Jean Rouch – an anthropologist – more or less invented ‘cinema verite’ in 1950s. Rouch’s cinéma vérité inspired the direct cinema movement in the U.S. and the nouvelle vague (New Wave) in France where he was a key figure. Rouch developed an entirely new kind of documentary that blurred the boundaries between producer and subject and fiction and reality.
“He believed that the camera’s intervention stimulated people to greater spontaneity, expression and truth without asking them to act as though the camera was not there.”
In the landmark Chronicle of a Summer (1961) Rouch and his co-director Edgar Morin asked Parisians the simple question, “Are you happy?” Their answers created a document of contemporary life in the city and a landmark in film history. Rouch and Morin were among the first filmmakers to use hand held sync sound 16mm equipment. Their use of the city landscape and Raoul Couthard’s groundbreaking cinematography – he went on to shoot just about every 1960s French Film of any significance – deeply affected the French New Wave and much of subsequent documentary practice.
Again the film obeys Vertov’s maxims, takes advantage of its low-budget and is very self-aware: Rouch and Morin screen the film to its participants for them to critique it onscreen, and then film their own reactions to their film screening too. All this a long time before the self-reflexive games of Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman) or Capturing The Friedmans(Andrew Jarecki). His documentaries contain invented as well as real elements – without Rouch, there is no Ali G or Borat!
They also showed colonial (African) realities in a shocking, raw way never seen before. In Moi, Un Negre, he documents the working lives of young men from the Niger by following several of their stories in ways similar to traditional documentaries, if a lot more raw and closer to the truth. But he also had them ‘write’ their own voiceovers, and let their desires direct the story and how it unfolded, setting up a loose structure and then shooting around it or adding additional material, using techniques from ‘fiction’ as much as anything else, and loosely or semi-directing scenes that may or may not have happened in their ‘real’ lives.
As important as their ‘real’ lives – the dry facts of social document – were their fantasy lives – what they dreamed of, be it going out with a Hollywood siren or just getting some cash and getting drunk. The aesthetic claim is that in life, what you dream of is as important as what you actually do – and that the two are constantly in dialogue, and form each other. Of course ‘fiction’ always knew this and had modes to represent it – fantasy, memory, dream sequence, first person voice-over – whereas ‘documentary’ had a dryer approach. By blending the two he created something vibrantly revolutionary.
Again, the political and aesthetic considerations coalesced: using lighter, more portable equipment which can take you to places that you have not been to before in a way that previous filmmakers have not been able to do, to show and tell stories in ways that are in at least some dimensions, new – telling a truth for our times.
Therefore, this argument goes, all low-budget filmmaking, if it allows doing things in a way unseen before, places a political obligation on us. Partly in an agit-prop kind of way – if you have no money, you have a chance to show raw political realities in ways that more ‘commercial’ films might be constrained against doing. But also because new technologies are themselves unorthodox and create new truths or modes of authenticity, and these are straining to find representation somewhere in the film you make. The medium is the message.
The easiest way to demonstrate this is to shoot a film on digital for no money, that is constructed in a way identical to a three million pound film telling an identical story, shot as far as possible identically. The audience response to this, seeing that it’s done on a tiny budget, will be to ask “what’s the point?” Why make the same film, except not as beautifully, with less well known actors, and so on? They will be looking for some additional insight, maybe overtly political, or maybe revolutionary or authentic in a different way, but something.
These are the obligations of the form. Some kind of political agenda or drive towards ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity’ or rawness or however its expressed, whether it is textual or subtextual, exists in nearly all successful low-budget cinema.
“Anyone who can make a film, I already love. But I feel sorry if they don’t put any thought in it because then they missed the boat”