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The Strengths and Limitations of Verite Documentary

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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 differences 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 directorial 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 utilized `the interview' for purposes of coherence. Another feature of the verite style is that it tends to concentrate on highly specialized, 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 centers 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 programs 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 programs were being broadcast as they were being filmed. This created a situation, as in "The Living Soap", where instead of watching a program about six typical students in their daily lives, we were watching a program 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 program 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 behavior as a result of its presence. For example, Colin Young, in his 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." Verites critics have viewed such behavior with suspicion because it shows how this documentary form can change reality. The documentary makers can also be seen to manipulate participants' behavior 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." In fact the input of the filmmaker is often at the root of the suspicion felt towards verite. The feeling is that documentary makers manipulate reality, be it consciously or subconsciously, and 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

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