It is not unusual for me to hear the common refrain from a doc filmmaker that they default to a “verite” approach because they really don’t want to do anything but be a “fly-on-the-wall” so as not to disturb the #reallyreal things going on in the scene. So, what is this #reallyreal thing they keep talking about? Is it true that doing something other than holding a camera up to reality cannot capture that which is #reallyreal? Is this approach actually the negation of style as something that is problematic, manipulative and incapable of unearthing that which is #reallyreal? Or, is it a misunderstood concept in the world of eclectic nonfiction filmmaking where there is no presiding way or style that governs the form. Rather, the form indicates a way of thinking and method of exploration no longer shy in revealing itself to the world.
Let’s turn to Errol Morris, documentarian exceptionnel, who also does not shun the idea of style and purposeful filmmaking in nonfiction media. Here he talks about a fight he had with a cinematographer on the first day of filming, Gates of Heaven, which took on this very question…
Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite, one term coined in the US and the other in France, have subtly different incarnations as filmic ideas. One seeks to be anchored in the indexicality of the real world while the other hopes to provoke that same indexical relationship. Neither, though, intend to stave off the idea of style, and neither can stand-in for a film’s voice. Morris callously unpacks the idea of a certain stand-in realism that is regularly purveyed in the world of documentary. In doing so, he not only challenges it’s applied meaning but uncovers a question that continues to confront makers and scholars. How do we uncover that which is #reallyreal here? And, how does the relationship of the camera apparatus to the surface of things obstruct or make clear those findings?
Whatever your personal conclusion, don’t let anything “stand-in” for the voice of a film. Reality cannot be conveyed in cliches. Expression is everything.