What is the Difference between Cinéma Verité and Direct cinema?

Both cinema verite or direct cinema have similarities:

So if you’re considering a movie idea to film in either style, you should pay attention to the similarities. Moreover, you should also understand the difference between cinéma verité and direct cinema, before making a final artistic style for your film.

What is cinema verite?

Cinéma verité is coined from French and it loosely translates to “film truth.” It is a documentary-style of filmmaking that uses improvisational techniques and other naturalistic production tactics to make a movie as authentic as possible. 

The concept traces back to the 1960s when the idea was made famous by the movie Chronique d’un Été or Chronicle of a Summer. Bothered by the lack of real-life authenticity of film back then, French directors strayed from mainstream theater to try something new.

Chronicle of a Summer was one of the first movies to usher in the spirit of cinema verite. The 1961 film was made mostly with lightweight equipment, including handheld cameras and the production was relatively inexpensive. Intending to reflect as much realism as they could from society, the directors interviewed random people on the street. 

The shoot-from-the-hip film was a combination of interviews and sit-downs, and the cast was requested to rate the real-life likeness of the movie afterward. They were asked questions about their happiness, the French society, and emotive topics. Responders spoke from the heart rather than a script.

Cinema verite also goes by another name: fly-in-the-soup (because filmmakers often insert themselves in the process). This type of filmmaking purposes to create realism by ensuring what is captured on tape is as close to the real deal as possible. 

Often, there is a narrator’s voiceover, or one of the cast may take on an explaining role. The camera is a notable presence and mostly the subjects are aware that they are being filmed. Some examples of films inspired by cinema verite include District 9, Cloverfield, and REC

What is direct cinema?

Direct cinema is the alternative strategy for documentary-like filmmaking that started in parts of Canada and the US. It was North America’s reply to cinema verite and came into popularity around the same time as the French concept.

It did away with big studios and other hefty production techniques and equipment associated with them in favor of simpler shooting tactics. It allowed independent filmmakers to flourish and make something compelling and entertaining even on a tight budget.

Stripping crews to bare essentials, with the same strategy adopted for equipment, the goal of direct cinema was to make the lens as unnoticeable as possible. The idea was that if the filming was well hidden, or too subtle to notice, then movies could attain perfect naturality that mirrors everyday life. Directors or filmmakers don’t provoke events. 

Rather they follow the happenings as opposed to creating them. No questions are asked to inspire a certain line of dialogue or sequence of actions. Instead, the camera sits back and goes along for the ride, wherever it goes.

Direct cinema and cinema verite are quite similar in certain aspects. For one, they advocate for capturing the realism of life on film without the scripted dissension of mainstream movies. Also, they tear down the obstacles of a big budget, propelling the notion that great film essentially lies in unpredictability and authenticity. 

Both were popularized at a time when big studios held all the cards, manipulating the industry in one direction or the other at will. They freed the trade from this tyranny allowing more creative directors, whose projects and ideas wouldn’t have seen the light of day in big studios, to rise to recognition. 

Where cinema verite and direct cinema differ

Essentially, the main and huge distinction between direct cinema and cinema verite is the perspective or rather points of objectivity, or lack thereof. In cinema verite, what unfolds on film is influenced by what the filmmakers ask. 

The movie Chronicle of a Summer, shot in the Paris summer of 1960, was made by stopping people on the streets and igniting dialogue by asking them if they were happy. Other questions surfaced as well about politics, society, and whatnot, and those influenced the trajectory of the film.

Entwined with these personal accounts, fictional content spruced up the narrative to add a bit of “meat” to the plot. And that summarizes the huge separation point of cinema verite: it is an opinionated, some may say biased, account of filmmaking.

The directors interfere to shepherd the story one way. Filmmakers insert themselves in the process, sometimes in the guise of one of the involved characters. That serves to also guarantee the truth as he also doubles up as the audience’s voice of doubt where necessary.

As a result, the camera is quite noticeable. Its presence is unmissable and the audience can pick it out. You may think that that would take away from the illusion of reality, however, cinema verite is still able to maintain realism with its interview-esque approach. The film feels like something you’d be watching on CNN rather than Netflix.

Direct cinema offers a more direct take on things hence the name. Its objective is to make the camera as less a part of the action as possible to allow the normalcy of situations to play out without intrusion from the lens. 

Hence, direct cinema offers a more neutral approach to filmmaking. It is founded upon a variation of Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. If a subject is being observed, and he/she is aware of the observation, then the findings may not be as accurate as when the subject is unaware of the observation.

Typically, direct cinema is devoid of interviewers asking questions and scenes naturally occur with little to no interference. This is why this strategy of documentary filmmaking also goes by the sobriquet “fly on the wall.” Camera positions are usually covert so that real-life takes its course, thereby adhering to Heisenberg’s principle. In a nutshell, the lens is a neutral point of observation and it mostly goes unnoticed. It is a documentary mode of filmmaking, devoid of personal bias or opinions from the filmmakers.

Direct cinema consequently raises questions about its ethicality and maybe a paradox. Often you need consent to film people. Perhaps the cast needs to sign some forms or give filmmakers permission in some way. In which case the integrity of the film is also compromised. To truly capture “fly on the wall” authenticity, it is often scripted so well to pass as such. Alternatively, the cast is first accustomed to the constant presence of cameras with a trial run before filming.

Elements of Cinema Verite

Use of non-actors

In a bid to make the happenings seem as real as possible, cinema verite often goes with non-actors for the shooting. The thinking is that professional actors, while good at putting emotion and believability to a film, may still give off that big-studio, scripted vibe that kills the spirit of cinema verite. 

In real life, people don’t have the best reactions and their interactions may appear somewhat weird, uncomfortable, or awkward. While these would generally be frowned upon in mainstream filmmaking, they give off the feeling that the film used random everyday people.

Chronique d’un Été, for example, went with random Parisian passersby for most of its cast. The filmmakers would spark a conversation with a stranger on the street and that would make for a couple of scenes in the film. 

Alternatively, little-known or unprofessional actors may also be sort for the cast. Recognizable faces would instantly shatter the realism that cinema verite advocates for. Hence why most movies of this kind almost always go for unknown actors. 

A focus on everyday situations 

Most commonly, cinema creates artificial situations or locations to fit their storyline or characters. Cinema verite doesn’t. It in fact aims to capture the normalcy of everyday life which isn’t always steered by an edge-of-your-seat plot. 

It isn’t always about fast car chases, one character defying the odds to get the girl or a lone hero who can beat thousands of people without getting hurt. Cinema verite holds up a mirror to real life, and hence brings some of that boringness, if you will, into it. Topics discussed often include political and social issues and general small talk at times.

The 2005 mockumentary, The Office, covers the work-life dynamics of a group of incohesive colleagues and the childlike antics of their boss. 

Most of the issues we see unfold include trivial everyday matters that wouldn’t outrightly make it onto the big screens. The majority of the topics discussed include petty office drama that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary yet still makes for a fun watch.

Filmmaker’s interference

Cinema verite is famous for its filmmaker’s intrusion (as part of their overall style and impact as an auteur), whereby directors insert themselves into the movie. Unlike direct cinema which advocates for uncontrolled filming or directing, cinema verite appears to be more planned or premeditated. 

Filmmakers have a stake in the outcome of the observations. The directors shift the characters’ focus and actions with their questions. In one scene in Chronique, the director’s interference is quite obvious and blunt.

Marceline, one of the subjects of the movie, doesn’t fancy dancing with a colored man. She is not a fan of it and her displeasure is quite clear. The director jumps in to ask one character what he’s observed about Marceline. In particular, he asks whether he has noticed the tattoo on her arm. The mark reveals something about Marceline’s bitter past with racism. 

This on-camera manipulation serves to pick at the mentality of the subjects. It works because it makes us understand the characters’ psyches better. It doesn’t take away from the scene in terms of the naturality of events even if the audience is made aware of the camera. In Cloverfield, the director’s interference is a lot more subtle as he takes the point of view of one of the party guests.

In The Office, the characters are continually quizzed about the happenings as episodes go on. They are asked about how the actions of other characters made them feel, if they agree with certain things and whether they think what they did is right, among others. 

While we don’t hear the questions, we can feel that they are being asked in the way the characters sometimes rephrase them. Filmmaker’s interference can also come in the way of narration. District 9, for instance, provides narrator exposition about aliens stranded in Johannesburg and the turn of events since. It does so via voiceovers from various news clips it samples. 

Handheld shots 

Handheld shots are a characteristic of both cinema verite and direct cinema.

The camerawork is operated by hand to give off unsteady shots and make the viewers feel more present in the moment. 

The handheld camerawork makes the film feel rawer and works to bring the immediacy of events into the scene, as would be taken in by a passerby as opposed to a lens.

Conventions of filmmaking are rarely adhered to so as to avoid giving the film that professional, Hollywood outlook.

The story is often told from one or two camera angles as opposed to multiple perspectives as we’ve been accustomed to in regular movies. To capture the entirety of a location, the filmmaker may use long transitional takes without cuts to maintain the continuity of conversations and certain action scenes. 

The goal is to mimic the way the human eye works in everyday situations. We turn our heads when something catches our attention. No edit cuts but one continuous movement from one side of interest to the other. It’s quite common for cinema verite to break eyeline rules and other basic conventions of filming to achieve this naturality of human vision. 

Natural light and sounds

To lessen the load of film equipment and fit the pocket of movie makers back in the day, cinema verite advocated for natural shooting conditions. With divisive ideas that big studios were still wary of at the time, directors had to get creative and make the most of situations and limited budgets. 

That entailed shooting in natural light with little to no audio or sound editing except when the background noise threatened to drown out the dialogue.

Aside from cost-cutting, natural light offers a couple more benefits over artificial lighting. For one, it enables portability. French directors who brought about the cinema verite revolution would choose random locations for movie scenes. They’d just be strutting about town and decide a certain place looked good for one of their scenes.

Relying on natural conditions as opposed to creating an artificial filming environment enhanced mobility. This is important as filmmakers would travel a lot between filming. What’s more, natural lights and sounds bring that unadulterated environment on film, hence cementing the foundations of reality. 

Elements of direct cinema

Uncontrolled directing

Uncontrolled filming or directing is the huge separation point between direct cinema and cinema verite. The spirit of direct cinema kind of works like a courtroom. Viewers take on the role of the jury with the filmmakers only presenting the facts so that the audience can make their own conclusions. 

Unlike their traditional role in Hollywood movies, the director has no say or stakes in the plot path, other than being the eyes of the viewers. He doesn’t influence proceedings in the way of subtitles. 

He doesn’t participate in it in any way that would hinder the true story, including interviews, or the use of the Kuleshov effect. Additionally, direct cinema often lacks voiceovers.

Some of the early rules of direct cinema were meant to differentiate it from the contemporary styles of the day. The prevailing strategies at the time included title cards and newsreel-like voiceovers. These were employed to subconsciously influence viewers to take sides. Direct cinema was in direct opposition to television news and reporting of the era and their bias. 

These infused sensationalism and rapid facts with reporting to prejudice viewers into a certain type of thinking. News outlets had a habit of inserting themselves into the narrative so the reporting was never really neutral. Direct cinema stayed clear of title cards, voiceovers, and other forms of audience manipulation to ensure absolute neutrality of filming. 

Unscripted dialogue that wanders unpredictably

The dialogue in direct cinema is spontaneous and random. Subjects on film can talk about anything, with a focus usually on social and political issues. Nonetheless, there’s no central theme that the film pushes. Conversations happen in the heat of the moment, without planning. Filmmakers don’t influence dialogue with their line of questioning. 

Aside from requesting subjects for filming permission, direct cinema asks nothing of characters who are to go on camera. Dialogue occurs naturally and sways in the wind according to the characters and situations that they’re in.

Coffee and Cigarettes passes for direct cinema with its unobtrusive approach to filmmaking. Or rather, in the way in which it is tailored to mimic the styles of direct cinema. 

It is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the American pop culture and addictions or habitats that have seeped into acceptable social behavior. Across several vignettes, the topics of conversations differ wildly and have little in common. Two characters talk about their love for cigarettes in one vignette. In another, others discuss showbiz. An envious cousin and a famous actress have a heated back and forth, and so on. 

No clear protagonist 

It’s not uncommon for a direct cinema film to lack a defined protagonist or antagonist. In a bid to echo real life, this style of cinema tries to distribute focus over a wider cast as opposed to making one stand out. 

A movie of this genre isn’t always identifiable by one lead character and it’s even hard to pinpoint the primary roles. The uncontrolled directing ensures the camera serves only observational rather than concentration purposes. Although that’s not always the case every time.

There are 11 vignettes in Coffee and Cigarettes. Almost every one of them features new faces different from the previous ones. More than 20 actors came in to play various roles during the film’s modest one-and-a-half-hour duration. Even out-of-frame characters get a share of screen time. Just like the topics they discuss, each scene brings new personalities and people on board. There is little continuity between scenes rather than the prevailing presence of coffee and cigarettes. 

Lots of jump cuts 

Jump cuts are popular in the moviemaking world. However, it’s the way that they are used in direct cinema that sets them apart from what we’re accustomed to. Typically, jump cuts work to speed time when we don’t really need to get into details. E.g. instead of showing a soldier getting armed and dressed for the battle we simply skip to the results. 

Filmmakers don’t go into the process of how in such cases. When it comes to direct cinema, jump cuts are used to skip to the most important parts of the film. As opposed to cutting to shots, they cut to moments. And they are used with far more frequency in this type of filmmaking. 

Look to award-winning Free Solo (2018) for example in this regard.

The filmmakers had over 700 hours of footage to consider. They needed to filter that into a film to ensure it isn’t too long while still not leaving out the good parts.

Consequently, it implores an abundance of jump cuts to skip through meaningless or obvious chores, tasks, or processes. 

For instance, instead of seeing a character walk through a flight of stairs, we’d see them at the top then at the bottom after a jump cut. Instead of watching a character traveling somewhere, we’d simply be shown as they arrive. Instead of watching someone wash the dishes, we’d skip through to after the process, and so on.

No prior planning or particular order of scenes 

Hollywood movies have developed a recognizable pattern. We’ll not get into the specifics today but there’s almost always a substantial method to filming. Direct cinema can appear jumbled up because it doesn’t abide by any particular order. 

Scenes don’t build up in a start to end fashion as we’ve become accustomed to. The goal is to capture the authenticity of real-life in all its entirety. The randomness of plot points brings that realistic disorganization that the genre seeks to capture.

For example, the filming crew for the political cinema success Primary came in at the last moment to ensure that spontaneous, energetic quality.

This spontaneous strategy can also extend to the recruitment of the filming crew as well. Staff may be sought at the last moment as opposed to being pre-planned. This tactic may be implored so that filmmakers don’t have time to research and bring their preconceived notions onto the set. Which may in turn influence their manner of observation and portrayal of the truth. 

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