Wiseman thinks the term is pretentious. On the one hand we have the style imitated and emulated and emasculated across all media platforms, up to and including mass market teevee and the internet. One the other hand, the style is under attack by cinematic purists and poets who feel it is illegitimate, unsophisticated or out of date. These critics would rather be “informed” by values of extreme personalism, obscurantism and formal formalism which characterise much post-modern non-fiction. The egofilm essays, diaries and digidocs which are the rage and flavour of the festival and critical set. But whatever hand you juggle with, ‘factually’ speaking, we all must admit that most of the socially relevant contemporary documentaries which are successful today, and do reach large audiences, in cinemas and broadcast, are really mutant cousins to a cinematic style which began more than forty years ago.
For me the Cinéma Verité Revolution was an upheaval of an old order of image-making which had a tremendous impact on both sides of the camera. It has also had a tremendous impact on current media practice and, in many measurable ways, is a precursor to the fourth cinematic revolution – the 21st Century Digital one. Verité has shown its marks on music video, on advertising, on current affairs and on fiction film, beginning with the French New Wave, all the way up to the New American Independent Movement embodied by films such as The Blair Witch Project. Vérité is also the major fountain of form for ‘reality-based’ broadcast television: clones and spawns like TV’s “Survivor” and “Big Brother” shows.
Cinema Vérité filmmakers were part of a wider, radicalized movement which challenged orthodoxy on all levels. They were committed interpreters of the modern, human condition, and informed and formed by their times. They took on social issues and political agendas, gave us impassioned, behind-the-scenes looks at institutions and at the extraordinary daily lives of so-called ‘ordinary’ people. They used their newfound ability to record and create, in their own images, the visual memory of their era. They represented a two-way mirror on an increasingly mediated, one-way world. In their quest to define their own truths, they might provoke situations to their own ends, or could remain as unobtrusive observers. It was not a machine, but the filmmakers themselves, who breathed this new technology to life.
So, regardless of what side of the Vérité fence you’re on, rather than rejecting the classics of cinematic history, I think all filmmakers owe it to themselves to include elements of Vérité in their tool-kit of cinematic possibilities. Do painters reject the study of Bruegel or Van Gogh or Picasso? Instead, we should use every applicable trick in our magic bag, every colour on our palette, every part of our prismatic spectrum to develop our own ‘neo-vérité’ voices and visions.
Perhaps, as we approach a new age, the next wave of documentarians and their audiences can re-visit some of the lessons learned from cinema vérité – lessons about energy, freedom, commitment and honesty – and adapt them to the challenges of the future.