The birth of documentary filmmaking is the birth of cinema. The very first films were documents of people, places, and events, whether scientific studies or the moving picture’s answer to the still life painting. And ever since, documentary has always struggled with the challenge to present “truth” on film.
But of course there is no direct pipeline to truth and no film portrait is unmediated. From the beginning, the very choice of what to shoot, where to point the camera, which action to follow, and when to cut, not to mention the decisions that go into the editing process and sound mixing, imposes a vision on a film no matter what the intention.
Cinéma vérité (“truthful cinema”) was born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, developed independently in multiple countries as a response to the conventions of the documentary tradition. In France, where the term cinéma vérité was born, it developed amidst the energy and experimentation of the French New Wave (“nouvelle vague”) from the likes of Chris Marker and Jean Rouch. In the U.S., it was called Direct Cinema, a movement led by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles. And in Britain, Lindsay Anderson (see more on him in UK TV feature below), Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson spearheaded the Free Cinema movement.
All of these filmmakers reacted against the traditional approaches of non-fiction filmmaking — the formal structure, the talking heads interviews, the omniscient narrator framing the information, the dry, dull quality of so many documentaries — and encouraged a more direct engagement between filmmaker and subject. Technological advances produced lighter 16mm cameras and portable sound recording equipment, which gave filmmakers greater freedom and independence. It also allowed for greater flexibility and spontaneity on location and a more intimate connection with the subjects.