In episode #65 of the podcast, we detailed 5 Ways to Shoot Verite. Verite – or cinema verite as it’s also known – is a style of filmmaking often employed by documentary filmmakers. A strict translation from the French, it means “truthful cinema”.
It is also often a misunderstood or misused term, and one freely thrown around whenever someone happens to be shooting hand held. I’d even take exception with the Wiki page for cinema verite, which states that verite is also considered observational cinema. Observational documentary, as I have ever understood it, implies that the subjects are unaware of the camera’s existence; that as an audience, we are seeing things as a fly-on-the-wall. Verite is actually quite the opposite, in that its subjects are quite aware of the camera’s existence. In fact, the verite doc maker, often is setting up stylized shots and/or encouraging the subject to engage directly with and for the camera. That is just not in any way observational, to my mind.
To give you some better understanding, I’d like to give you a small sampling of some films and filmmakers that are well-known for their usage of verite.
Perhaps one of the most recognisable names of early documentary filmmaking is Robert Flaherty, best known for his work in the genre with his seminal film, Nanook of the North. Nanook is not a film without controversy in the history of documentary filmmaking. Many film historians have taken exception to his handling of the family or his setting up of cultural scenarios that were no longer being observed by the family. But the power to transfer documentary into the collective consciousness of theatre goers, at the time, cannot be undervalued. And his usage of verite, with his characters engaging directly with the camera, for his close-to-real-life depiction of the Innuit, is exceptional.
Though not as well known, docs like Moana and Man of Aran, are also solid examples of Flaherty’s use of verite.
View Nanook of the North in its entirety:
Vertov is considered one of the three pioneers of documentary film. (The other two being the afore-mentioned Flaherty and British filmmaker and historian, John Grierson.) Early on in his filmmaking career, Vertov began the Kino-Pravda – translated from Russian as “film truth” – series which was about capturing fragments of life as it happened. The everyday experience was paramount to this work, which amounted to 23 films. And the focus was on realism here, and eschewed anything romantic or beautified. Non-fiction was at the forefront of Vertov’s work, as opposed to anything fictional.
One of his most beloved and recognised films was Man With a Movie Camera, which can be viewed in its entirety here:
Albert & David Maysles
One of the more well-known and respected practitioners of American documentary were Albert and David Maysles, often simply referred to as the Maysles Brothers. Films like Grey Gardens and Salesman are some of the biggest examples of a verite shooting style that you can find. In both cases, the Maysles spent amounts of time filming their subjects living their lives. In the case of Gardens, this took place in a derelict mansion in East Hampton, with reclusive upper-class subjects. In Salesman, going door-to-door with a group of Bible salesmen.
While their style of documentary is more commonly referred to as direct cinema – simply letting the story unfold as camera continuously rolled – I would say that there style of shooting was very verite, in nature.
View Grey Gardens in its entirety: http://watchdocumentaries.com/grey-gardens/
View Salesman in its entirety for some great verite-style shooting: