What Is Cinéma Vérité?
The terms cinéma vérité and direct cinema are often used interchangeably to describe a style of observational documentary filmmaking that feels ‘real’ and that follows impromptu rather than scripted action.
This style involves spending several months (or more) immersed in a community, building trust, and following characters as their lives unfold. The filmmaker does not manipulate the events captured on camera, and instead ‘finds’ the story later in the editing room where a narrative is crafted from vérité footage (no sit-down interviews). In this case, the script is more of a transcript—a product of editing, rather than a formative document to guide and shape editing.
The Six Key Elements of Cinéma Vérité
Vérité films have certain qualifications. They:
- Are filmed on location with non-actors
- Historically featured loose, handheld shots on 16mm film
- Focus on everyday situations
- Are shot with continuous action and unscripted action and dialogue
- Often delve into social and political issues
- Use natural lighting
The History of Cinéma Vérité
Documentaries were long-due for change, but until the 1960s, film and audio equipment was too heavy or too expensive to take out of the studio, which meant filmmakers were limited in the types of movies they could make. Beginning in the 1960s, new hand-held camera technology enabled filmmakers to follow real-life events in a way that was more intimate and less obtrusive than had been previously possible.
What emerged was the method of filmmaking known as cinéma vérité. The style originated in Europe, but evolved into ‘direct cinema’ when it was imported to the United States and Canada. Direct cinema, to an even greater degree than cinéma vérité, emphasizes non-intervention, striving for an observational ‘fly on the wall’ approach by the filmmakers.
1. Chronicle of a Summer (1961)
Chronicle of a Summer (1961) is the experimental film by French filmmakers Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch that established the cinéma vérité style. Morin and Rouch used their camera and their presence to provoke action: in this case, by stopping people on the streets of Paris and asking, “Are you happy?”
5. La Jetée (1962)
La Jetée (1962), directed by Chris Marker, blends science fiction with documentary techniques. The short film, part of the French Left Bank/New Wave movement, is a montage of still photographs that reflect the protagonist’s memories as he travels through time.
Elements of cinéma vérité appear in fiction features and television shows as well. Countless contemporary TV shows and films have incorporated vérité-style handheld camera work and include active dialogues between the filmmaker and the subjects.
Consider the following modern works that blend these experimental conventions with traditional storytelling:
7. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Blair Witch Project (1999). The premise of this unexpected blockbuster is simple: three student filmmakers disappear in the woods; one year later, their footage is found. What follows is what happens when cinéma vérité meets horror, a deft use of shaky cameras and distorted angles to instill a sense of fear and doom in the viewer.
8. Salaam Bombay! (1988)
Salaam Bombay! (1988). Independent documentary filmmaker Mira Nair’s vérité roots show through clearly in her debut feature film, which was shot on location with natural sound, and with dialogue written in the slang of Bombay. She sought more control over gesture, light, and storytelling, which propelled her towards fiction.
Do-It-Yourself: Cinéma Vérité Film Exercise
One key take away from the cinéma vérité style is that anyone can make authentic, emotionally honest films without a massive budget. Here’s how:
1. Use what you have. While professional film equipment might be nice to have, it’s not necessary. A handful of critically-acclaimed feature films—such as Searching for Sugarman and Tangerine—were even shot on iPhones. Use the best, most portable and most affordable camera you can, even if that’s on your phone.
2. Find a subject that interests you and speaks to the bigger themes you want to explore. Rather than chasing a specific image, look around and see where an emotional truth may reveal itself, whether it’s in the waiting room of a doctor’s office or children’s story time at your neighborhood library. One important principal of cinéma vérité is that the truth is often found in the mundane details of everyday life—the very details that were once considered too tedious or too small to document in film.
3. Leave room for improvisation, but make a plan. What do you hope to capture? Who do you plan to speak with? Think about how you want to film the subject. Do you like the light soft in the morning or the rosy hue of the late afternoon sun? What are the ambient noises in the evening? Use the natural environment to capture the scene as truthfully and cinematically as you can.
4. Move. One thing that distinguished cinéma vérité apart from established documentary film styles was that the availability of handheld cameras meant that filmmakrs could leave the studio. They weren’t chained to a tiny room—nor should you be. If your subject is racing to catch a bus, keep up!
5. Find your voice. While it’s not always comfortable for someone used to being behind the camera, try to engage with the subject in a meaningful way. Keep the camera going as long as you can to capture the essence of the moment. Don’t aim for technical perfection—try to find the heart, the tension or the emotion of the moment.