take place. He may then even provoke the subject to a certain action by daring him or her to do something that the audience would like to learn about or some action like to fish for a whale, like is the case in the film titled 'pour la suite du monde' by Pierre Perrault (Internet Movie Database, 1963).

The filmmaker then films the whole process of the particular action, not as a film under the title of 'Fishing for whales' but as an explorative film on the steps and intricacies behind whale fishing. He then uses the film to give the audience information, not on how some men were fishing for a whale but on the dangers or setbacks that one may face when fishing for a whale. In cinema verit the film maker, the audience and the subject are all aware of the presence of the camera and the filming crew, but in 1961 when the words of Robert Drew were published in the Broadcasting Magazine, when he was introducing the concept of cinema verit to the world of broadcast, his assumption in this theory of realism cinema or non-fictional cinema was that the subject being filmed would be too wrapped up in his affairs and too absorbed and driven by the forces of whatever he was doing that he would be totally oblivious of the existence of a camera or a film crew.

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Robert Drew went even further to describe the condition that such a subject of the filmmaking would be in. He referred to that condition of the subject as and the whole process of filming the subject in his engrossed and totally wrapped up condition as "television's school of storm and stress". According to Robert Drew the filmmaker would on the other hand be expected to employ "the three commandments" of the "television's school of storm and stress". These commandments as he laid them out were to be that; the filmmaker would be there when the events he intends to film are happening, the filmmaker would be as unobtrusive as possible to the situation he is filming and the filmmaker would be as determined as he possibly can to not distort the situation, (Jeanne Hall, 1991).

Although the concept of cinema verit faced a lot of criticism later on, especially by critics like Stephen Mamber in his book titled 'Cinema Verit in America' (1974), where he felt that it was impossible to break the barrier between the real world and "screen world", Robert Drew went ahead to produce many documentaries that eventually received a lot of acclamation. One of his most famous productions is 'Primary', a cinema verit documentary production where he follows John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they travel from state to state seeking nomination for the presidential position in the Democratic Party, (Primary, 1960)

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Despite or the push and pull about which mode of production was better and all the criticism that Drew and his Associates face, cinema verit mode of documentary production eventually became so popular that Richard Leacock defined this mode of filmmaking as the most important thing in the history of film making, (Jeanne Hall, 1991) and the cinema verit documentaries came to be known as the purest documentaries of all.

Direct film making refers to an approach in filmmaking where the subject of the filmmaking process is not aware of the presence of a camera. He is not aware that he is being filmed at all, neither are his audiences. Only the filmmaker knows that he is making a film. This approach to documentary making employs the observational method of film making (Nichols, 2001). As a result of this observational method of filmmaking, direct film making is today referred to as the 'fly on the wall' mode of filmmaking. This is probably derived from the fact that, if one were to film a fly on the wall, the fly would be totally oblivious of the existence of the camera. Direct film making can also be viewed as a different form of cinema verit or truthful cinema. This is because of the fact that the subject does not know he is being filmed and hence he gives his true colors to the filmmaker as he is not trying to impress. Bill Nichols, while referring to direct film said that, the truth about life exists, it just needs to be dusted off and reported, a goal that direct film making seeks to achieve and does so better than the cinema verit mode of film making.

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Observational film making on the other hand refers to an approach in film making where the film maker will approach real scenarios with a camera that is visible and acknowledged by both the subject and the audience. The film maker then starts filming and in the whole process remains conscious of the fact that the presence of the camera might cause the subject to 'act' or fake his response to any questions asked as opposed to showing his real feelings as they really are. The film maker in this case has to focus on the subject's actions, facial expressions and undertone relentlessly until the subject shows his true feelings or gives away something that shows the audience how he really feels. In observational film making the film maker must do whatever is possibly necessary to ensure that he does not interfere with the environment surrounding him, the subject and the audience. A good example where observational film making was employed is in the production of the documentary film dubbed 'Meet Marlon Brando'. In this film; the journalists who had come to interview Marlon Brando couldn't not have taken the risk of interfering with the interview by asking Marlon to focus on the subject matter. This is because if they had done that, the film would no longer have been a realism cinema production done using the observational approach. It would have been doctored and hence not wholly non-fictional.

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Cinema verit, direct cinema and observational cinema differ in a few ways. Some of the differences include that; while cinema verit allows the creation of a situation by the filmmaker which will then be filmed and edited into a documentary, direct cinema and observational cinema production methods are bent on ensuring that there is little or no interference of the subject and audience by the filmmaker. However, in situations where the producer of a film using the cinema verit approach decides to take the direction of non-interference, he must stay and remain completely unobtrusive to the whole filming situation.

Another difference is in the fact that with direct filming, the presence of the camera is hidden both to the subject and the audience while in the cinema verit and observational film making, the filmmaker, subject and audience are all aware of the existence of the camera. In both cinema verit and observational film making, the filmmaker however ensures that even if the subject is aware of the presence of the filmmaker and the filming crew he ensures that whatever information he gets is true. This is easy in cinema verit because the subject is always so engrossed in what he is doing that he becomes totally oblivious to the presence of a camera, while in observational film making the filmmaker is tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that even if the subject fakes his emotions, he must remain focused in the shooting until he captures that sign or moment of truth.

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The third difference is in that; while shooting a film under observational filmmaking and direct film making, the filmmaker waits patiently for a moment of truth, or for the subject to disclose the information that the film maker is looking for while in cinema verit, the filmmaker can request the subject to give him the information that he is after. This he can do by asking a direct question. The case of asking a question does not however apply in direct filming as the filmmaker is meant to ensure that the subject does not become aware of the existence of the film maker or the filming crew.

Cinema verit, direct cinema and observational cinema have a few similarities. These include the fact that they are all modes of film making used in realism cinema or in the production of non- fiction films. This is cinema that focuses on using different approaches to ensure that the truth is revealed to the audience and that the production is real, natural and as nonfictional as possible.

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Another similarity is in the cinema verit and Observational film making approaches where the presence of the camera is obvious to the film maker, subject and audience. Cinema verit, direct cinema and observational cinema unfortunately have one similarity in their shortcomings. This is based on the fact that for all of them it is impossible to capture any situation as it truly and naturally is. This is because either the filmmaker cannot capture every or the subject, aware of the presence of the camera might not give the whole truth. While the subject in cinema verit and observational filmmaking might lie, in the attempt to remain completely hidden, the truth might not be captured in the direct filming technique.

The documentary film titled 'Meet Marlon Brando' (Maysles, 1966), shows clearly how complicated the production of a documentary using one of the methods of realism cinema can be. In the film, journalists from all over America meet Marlon Brando in a New York hotel where they want to interview him about his new film. They hope that Marlon Brando will take this as an opportunity to market his film 'Morituri', and tell them all about the film. Instead of doing that, Brando focuses on flirting with the winner of the Miss USA pageant who is asking him questions in the interview. This documentary demonstrates how difficult producing a documentary for realism cinema can be as the journalists cannot take charge of the situation and direct the interview to whatever direction they want it to go. They have to keep ensuring that they give a true account of things as they happened remaining completely unobtrusive. The filming process in such a situation can be a total waste of time if the subject does not get straight to the point. Eventually the journalists might have to interfere with the situation and direct the scene which will then lead to the production of a documentary that does not fall under the category of realism cinema as it is directed.

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In another documentary titled 'Primary' by Robert Drew (1960), Robert follows United States senators John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they seek the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidential seat. Robert follows the two senators on the road as they sign autographs, shake hands, kiss cheeks, smile, make speeches and try to influence the nomination. This film is a good representation of Cinema Verit as the filmmakers follow the subjects on everything they do without trying to influence the situation. The film makes the process of production of Cinema verit films seem very simple as all one has to do is record what happens as it happens.

These developments in realism cinema have enabled film to meet its communication, informational and entertainment roles in society. Even as the critics of realism cinema continue to poke holes into the methods of filmmaking that realism cinema employs, the concept in itself of not depicting society in film but actually filming society and presenting it to viewers is a milestone in filmmaking that cannot be understated. Wherever the shortcomings remain, the benefits still outweigh the limitations of realism cinema and these shortcomings can be rectified in due time.

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