Assess The Strengths And Limitations Of

‘verite’ Documentary Essay, Research Paper

The style of cinema verite originated in France during the 1950’s and `60’s. It was developed by Drew and Leacock at this time, and was also taken up in Britain, as it was seen capable of offering a new documentary experience. Verite as a term is often interchangeable with similar terms such as fly on the wall, or observational cinema. Whilst there are subtle differnces between the related styles, for instance, the presence of camera and crew is more explicit in observational cinema, for the purposes of this essay it is perhaps best to view all these styles under the common verite banner. It is the purpose of this essay to discuss in what sense verite can be seen as the most direct type of documentary, why this `directness’ has generated suspicion as to its validity, within its audience, and to what extent this suspicion is justified. Perhaps one reason why verite is seen as the most direct form of documentary can be found in the it employs during the film making process. For example, verite is minimalist in terms of directoral intervention, and conveys a sense in which the viewer is given a direct view of what was actually happening in front of camera on the day of filming. All this is exacerbated by the absence of T.V. lighting and the rarity of interviews, although verite has increasingly utilised `the interview’ for purposes of coherence. Another feature of the verite style is that it tends to concentrate on highly spatialised, tight subjects. Again this is to present a more coherent picture to the viewer, although this also increases the `directness’ of the genre, in that the facts we learn about the group are not blurred by an overload of more general information, as would be the case were the focus more widespread. Despite being seen as the most direct form of documentary there are a number of problems inherent in the genre which have caused it to be viewed with some suspicion. One of the main problems centres around the extent to which verite can be seen as offering a `real’ or `true’ picture of the subject it is involved in. Luckacs, for instance, has claimed that the cameras attention to the “here and now” is an inadequate mode of knowing. Events, objects and phenomena et cetera are all caught in process of change and a network of causal relations that require representation if the `true’ story is to be fully understood. Luckacs claims, however, that “…the extensive totality of reality is beyond the scope of any artistic creation.”. In short, he is implying that verite is incapable of offering a true picture of its subject because, as an approach to documentary, it is so limited in its scope. This view can be linked to Dai Vaughans comments in his book “Television Documentary Usage”. He claimed that verite documentary makers are more interested in using indexal rather than iconic symbols in their films. Vaughan uses the example of a brick wall in his argument, claiming that in a fiction film a brick wall is iconic in that it does not matter which brick wall is filmed as long as representation of a brick wall is shown. However, in a verite documentary, the brick wall, as constructed by the viewer upon seeing the image, must bear a unique relation to the brick wall which is actually before the camera. From this argument we can assume that the `realness’ of the objects/people/places etc shown in film, is crucial to the verite approach. Yet, if we believe Luckacs comments we must assume that verite, due to its limited scope, is incapable of presenting a real, or true picture of events. In this sense verite is limited, and any attempt it makes to present a picture of reality must be viewed with suspicion. Verite has also come across problems inherent in the subjects it tackles. Many verite programmes have been attacked because it is felt that they are not presenting a typical example of the wider subjects they are tackling. This was notably the case in series’ such as “The Family” or “The Living Soap”, where the programmes were being broadcast as they were being filmed. This created a situation, as in “The Living Soap”, where instead of watching a programme about six typical students in their daily lives, we were watching a programme about six young people who happened, but more importantly, had found a new celebrity status, exacerbated by appearances in teen magazines and on daytime T.V.. As a result, the programme was often more about how the participants dealt with their celebrity status, rather than how they dealt with the typical day to day life of a student. There have also been accusations that the subjects of verite films act up to the camera, or moderate their behaviour as a result of its presence. For example, Colin Young, in hisd article about Paul Watsons series “The Family” claims that during an argument between mother and daughter in one episode he “…sensed that Margaret Wilkins [the mother] was putting the brakes on for the camera – not changing her position, but changing the way she expresses it.”. Further on he claims that Mrs Wilkins “…sees herself as a representative and she casts herself as the built in interviewer.”. Such behaviour has been viewed with suspicion by verites critics because it shows how this documentary form can change reality. The documentary makers can also be seen to manipulate participants behaviour for the camera. A good example of this can be found in Maggie O’Kanes article on “The Living Soap”. “The strain is unrelenting. Mark, a medical student wants to phone a friend to find out the result of the afternoons rugby match but a researcher is sent to tell him not to make the call until the crew is ready. Marks mate is not home yet so the director says they will try again in ten minutes. They all sit around on the purple and black couch waiting to try again.”. Infact the input of the film maker is often at the root of the suspicion felt towards verite. The feeling is that documentary makers manipulate reality, be it consciously or subconsciously, to such an extent that the film becomes merely a vague impression of what would actually have occurred were the film not being made. The presence of the camera is often seen as the reason for this. Indeed, the B.B.C.’s “Principles and practice in documentary programmes” claimed that the recording equipment was “…a constant obstruction between the producer and his subject.”. Tyrell argued that “it is not the documentary film makers who are dishonest it is the form itself that is flawed by its own internal contradictions. It purports to show us reality, but what we see is inevitably an illusion. A documentary has to be constructed and contrived. Things have to be included and excluded.”. Audiences are often distrustful of what has been excluded, largely because they do not know whether any crucial information has been edited. Often things are left out because they are deemed unsuitable for T.V. audiences. One of the students in “The Living Soap” was heard berating the role of sex and drugs in the average students life. In his view the programme was not presenting a true picture, and the question of editing is often a reason for suspicion of verite in the wider audience. A number of ethical problems surrounding verite have also aroused suspicion within the audience. Grierson claimed that verite was dangerous because it is “…so open to exploitation by the provincially minded or the second rate.”. Indeed questions continually surround programmes such as “Sylvania Waters” or “The Living Soap” asking how ethical or exploitative it is to invade a persons privacy to such an extent. Suspicion towards verite could be said to be grounded here in that people are distrustful of film makers who are prepared to `exploit’ people to such an extent. However, there is a sense in which verite can combat all these weaknesses and emerge as a useful and interesting form of documentary. For example, in his style of film making, Roger Graef has claimed that verite is far from unethical because the participants in the documentarys han#ve the power to stop filming, or demand a certain sscene be cut. This idea that the participants `know what they are letting themselves in for’ takes away from the notion that they are being exploited. To counteract the argument that verite is unable to convey a true picture of reality one could look to the writings of Andre Bazin. For example, “The aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities…Only the impassive lens, stripping the object of all those ways of seeing it…is able to present it in all its virginal purity.”. Roger Graef is perhaps rather more realistic when he accepts that the presence of a camera and crew can effect the actuality of the subject being tackled. However, he claims that verite film makers such as himself have never purported to be filming reality as it would be were they not present. “All we have endeavoured to do in devising a new set of procedures in our film making, is to minimise the effect of our presence.” Paul Watson echoed Graeffs sentiments in his production of “The Family”. He and his crew arrived before the family got up and left after they went to bed. No T.V. lighting was used and the series was filmed through a hand held camera. It is felt this helped the programmes participants get used to the set up more easily, and whilst it did not present events as they would have occurred without the cameras presence, it did allow the subjects to carry on in an entirely different way than would have been allowed using more conventional film making procedures. As regards the editing of verite films, it could be said that bearing in mind the large amount of material during the making of most verite films it is necessary, for the purposes of coherency, to bring some order and construction to the material on hand. Also, this large editing ratio suggests that it is possible for the film maker to get a clearer idea of what is happening as the subject under scrutiny unfolds. Roger Graef claims that “…the B.B.C. Green book on documentary suggests you spend a day or two watching what happens and then you are suddenly an expert on what’s typical.” He claims that this method forms pre conceived ideas of the way the film is going to go which makes for `unreal’ film making. “We try to pay some sort of respect all the way through the process to what is actually happening and to what it tells us.”. In conclusion, It could be said that features of verite such as the editing process, the manipulation of the subjects by the film makers, and the reaction of the participants towards being filmed are inherent weaknesses of the genre and arouse suspicions within its audience thus rendering it useless. However, equally one could say that verite, through its direct approach and realistic style offers a unique insight into real life. Most verite documentarists appear to accept that the genre has its weaknesses, not least of which appears to be the way in which the camera distorts the viewers image of reality. However, it seems clear that aspects of real life do come through very strongly in verite film, and perhaps the reason why so many people are suspicious of it is because it is so realistic. As Roger Graef commented on the public outcry over the series “The Family”, To present to British families other British families, unexplained, is to confront them most uncomfortably. And they panic, lest the box turn into a mirror.


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