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Introduction to the Documentary: From Documentation to Non-fiction Film

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2184 words Published: 18th May 2020

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During the late 1950s, the technology of camera and sound recording developed and it affected the existence of observational mode which is Nichols’ second mode of documentary (Nichols, 2017). Cameras, made into 16mm, and sound recording equipment, synchronised with the camera, were portable to film observational documentary. Also, they were free to film in almost any location. The conventions of observational documentary that Nichols defined were like these. First of all, the camera and the filmmaker have to stay in a simple observer position. Filming should be done along the way without any mention or intervention, voice-over commentary, music outside of the observed video and screen, subtitles or directed reproduction, and even interviews. Next, shots should be long take shots to make sure the event can be fully captured. Editing should be based on spatial uniformity, therefore, the audience has the feeling that they are in the scene of the events happening now. Some techniques and expressions that constitute a film (such as a dimming of focus, a lack of sound, or a lack of clarity in moving subjects) paradoxically work to strengthen the current point of the film. Also, Nichols pointed out film should move from artistic expression to historical exposure (Nichols, 2017).  Finally, non-intent is absolute value and results in aesthetics of objectivity. The result of these practices is an attempt to show a ‘slice of life’ which is presented in lived or real time.

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 For example, Salesman(1968) uses observational techniques to show the life of bible salesman as they attempt to sell expensive bibles door to door. The camera and filmmaker kept a distance from the subject they are filming so the audience can watch the salesmen’s lives unfold. The narrative is minimal with no conflict. It has no interview and no interaction between filmmaker and performer. Through this style of documentary, the audience are able to observe this group of people about their daily business. The filmmaker is actively engaging an observational style to present a view point about moral behaviour when selling bibles. This kind of observational documentary takes a stance on a social issues and is in favour of showing realism of the life of the poor working class.

The development of observational documentary was continued in 1960s. The combination of factors of documentary led to a movement of documentary known as cinema verite in France or Direct Cinema in the US. In a diagram, Direct cinema includes observational documentary and cinema verite shares many similar conventions with observational documentary. Direct Cinema was an early attempt  by Canadian filmmakers to portray the truth in documentary. Voiceover and commentary in the film  was excluded and intervention of filmmakers were not allowed. Filmmaker was unnoticeable in whole film. Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx are credited for establishing direct cinema in 1958. They directed a documentary called Les Raquetteurs. It is about a snowshoe festival in Sherbrooke. The topic seems common, not special but the way that those filmmakers directed was different with a conventional documentary at that time. Critics called it as the documentary painted with innovation directorial style which helped to show better picture of Sherbrooke (Fox, 2017).

The concept of Cinema Vérité which means ‘film truth’ in english was established by French filmmaker, Jean Rouch, during the early 1960s. His work is evaluated as great undertaking as it brought natural dialogue and authenticity of action to documentary film. The difference of Cinema Vérité and Direct Cinema is that filmmakers can participate in front of camera and make artistic choices. In other words, if someone is filming or a part of the film, they are a part of the action. The big differences between two is about awareness of the camera and how they perceive the presence of camera. Famous filmmakers who used this concept are Pennebaker, Louis Malle, and Frederick Wiseman. Although these filmmakers act more as a fly on the wall in a Direct Cinema, they are also grouped within the Cinema Vérité (Kydd, 2011).

 In details, direct cinema is more neutral than Cinema Vérité. This specific character is easily found in Albert Maysles’ documentary who was the first filmmakers using the style of direct cinema. At first, the filmmaker’s desire was to capture the reality directly, express it truthfully, and question the relationship between reality and film (Yoommy, 2015). This method is to make documentary without subjectivity which should be eased in form of observational documentary. It helps to avoid from interference or manipulation. However, the important point of this mode is that it raises ethical issues when positioning camera to show real life. To release the documentary film, filmmakers have to get a permission of shooting and get all the signs from people they filmed. In sum, direct cinema is a mode variation that is used primarily by the documentary sub-genre of film, to show the truth on a certain subject without any opinion, or as little as possible.

Regarding to the Maysles brothers, Albert and David Maysles, who were most famous filmmakers in using and developing direct cinema, documentarian was an objective observer. Three of their most popular works in the direct cinema mode, Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975) show how filmmaker be invisible in film and how story unfold. For example, Gray Gardens enclosures demonstrates the complex relationship among mother and little girl who seem to be commonly needy to one another. While it is a Direct Cinema, it resists simple definition and looked to catch authenticity or ‘lived reality’ to record life because it exists before the camera, to do so by filming subjects unobtrusively and fluidly, without anyone directing the action. The filming locations are limited to their time spending places so it was mostly filmed in bedroom of Edith. It also filmed in the attic where Edie feeds raccoons, on the beach nearby, and porch with binoculars to observe the surroundings. Edith’s bedroom functions as a front stage or a communal region for the two women as she always call Edie to come back to bedroom and the rest of the house is Edie’s stage to go about her own activities.

 In this direct film, Grey Gardens, the filmmaker discreetly use the camera to film the atmosphere and its people, and record the yard, view, neighborhood and communal area of the house. Once a general introduction to the mansion and its residents has done, the camera moves nearer and focuses on Edith and Edie’s gestures and facial expressions. The filmmaker changes framing with the bridges in conversation. They keep talking from the start. If the camera films one among them, the opposite one continues to speak within the background, providing further dimensions to different images.

 When it was first released to world, the critics blamed the exploitation of the Beale that Maysles had shown in film though it is clear that both women agree with their participation and believed in the filmmaker, who at least attempted to follow a traditional code of conduct. The role of documentary filmmakers is commonly discussed in documentary film (Kydd, 2011). It is important to build trust between filmmaker and subjects to film their precious moments while not invasive the privacy of subjects. Also, the filmmakers often tell those women to remind treating them as flies on the wall, but women persist in throwing conventions aside and talk with the filmmakers like old friends. Rather than downplay their presence as documentarists, the Maysles actively courted interaction with their subjects before and during filming. By establishing a level of intimacy with the subjects and the presence of recording equipments, Maysles thought the subjects would behave more naturally and feel comfortable. Maysles pointed out the importance of trust between filmmaker and subjects  (Kydd, 2011). In grey gardens, the presence of the Maysles and their involvement within the action is clear: both Beales frequently address the filmmakers directly, and involve them in their actions. At this point, it also means that this film has both conventions of direct cinema and cinema verite as an observational mode.

Moving to another example of film, the earliest and most widely known of Rouch’s films using vérité was Chronicle of a Summer (1960). The film show the stories of happiness and love to colonialism and racism by gathering a number of Parisians, including a few supporters of a group with socialist ideologies by one-to- one interviews or group discussions. Consistent with the dynamic role of vérité cinema producers on-camera, the activity of the subjects in the film appear to dependably be a reaction to a motivation by the leader of the discussion or the questioner. Both Rouch and Morin work with their very own roles for the film and are never disconnected or separated from the way toward filming. They even included reactions from the majority of the characters after showing them the original film. It allows self-representation in all parties that resulted in a sense of equality never achieved in direct cinema.

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The initial idea was simple. Through non-direct interviews with the general public, Filmmakers made a movie about life itself. At the time of the chronology, France’s single-state TV channel also began to explore the format of interviews. However, Rouch and Morin, the hero of popular programs such as news magazines focused on witness / specific issues, were aiming for a wider and more ambitious. Instead of asking, “What do you think about the post-war housing crisis?” Or “Do you want to buy a French car?”, It posed a direct question that turned out to be much easier to handle (Di Iorio, 2013).

This film has a great quality with artistic and technical methods which is incontestable with others and not violate rules of convention film code (Dornfeld, 1989). In fact, Chronicle of a Summer has few blatant jump cuts, no out of focus shots, virtually no rough camera work, and only few long take sequences; all of the code features which came to be markers of cinema verite and direct cinema documentaries (Dornfeld, 1989). All of Cinema Verite’s code features and direct cinema documentary markers; we can assume that the Chronicle of a Summer does not pay attention to the new Cinema Verite form in overall structure level but rather approaches it in this form by seeking truth. The purpose of the film was to appeal to the audience in order to avoid a sudden departure from the documentary film format in the structuring of fundamentally recorded images.

In conclusion, direct cinema and cinema verite aim to reveal the truth in two ways. The former hopes to uncover the truth through camera observations of events and themes. The latter is an intrinsic process that is essentially gradually revealed using some meaning to pursue the truth. Nonetheless, documentary is not a matter of pure, unobtrusive observation, but there is a chance of revelation in both ways, regardless of the degree of coordination between the camera and the filmmaker (Yoommy, 2015). So they can be seen as two other ways of producing documentary films. The use of certain documentary film philosophies and new technologies has had a profound impact on many generations of filmmakers who still use today.



  • Di Iorio, S. (2013). Chronicle of a Summer: Truth and Consequences. [online] The Criterion Collection. Available at: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2674-chronicle-of-a-summer-truth-and-consequences [Accessed 18 May 2019].
  • Dornfeld, B. (1989). Chronicle of a Summer and the Editing of Cinema-Verite. Visual Anthropology. (2). 317-331.
  • Fox, B. (2017). Documentary media: History, theory, practice. Routledge.
  • Kydd, E. (2011). The critical practice of film: an introduction. Macmillan International Higher Education.
  • Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
  • Yoommy, N. (2015). Cinéma Vérité Vs. Direct Cinema: An Introduction. [online] New York Film Academy. Available at: https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/cinema-verite-vs-direct-cinema-an-introduction/ [Accessed 20 May 2019].


  • Chronicle of a Summer (Rouch/Morin, 1960)
  • Grey Gardens (Maysles, 1975)
  • Les Raquetteurs (Brault/Groulx, 1958)
  • Salesman (Maysles, 1968)


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