Cinéma vérité – literally “cinema of truth” – is a style of filmmaking you’ve probably seen more than you realize. You may even have studied it as part of your film education.
As a technique, cinéma vérité has been a valuable tool for independent filmmakers for decades, not only for recording events as they happened, but also for telling intimate, character-driven narratives.
In this post we’re going to talk about what cinéma vérité is and show you some modern examples of it. We’ll also show you how you can use the vérité style in your own storytelling.
Origins and Theory
Understand what cinéma vérité is
Cinéma vérité is the style of filmmaking that, to put it simply, gives us the “fly on the wall” perspective. The point of it is to be completely objective and simply record events as they unfold, rather than taking any sort of stake in the outcome.
The concept of cinéma vérité originally came about in documentary filmmaking. Prior to the advent of this style, documentaries were mostly shot in the manner of newsreels or educational films.
They used a narrator, either on-camera or voice-over, to provide the lesson or the point of view the filmmaker wanted to get across. Cinéma vérité was a more direct approach to the subject.
Post WWII, new technology created lighter, more portable recording equipment (especially for audio) that was just as high quality as studio gear. This allowed filmmakers to go out into the world of their subjects.
For the first time, they could get up close and personal, quite literally. But cinéma vérité filmmakers consciously chose not to interfere with, or try to control the direction or outcome of, the overall story.
They also abandoned the use of narration, preferring to let the subjects speak for themselves. This is why cinéma vérité is sometimes referred to as “direct cinema.”
It allows the audience to directly connect with the subject and form their own opinions rather than interpreted for them.
Today, when we look at a documentary feature like Grey Gardens, or a docu-series like An American Family, it’s hard to see anything revolutionary or groundbreaking. We are so accustomed to seeing unscripted content shot in this detached, “tag-along” style.
But that's actually a testament to how powerful the original vérité films were for audiences. Shooting in a wholly objective way, a way that specifically invited the audience to draw their own conclusions, quickly became the standard rather than the exception.
But direct cinema wasn’t just for documentaries. Low-budget, independent filmmakers wasted no time in adapting the “fly on the wall” technique for narrative storytelling.
It added an extra level of realism to use of non-professional actors, or even non-actors, to convey the story the filmmakers wanted to tell. These first indie filmmakers left a lasting legacy.
Recognize cinéma vérité
We can still see cinéma vérité’s influence on a lot of media content available to us today. We see it mainly in unscripted shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Naked and Afraid. Or in popular documentary series like Making a Murderer.
And we see it in scripted television shows made to look unscripted — like The Office or What We Do in the Shadows.
There have also been a number of narrative features over the last few years who have employed the direct cinema techniques used by our ancestral low-budget filmmakers.
Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married is a great example. The story is simple: Rachel is getting married and her younger sister Kim has been released from rehab just in time to participate in the wedding festivities, which happen over the course of a long weekend at their parents’ home.
Despite having an A-list cast, shooting in the cinéma vérité style brings the audience into the story and makes them a part of the events — as if we are just another guest at the house.
There are intimate, long held secrets and grudges that we, the audience, become privy to. Even the soundtrack is happening live and in real time, always just off camera, thanks to the family’s musician friends who never stop playing.
Another example is Tangerine, a dark “buddy comedy” about sex worker best friends in Los Angeles. Again, the story is very simple.
In it, Sin-Dee Rella comes home after a month’s stint in jail. She meets up with her bestie, Alexandra, at their neighborhood donut shop.
Alexandra accidentally reveals that Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend has been stepping out with someone else. So, Sin-Dee marches off to confront both him and the other woman.
Meanwhile, Alexandra is just trying to get people to turn up to see her singing performance at a local bar. All of the threads of the story are tied together in the same donut shop where our story began.
Did You Know?
In order to focus the limited budget on the actors and locations rather than equipment, Tangerine was shot on three iPhone 5s phones using the app FiLMic Pro, which was specially developed for the project.
In true cinéma vérité fashion, Tangerine’s cast were all unknowns and at times seem to veer a wee bit over the line between acting and reality. The shots are almost all hand-held, and frequently from behind the talent, running to catch them up.
There are a lot of jump cuts and inadvertent swish pans. And the audio is often unrefined, with dialogue that’s sometimes difficult to hear clearly. All of this actually serves the story well by making it seem that much more real, more true.
Utilize cinéma vérité technique
If you want to adopt the direct cinema style, there are only a few things you need to do. Remember: the main distinction of cinéma vérité is in presenting a story that looks like it’s unfolding naturally, in real time.
The use of handheld camera gives the audience the perspective of being right there, on the location, with the subject. Not every shot has to be handheld, but shooting handheld, especially in more intimate moments, gives the story a more “raw” look that bakes in the immediate nature of story events.
Less Coverage, More Cameras
We’re used to covering everything thoroughly in a scene, punching in gradually from the master shot to the XCU. True vérité doesn’t have time for that.
In real documentaries, you try to capture major events or certain sound bites when they happen, but if you don’t get them as they occur, you just don’t get them.
The same needs to feel true in narrative vérité films. The more you move the camera around the scene, the more the audience becomes aware of it. Remember, we’re going for “fly on the wall.”
Instead, use multiple cameras to get your coverage and use fewer takes. If something goes wrong, unless it’s dangerous, just let it play out.
This is easier on your actors too, because they can run the scene from top to bottom and stay in the moment a lot longer. Any line flubs or word stumbles will only make the dialogue sound more real.
Cut to the Moment, Not the Shot
One of the trademarks of direct cinema is that there tends to be a lot of jump cuts. We normally use jump cuts to skip ahead in time, but cinéma vérité uses them to skip to the stuff that matters — understandable when you’ve got hundreds of hours of footage to sift through.
JUMP CUT DEFINITION
What is a jump cut?
A jump cut skips over incidental action (walking down a flight of stairs) and goes straight to the outcome (leaving the building). Jump cuts also skip through time, as in a quick montage where the soldier arms himself for battle, or a chef prepares a banquet.
This can be advantageous in narratives that adopt the vérité style. Again, we’re going for the “fly on the wall” aesthetic. Instead of a carefully crafted edit that stitches two related actions seamlessly together, use an edit that maintains the mood or emotion of the characters instead.
Make cuts that take the audience somewhere, that move the story forward, rather than worrying about matching action. The audience will be much more interested in what’s happening with the characters and will willingly follow along.
The main thing to remember about cinéma vérité is that it means “cinema of truth.” So the purpose of your story is not to get to the satisfying closure of a tidy ending, but to reveal the truth in your characters, layer by layer.
Difference between A-roll and B-roll
Filmmakers of all types, whether they make documentaries, wedding videos, music videos, movies, or television NEED to have a keen understanding of both A-roll and B-roll footage.