Les États généraux du film documentaire 2018 Direct cinema – still possible? / Seminar

Direct cinema – still possible? / Seminar


On the way

The seminar “Direct cinema – still possible?” started off with a questioning which we can sum up in this way: is it still possible to make films in direct cinema style? This query has, since being made public, generated contradictory reactions, starting with that of one of the invited filmmakers, Nicolas Philibert, who stated to me that he didn’t have “the impression that he was doing direct cinema”. Two other participants in this panel, university researchers and lecturers, expressed their questions on reading my text, one of them finding it “too rhetorical” and encouraging me to consider direct cinema “like a matrix” apt to evolve (see texts below). Following that, the screenwriter Cécile Vargaftig, participating in the shoot of a film directed by Valérie Minetto in Saint-Denis in the style of Chronique d’un été (1961) by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, shared with me the difficulties she was facing, echoing, in her opinion, some of my reflections: “They directly address the camera and don’t respond to my requests.” Describing the damage caused by a permanent live stream to which anyone can connect, she evokes in a text “the feeling that the Real is so saturated with images that it has lost its aura”. Then it was Denis Gheerbrant’s turn: the documentary filmmmaker started by pointing out that it had often been suggested to him that “direct cinema is fine, but isn’t it time to move on to something else?”, giving the opportunity for him to defend this cinematic approach in order, he explained, “to film people for whom the expression of words is a struggle”. Another filmmaker friend suggested I read Séverine Graff’s book Le Cinéma-vérité, films et controverses, in which I found the words of Edgar Morin defining the approach of “cinéma vérité”: proposing that “each one act out their life before the camera”, inventing a “cinema of fraternity”, “breaking that membrane that isolates each one of us from the others”. Placing his trust in the ethnographic point of view of Jean Rouch, he also expresses a refusal to embellish the reality being filmed and a desire to immerge oneself within it like a “scuba-diving filmmaker”… Concerning Inconnus de la terre (1961) by Mario Ruspoli, who considers himself a “direct cinema” practician, Séverine Graff evokes the objective of “erasing the filmmaker to make way for the spectator’s ‘direct immersion’ within reality”. At the same time, I rewatch In the Street, the magnificent film by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee, shot in New York in 1948, some of whose scenes, I learn, were shot in the streets of Spanish Harlem using a hidden camera, like some sequences from Chronique d’un été... I discover Claire Simon’s new film, Premières solitudes, made with high school students from Ivry-sur-Seine in the Paris suburbs, in which we see them question one another on intimate subjects in a register which entwines documentary and fiction. In the meantime, I ask questions about the terms we use: “cinéma vérité” as if the rest was just lies; “direct cinema”, a way of indicating that other films capture reality through a probably distorting filter; “living camera”, which suggests that the others are dead, not to mention the expression “candid eye” (title of an American programme made up of hidden camera sequences), where you end up no longer knowing whether you are talking about the way of looking of the person filming or being filmed: what perversion does the candour mask? Each name carries its own mythology, which can seem a little naïve, as often with the distance of time. The question at the origin of this project remains: how can we film the other in a reality which is markedly different from that in which direct cinema was born? Can a style that emerged, it seems to me, from a certain form of utopia and innocence connected to a particular context – that of the post-second-world-war period – be transposed today? Use of the new tools of filmmaking permitting direct sound recording, then recording sound in synch with the image, as they were progressively mastered at the beginning of the sixties, has since become standard usage, to the point where, with the massive use of digital technology, everyone is conscious of and masters the produced effect. In a more complex manner to be defined, the way in which we conceive individually and collectively our relationship to the other, to time, to space, seems very different more than half a century later, just like our relation to images – those that we see, those that we produce. In what ways then is it henceforth imaginable to film the other in order to capture material which produces meaning, a narrative that can be shared with spectators?
Losing my way following these various questions and suggestions, I decided to go out for a walk and came across a group of tattooed youths in front of the parlour located in my street. I wonder about this phenomenon, which seems ever more widespread (notably on the bodies of its adepts). A fear of being transparent? Armour for protection against the world? Fear of being stripped? Narcissistic apparel? A sign of recognition? I can’t help seeing it as an expression of vanity. That of being sure that the desire surging forth in the present will be eternal (there is, in tattooing, something irreversible in the gesture). I believe I perceive a double symptom: one revealing that our relation to time is in crisis, mesmerized by the instant, cut off from any long temporality; the other indicating that our relation to the other, to the world, appears more or less garbled. What can documentary film do, and in what form, faced with this withdrawal into the self, into the immediate, as the gesture of cinematography is above all an inscription within another space, another time, another world than the one we are living in, bearing a tiny part of the eternity that eludes us? The enunciation of the titles of the three recent films we will be presenting in this seminar – Each and Every Moment by Nicolas Philibert, No Man Is an Island by Dominique Marchais and Go, Toto! by Pierre Creton – placed one after the other in this way, resounds like a possible answer to the present.

Frédéric Sabouraud


By the way, what is direct cinema? To answer this question, a return to sources is necessary, which will allow us to observe a formal diversity making it impossible to reduce the school to a single style. Here and there, the films of direct cinema from the first period tried out a multitude of critical or reflexive approaches (ordering and selecting, putting subjects in certain situations or making them meet each other, including feedback in the film, scripting during the edit), appropriating new tools forged according to the desires of their makers, to initiate a new relationship between life and cinema which in no way excluded active direction, and even less so fiction.
This more direct cinema draws its critical power from the modalities in which it defers experience: the staging of waiting times that arouse fabulation, moments of self-reflection, efforts to remember (Pierre Perrault’s La Bête lumineuse and Pour la suite du monde), the exploration of the gap between events and their media doubles (Primary and Crisis by Drew Associates), the dramatizing of daily life and the stratification of time in the posterior experience of editing (Salesman by the Maysles brothers), a return on the experience of the shoot (Chronique d’un été by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, Mario Ruspoli’s Méthode 1). As Louis Marcorelles wrote in 1970 (Éléments pour un nouveau cinéma, Unesco, Paris, 1970): “That is to say that direct cinema is the contrary of the simply immediate; it re-establishes the real mediation which is constructed within any activity of knowledge.”
Based on this observation, we propose the hypothesis that the moment when direct cinema emerged constituted both a return to the origins of cinema, by replaying the dramaturgy of looking that is the foundation for the “view aesthetic” (Tom Gunning) and a matrix for modern documentary. Thus, by referring to the films and discourse of contemporary documentarians, we will be able to apprehend the outlines and heritage of direct cinema, and question its pertinence. By doing so, we will wonder if the abundance of images and the accompanying mistrust it arouses are not on the contrary an appeal to return to the time and precision of direct cinema. And if the substrate of the discourse it proposes is not likely to accompany a necessary political renewal which, on a subterranean level, is already under way.

Caroline Zéau


Direct cinema can possibly be defined as a technique: the possibility of recording synchronized image and sound with lightweight equipment in documentary conditions. Under closer examination though, this definition is already less simple than it appears: the fundamental method has developed into a wide panoply of variations in the course of its history, and the films held as models of direct cinema did not always precisely meet these criteria. The criteria themselves are perhaps not as evident as you might believe. For example, what is really “lightweight equipment”? But also, are direct sound and synchronous sound, rigorously speaking, the same thing? We could then indeed look more closely at the problem to ask what exactly were the techniques of direct cinema: what machines, what shooting configurations, which inventions and problems were decisive? To question the present state of direct cinema, from that point of view, would mean asking about the present state of these problems: have they been definitively resolved, or replaced by others with which they have nothing in common?
But these questions are in no way strictly technical. They involve all cinema and beyond. Showing people in their lives or their work, recording their words and gestures, their bodies and movements, this is a history that goes back to the beginnings of film, even to the beginning of photography and of sound recording. From the start of the twentieth century, images were everywhere: they were archived and exchanged, people filmed in the streets and put on a show to the camera – putting on a show already implies the view of another, using the real or imaginary images which mould us.
These questions involve then a history and an archaeology, but they also refer to a geography. From its beginnings and until the seventies, the Unesco was one of the major promoters of lightweight, synch direct cinema. Before it was a documentary form, direct cinema was perhaps above all a cheap form of cinema, accessible to (almost) all nations in (almost) all contexts, permitting a certain economic, technical, and hence cultural and political, autonomy. Today it is above all in these contexts that the value of direct cinema must be measured, on a level where the aesthetic and the political constantly mingle.

Benoît Turquety


Seminar programme

Monday, 20 at 10:00 am:
Introduction followed by the screening of La Bête Lumineuse by Pierre Perrault.

Monday, 20 at 2:30 pm:
Return on the history of direct cinema.
Interventions and discussions with Fréderic Sabouraud, Benoît Turquety, Caroline Zéau.
With the participation of Dominique Marchais and Nicolas Philibert.

Monday, 20 at 9:15 pm:
Screening of Each and Every Moment by Nicolas Philibert followed by a debate.

Tuesday, 21 at 10:00 am:
Screening of No Man Is an Island by Dominique Marchais followed by a debate.

Tuesday, 21 at 2:30 pm:
Direct cinema today.
Interventions and discussions with Fréderic Sabouraud, Benoît Turquety, Caroline Zéau.
With the participation of Dominique Marchais and Nicolas Philibert.

Tuesday, 21 at 9:00 pm:
Screening of Go, Toto! by Pierre Creton.


Coordination: Frédéric Sabouraud.
With Dominique Marchais, Nicolas Philibert, Benoît Turquety, Caroline Zéau.