Camera Eye: Peter Wintonick’s Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment
by Maurie Alioff
(2000 – Montréal, QC) Between the extremes of those who would prefer dental surgery to sitting through a documentary and the unquestioning champions of the form, are the ambivalent majority. Viewers know that docs can give them revealing, enlightening and thrilling film moments. But they’ve also suffered through films that exude a creepy aura of self–righteous, didactic, even authoritarian attitudes.
In Canada, where the documentary was once the only filmmaking game in town, old–guard media types persist in sanctifying it as the sole honest and virtuous genre, the antidote to Hollywood’s pretty poisons. An old joke goes: “What’s the difference between Canada and Russia?” The answer: “Canada still has communists,” might imply that we tolerate culture commissars who come on as if they have a natural–born right to dictate public taste. The producers of CBC–TV’s The National are not documentary filmmakers. Yet their recent insistence that program presenters use the
Far removed from this mindset is one of this country’s top documentary filmmakers, Montreal’s Peter Wintonick. While committed to socially conscious projects, the co–director of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media approaches moviemaking with a freewheeling, doctrinaire–free attitude. Wintonick is an irreverent, playful guy, whose burly frame and curly hair evoke thoughts of Irish poets and Falstaffian romps. A nonstop punster with a self–deprecating sense of humour, he tags his political stance as “Groucho Marxist.”
In Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment, Wintonick’s new feature–length picture about what is probably the most vital and influential of doc genres, he slyly alludes to the kind of numbing films uninitiated viewers think of when they hear the “d” word. One of Cinéma Vérité’s running gags involves an ancient NFB instructional short in which a pair of sombre twits explain how to climb a ladder with such pedantry, they could be demonstrating the correct way to handle plutonium. The Extension Ladder, an unwittingly surreal parody of old–time reality filmmaking, gets fingered by Wintonick’s voiceover as the kind of stuff that “gave documentaries a bad name.”
It was about 40 years ago that the international filmmaking movement known as cinéma vérité (a.k.a. free cinema in England, direct cinema in the United States and candid eye in this country) broke away from the kind of documentaries that treat viewers like dim schnooks. A collaboration between the NFB’s English and French programs (Adam Symansky and Eric Michel producing), Wintonick’s Cinéma Vérité is the first movie to offer an in–depth look at the genre’s origins and trace its continuing impact. Shot on digital video with a small handicam for waggish inserts of Wintonick and his tiny crew (cinematographer Francis Miquet, writer/researcher Kirwan Kox) at work, Cinéma Vérité plays vivaciously and is information packed. It continually finds smart ways to highlight its inventory of great vérité scenes, and tête–à–tête with its moviemaking subjects in several different countries. And the movie’s data include what you need to know about technical innovations like French cinéaste Jean–Pierre Beauviala’s crystal–synch system, which freed cameras from tape recorders.
The week of the film’s October debut at three film festivals, Wintonick told me that he believes vérité is a crucial “defining moment” of movie history on a par with the invention of the medium and the year “when films began to speak. This revolution synthesized a vision of reality without the proscenium arch. It was a technological break, born of the desire of artists to be mobile.” The story of the moviemakers who first breathed life into vérité is one of the best known in cinema history. Legends like England’s Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, Americans Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, France’s Jean Rouch, and Canadians Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor and Michel Brault wanted to capture the quivering intensity of real life without manipulating it or telling viewers what to think about the images they were seeing. Inspired by 1920s Russian avant–gardist Dziga Vertov’s kino pravda (cinema truth), and still photographers like Henri Cartier–Bresson (who hunted big game before he decided to track human beings), they shot fast and loose with excitingly new, lightweight cameras and portable sound equipment. Their improvisations were all about “wanting what you got, rather than going out to get what you want,” says Reisz in Cinéma Vérité. The early films “had no arguments, no polemic, no conclusions. They were asking the audience to identify with the detail.”
Near the end of his picture, Wintonick interviews two of The Blair Witch Project’s producers in the appropriate setting of a Halifax graveyard. For Gregg Hale and Robin Cowie, vérité’s restless view of the world was, as Wintonick argues, a new syntax that deeply embedded itself in film language. The makers of Blair Witch felt no need to meditate on the precedents for their pseudo–doc horror movie because, as Cowie says, “You don’t have to go back and learn Latin to learn that Latin words are in English.” Nervous pans, improvised framings and enigmatic smears signify reality, as fans of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, not to mention TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets (occasionally directed by doc virtuoso Barbara Kopple), are aware.
The Film Board’s The Extension Ladder was number five in its series called Basic Rescue. What was the instructional value of the early vérité directors filming the lifestyle of British teenagers (Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys), Paul Anka as a cocky young star (Koenig and Kroitor’s Lonely Boy), American bible hucksters (the Maysles brothers’ Salesmen) or Parisians on a summer day (Rouch’s Chronique d’un été)? As Michel Brault puts it, “We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.”
Wintonick’s doc about docs is driven in part by the impulse to construct a historical record of vérité’s master artists, who (like the Cuban musicians in Wim Wenders’ popular The Buena Vista Social Club) are living out their final years. In fact, director Pierre Perrault (Pour la suite du monde, the lyrical classic about Québécois whale hunters) died three weeks after he was interviewed for the film. Obviously crazy about the independent–minded people he tags in Cinéma Vérité as a “small band of rebel filmmakers,” Wintonick cuts in shots of himself charging into their studios and houses, eager “to meet my idols in one fell swoop.”
One of Cinéma Vérité’s most striking characters is Richard Leacock, who collaborated on films like the archetypal rockumentary Monterey Pop and Robert Drew’s JFK. study, Primary. Bursting with energy at age 78, Leacock sums up the rush of vérité filmmaking when he recalls his epiphany while shooting Roger Tilton’s little–known 1954 short, Jazz Dance: “I fell in love 20 times,” he says over frenetic images of young New Yorkers bopping the night away. “I was standing on tables, jumping around on the floor, all over the place. Just shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot. And it was freedom! Screw the tripods! Screw the dollies! Screw all the stuff! You can move!”
The peripatetic moviemaker, who lives in an antique French farmhouse where he edits digital videos and fires them around the world on the Web, epitomizes vérité’s symbiotic relationship with hipster culture and its romance with impetuous free expression. The saxophone, the electric guitar, the freewheeling Harley of movie genres, vérité kick–started when the Beats were in full howl and shifted into high gear during hippie times. The antics of young people inspired the Leacocks and Pennebakers (if not the Jean Rouches and Robert Drews) while straight vérité, transposed into movies like Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, electrified the kids. Who didn’t fire up a doobie, ball and then head out with a Nikon, Bolex or port–o–pack video camera to record impressions of the unfolding universe?
As for content, the kids were elated by the antiauthoritarian vibe of docs like Pennebaker’s famous Bob Dylan portrait, Don’t Look Back, or Frederick Wiseman’s horrific vision of a mental hospital for convicts, Titicut Follies. In the latter film, a shrink with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth during an autopsy of a patient was one of the classic movie assholes of the 1960s, right down there with the brutal prison gang bosses in Cool Hand Luke. In other words, despite Leacock’s sardonic crack, “Supposing people had little minicams when Jesus was crucified. Would that help things much?” most vérité films aim at making the corrupt and tyrannical look bad.
Wintonick, for one, has faith in the fading 1970s ideal that movies can transform the real world and he has a personal reason to be optimistic: those who know credit Manufacturing Consent with helping push the UN into taking action against Indonesia’s vicious treatment of the East Timorese. “I think part of a filmmaker’s role is not just to exist as an individual,” Wintonick says, “but also to participate in a wider movement, in a set of proactive commonalities.” Cinéma Vérité argues the director’s view that the current cyber–revolution, with its ongoing switchover from “chemical and celluloid cinema” to easily accessible, inexpensive digital production and distribution methods is, like vérité, a defining moment. “With the ubiquitous nature of all this stuff,” argues Wintonick, “everybody can be a filmmaker.”
While Wintonick is an incorrigible utopian now in production on a film about attempts to create ideal societies, there is evidence to back his optimism. Not only did Danish provocateurs Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s vérité–like, content–driven Dogme ‘95 manifesto of filmmaking capture young imaginations around the world, Steven Spielberg himself recently said he would like to shoot a movie under its rules. Dogme doesn’t mean doc, but it does forbid “superficial action” and moviemaking aids ranging from camera dollies to optical printers. At Montreal’s International Festival of New Cinema and New Media, where Cinéma Vérité shared the Telefilm Canada prize for Best Canadian Feature, Wintonick was happy to meet 20–year–old cyberfreaks who loved the film. In fact, he wants his film to show that “there’s a history to most things. That the digital revolution wasn’t born with the latest Sony handicam. It came out of the conscious effort of those who created cinema.”
Wintonick’s idealistic enthusiasm for his subject does not prevent him from candidly appraising it. For one thing, the idea that the practitioners of cinéma vérité are all synched into an identical approach to moviemaking is a false one. Apart from the differences between the French, British and American schools, “What we found on this road documentary about cinéma vérité is that when you confront each filmmaker individually, they all have their own definitions of what their quest for truth has been and is. There are questions of style and aesthetics, how much you manipulate, and how much you try to leave the illusion that you’re not manipulating on the screen.” Wintonick has no problem with strategies that “allow the public access to a new, strange experience.” Moreover, he does not shy away from probing naive assumptions about the veracity of movies that call themselves “true cinema.” Numerous commentators on vérité invoke physicist Werner Heisenberg’s principle that observation changes the thing being observed. Aiming a lens at a situation changes behaviour, and editing modifies reality even more.
Referring to his masterwork Pour la suite du monde, Pierre Perrault says, “Life was the director and the people wrote their own lines.” But obviously, the fishermen Perrault documented must have sensed he wanted to capture a particular, heroic image of them. Most of the subjects in Cinéma Vérité admit they finesse the realities they film. Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor and Robert Drew say that vérité is essentially theatre, a kind of fiction that paradoxically aims at revealing truths. Jennifer Fox, who made the recent and ambitious hit, American Love Story, believes that objective cinema is a fallacy. Frederick Wiseman, who calls cinéma vérité a “pompous and pretentious French term that has no meaning,” gets really harsh. The one–time darling of doc purists because of his strict no narration, intervention or interviews approach, Wiseman tells Wintonick that his moviemaking is about organizing “some of the dramatic aspects of ordinary experiences in everyday life.” When Wintonick responds, “but there’s no conscious manipulation of the reality,” Wiseman snaps, “Of course there’s conscious manipulation. Everything about a movie is manipulation. How can you say that?” The director of Titicut Follies and Canal Zone would probably be amused by stories of legendary photographer Weegee who would arrive on crime scenes and create poignant effects by, for instance, artfully positioning a murder victim’s hat near his body.
While Cinéma Vérité covers its territory thoroughly, the picture does have its gaps and absences. Key filmmakers like Canadian pioneer Alan King are missing because of unavoidable technical problems, and American Chris Marker didn’t want to participate. Personally, I would have liked to have seen some Andy Warhol moments. Early Warhols like Eat were unedited 30–minute takes that gazed unflinchingly at their bleakly unlit subjects. No other vérité filmmaker was as purely noninterventionist. Warhol turned on the camera and walked away. Although Wintonick talks about the “crazy dance of documentary and drama,” he tends to minimize fiction’s impact on vérité. There’s little in his film about the influence of Italian neorealism, or the French nouvelle vague, particularly Raoul Coutard’s stunningly improvised on–location dolly shots for films like Jean–Luc Godard’s Breathless.
Ultimately, cinéma vérité is a slippery subject, and a complex experience for viewers. It’s a film form that presents itself as reality, but in the process, raises mysteries, existing in some kind of twilight zone between the real and the fictional. “Life is a kind of theatre when you find the right story, but [the people] are not acting,” says Robert Drew. Even if that isn’t strictly true, who’s to define exactly what a performance is, or what it does and doesn’t reveal? Albert Maysles says in the film, “you allow that person to be himself,” whatever that means.
The future looks good for Cinéma Vérité, which has already picked up prizes at Montreal’s International Festival of New Cinema and New Media and at the Vancouver International Film Festival. On top of that, it screened at the prestigious Yamagata Documentary fest in Japan and got selected for Berlin’s Forum. Given the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new, more savvy procedure for selecting films to nominate in Oscar’s feature doc category, Wintonick might get a nod from Hollywood. Meanwhile, he’s characteristically delighted that his film got a rave review in a tabloid, Montreal’s top daily, Journal de Montréal. “Maybe my own veil of insecurity is starting to lift,” he laughed before heading off to a New Zealand desert to research his new project about the human quest for Utopia.
Also see: Peter Wintonik’s filmography.
This article originally appeared in issue 26 of Take One magazine published in the Winter of 2000. Northernstars.ca acquired the archives of Take One in 2007.