Direct Cinema

Direct Cinema

Direct Cinema is a documentary genre that originated between 1958 and 1962 in North America, chiefly in Canada (Quebec) and in the United States. It was characterized initially by a desire to directly capture reality and represent it truthfully, and to question the relationship of reality with cinema.

The Origins

Many technological, ideological and social aspects need to be considered in order to understand the Direct Cinema movement and its place in the history of cinema.

Light cameras

To create Direct Cinema one needs portable cameras, which allow the hand-held camera movements that are the style's visual trademark. The first cameras of this type were German cameras, designed for ethnographic cinematography. It is generally recognized that the company Arriflex was the first to widely commercialize such cameras, that were improved for aerial photography during World War II. Easily available, portable cameras played an important part but, the existence of these cameras in itself did not trigger the birth of Direct Cinema.

Objective truthfulness

The idea of cinema as an objective space has been present since its very birth. The Kino-Pravda (literally "Cinema Truth") practice of Dziga Vertov, that one can trace back to the 1920s, gave an articulated voice to this notion, where one can also see the influence of futurism.

This must be taken into account in order to understand how before the 1960's and the advent of Direct Cinema, the concepts of propaganda, film education and documentary very loosely defined in the public. Cinema in its ontological objectivity was seen by many viewers as reality captured and a means of universal education. Viewing documentaries from the 1950s provides insight into the level of understanding that viewers of that day had of manipulation and mise-en-scene in films shot on "documentary sets." This allows the viewer to better understand the significance of Direct Cinema its importance in the perspective of the popular evolution of ideas about reality and the media.

Sound before the 1960s

Before the Nagra sound recording was either done on extremely heavy, or unreliable machinery. Many attempts were made at solving this problem during the 1950s and 1960s. At the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), for example, a system called "Sprocketape" was designed, but was not imposed.

In the best case scenario, documentary sound was recorded before, in interviews, or much later on location, with a portable studio located in a sound proofed truck. The sounds that were captured were later synched in sound editing, providing the film with sound. In other cases the soundtrack was recorded as in fiction films: with layers of ambient sound, archival sound effects, Foley, and post-synced voices.

In other cases the documentary subject was brought into a studio. Sound taken directly from the studio made the documentary nature of the recording arguable. For example, a production might reconstruct a stable in the studio, with a sound engineer close by in a soundproof booth. This mimics the production of some studio films and TV series, but results in a surreal situation of cows in a studio for a documentary on farming, rather than in their natural habitat. This practice is believed to have triggered an awakening by the then young lighting technician Michel Brault working at the NFB.

What is new in Direct Cinema

With improved sound, lighting and camera equipment available, the technical conditions necessary for the advent of Direct Cinema were present. The social and ideological conditions that led to Direct Cinema were also set.

Around 1960, with the ideas of Frantz Fanon emerging, decolonization was becoming a world trend. Old discourse, habits, white privilege and imperial traditions were being questioned and the civil rights movement was organizing. It was approximately 15 years after WWII, and an extremely critical view of propaganda and of ideology was emerging in journalists, artists, and intellectuals.

Direct Cinema seemed to reflect this new attitude. It emerged from a desire to compare common opinion with reality. It attempted to show how things really are, outside the studio, far from the editorial control of the establishment -- be it governmental or big press, but what was noteworthy was that the desire to test common opinion and show reality was constantly kept in check with an acute awareness that it is easy to lie with sound and image. This tension was at the center of Direct Cinema and resulted in its formal style and methodology.

The elusive recipe of reality captured

The awareness of cinema's potential to lie would result in filmmakers trying very precise ways of shooting. For Michel Brault, who pioneered modern hand-held camera work, it specifically meant the ability to go amidst the people with a wide angle. Other filmmakers would develop very different methods. Some insisted that their subject need to get used to them before they started any real shooting, so it would seem the camera was being ignored. Still, another group of Direct Cinema filmmakers would claim that the most honest technique was for a filmmaker to accept the camera as a catalyst and acknowledge that it provokes reactions. This allowed to filmmakers to feel free to ask their film subject to do something they would like to document.

The desire to capture reality led to some questioning the ability of filmmakers to properly film someone whom they could not fully understand. As an example, Jean Rouch went so far as to hand the camera to the "subject" (and co-author) of Moi, un Noir.

Regardless of these practices, one thing is certain: Direct Cinema had more to do with the ethic considerations in documentary film making than with the technology. This could explain why the movement began in two North American societies that were in social and ideological mutation, French Canada (Quebec) and the United States, before spreading to South America and France.


Direct Cinema began in 1958 at the National Film Board of Canada in Québec, (Canada) during what is called the Quiet revolution, when the majority of French citizens reacted to minority English rule in Quebec.

At that time, a university education was a rare thing for a Québécois. Public life was English. The people of Quebec were seen by its young emerging intelligentsia as alienated and abused. This period of complex cultural and economical change for French speaking Quebecers can be summarized by the convergence of three phenomenons:

The advent of a Welfare state in Quebec accompanying its institutional Anglicization.
A nationalist and social movement fighting ethnic discrimination against Canadians of French origins
The important industrialization and socio-economical change brought both by the baby boom and by the extraordinary post war wealth (1945-1975) in Quebec (and Canada) meant the end of a more traditional rural life.

The consequences of these three movements deeply modified Quebec society and resulted in a myriad of perspectives on its reality for intellectuals and artists in their colonized society. Filmmakers would simultaneously try to share their social conscience, improve the living conditions of the Québécois and attempt to bring national independence--provoking, documenting this transformation and at the same time keeping a record of disappearing traditions in a rapidly changing society. The landmark film Les Raquetteurs, made by Michel Brault (camera), Marcel Carrière (sound) and Gilles Groulx (editing), exemplifies this.


In the United States, Robert Drew who had tried journalism with Life Magazine during the war, decided he wanted to apply the photojournalist method to movies. He founded Drew Associates (which included Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Albert and David Maysles), and started experimenting with technology, syncing camera and sound with the parts of a watch. In 1960, this group produced three films for Time-Life Broadcast: Yanqui, No!, Eddie (On the Pole), and Primary.

Yanqui, No! focused on South America and its tense relations with the U.S. It documented the underlying anti-American sentiment in the population. Primary (a documentary about the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary campaign between Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey), helped define Direct Cinema style and made it known to a wide public with the help of Time-Life Broadcast. The film reveals how primary elections worked in the U.S. at the time and raised the profile of Direct Cinema. After these hotly debated experiments, Time Life Broadcast withdrew from its agreement with Drew Associates. Drew Associates would continue on its own.

On June 11, 1963, the Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the entrance of the University of Alabama, it rapidly became a national issue in the U.S. Drew Associates had a camera in the Oval office and recorded the meetings over the crisis. The result played on TV in October 1963. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment not only fueled discussions over the Civil-Rights movement, it also triggered a profound questioning over the political power of Direct Cinema. Access to politicians for documentary filmmakers would never be the same.


French filmmaker Jean Rouch was a key figure in documentary cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960's. Moi, un Noir (1958), Chronique d'un été (1961) and many of his other films have been a great influence for generations of documentary filmmakers. Yet Jean Rouch did not qualify his cinema as direct but rather as Cinéma vérité, which shared a close link with Direct Cinema.

Feminist Cinema

Techniques of Direct Cinema were also frequently used in early feminist cinema. A studio known as "Studio D" was dedicated to women issues at the NFB in Canada.

Direct Cinema, Cinéma Direct, and Cinéma Vérité

Some find it useful to distinguish Direct Cinema from Cinéma vérité. Cinéma vérité has many resemblances to Direct Cinema. The hand-held style of camera work is the same. There is a similar feeling of real life unfolding before the viewer's eyes. There is also a mutual concern with social and ethic questions and both Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema rely on the power of editing to give shape, structure and meaning to the material recorded.

Some film historians have characterized the Direct Cinema movement as a North American version of the Cinéma vérité movement, an idea exemplified in France with Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer (1961). For these historians Cinéma vérité is characterized by the use of the camera to provoke and reveal.

Direct Cinema, on the other hand, has been seen as more strictly observational. It relies on an agreement among the filmmaker, subjects and audience to act as if the presence of the camera does not substantially alter the recorded event. Such claims of non-intervention have been criticized by critics and historians.

Filmmakers opinions on this subject

In a 2003 interview (Zuber), Robert Drew explained how he saw the differences between Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema: "I had made Primary and a few other films. Then I went to France with Leacock for a conference [the 1963 meeting sponsored by Radio Television Française]. I was surprised to see the Cinema vérité filmmakers accosting people on the street with a microphone. My goal was to capture real life without intruding. Between us there was a contradiction. It made no sense. They had a cameraman, a sound man, and about six more--a total of eight men creeping through the scenes. It was a little like the Marx Brothers. My idea was to have one or two people, unobtrusive, capturing the moment..

To further confuse this distinction, it should be noted that Jean Rouch claimed Cinéma vérité comes from Brault and the NFB. Yet the NFB pioneers of the form Brault, Pierre Perrault and the others, never used the term Cinéma vérité to describe their work and, in fact, found the term pretentious. They preferred "Cinéma Direct." Cinema vérité, the phrase and the form, can thus be seen as France's spin on the idea of the Cinéma Direct of Brault and his colleagues of the French section of the NFB in Canada.

With time Cinéma vérité use in English was applied to everything from a school of thought, to a film style, to a look that can be used in commercials.

Examples of Direct Cinema Documentaries

See also


Further reading

  • Dave Saunders, Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties, London, Wallflower Press, 2007.
  • Jack Ellis, The Documentary Idea: A Critical History of English-Language Documentary Film and Video. N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989.
  • Claire Johnston, "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema" (1975) in: Sue Thornham (ed.), Feminist Film Theory. A Reader, Edinburgh University Press 1999, pp. 31-40
  • Bill Nichols, Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1991
  • Sharon Zuber, "Robert Drew, Telephone Interview, June 4, 2003" in Re-Shaping Documentary Expectations: New Journalism and Direct Cinema. Unpublished Dissertation. College of William and Mary, 2004.

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