Realism is the artistic attempt to recreate life as it is in the context of an artistic medium. The artists function is to report and describe what he sees as accurately and honestly as possible. Realism began as an artistic movement in the 18th Century in Europe and America. It was a revolt against the conventions of the classic view of art which suggested that life was more rational and orderly that it really is. It was also a revolt against the romantic traditions in art which suggested that life was more emotionally satisfying that it really is. Realism tries to portray life as objectively as possible. The realistic artist tries to keep his own preconceived notions out of his art but rather to just report what he sees as accurately as possible, warts and all.
Realism developed historically in tandem with the rise of modern science with its emphasis on observation, accurate recording and theorizing about natural phenomena. It also developed at the same time that writer started to have a social conscience, seeing the evils of society and calling for reform. Some of the leading French writers in the realistic tradition were de Balzac, Flaubert and Zola.
Realism was a broad spectrum movement involving painting, literature, drama in several European countries. Some of the leading French realist painters were Corat, Courbet and Daumier.
When the 20th century arrived with the invention of the moving picture camera, one of the first motion picture ever made was titled Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory by the French film pioneers, the Lumiere brothers. This film was one of the first realistic films ever made because its subject matter was exactly what the title stated. This was in direct contradistinction to another French film of the period Trip to the Moon which was an overt fantasy and one of the first science fiction films ever made. Since its inception, the world of cinema has descended from these two progenitor film approaches:
Realistic films that try to show the world as it actually is, and Fiction/fantasy films that try to present the artists imaginative view of the world in an entertaining manner.
Cinema Verite, literally film truth, was a style of film making developed by French film directors in the 1960s. Their production techniques did not depend on star quality actors, sets, props, casts of thousands, special effects and big budgets which was the trend in Hollywood films then as now. The cinema verite directors used non-actors, small hand- held cameras, and actual homes and surroundings as their location for a film. One of their production techniques was to tape record actual conversations, interviews and statements of opinion make by real people. Then they would find pictures to illustrate the actual sound recordings. The final production was put together in the editing room (which is also true of fiction/fantasy films). Cinema verite was characterized by the use of real people (not actors) in unrehearsed situations. Filming was done with unobtrusive cameras so the subjects of the film would forget the presence of the camera and just be themselves. The filmmakers goal was to show life as it really is using the film as his artistic medium. Sets and props were never used and everything was shot on location, often with a small, portable camera. The camera could be taken into peoples homes, automobiles, and other places where the heavy, bulky feature film cameras could not easily go.
Some famous French examples of cinema verite are Chronicle of a Summer (1961) by Jean Rouch and Le Joli Mai (1962) by Chris Marker. A famous French film director who was influenced by cinema verite was Jean-Luc Godard. His first feature film Breathless (1960) was shot without a script. He improvised the film as he went along, sometimes writing dialogue and rehearsing actors on the spot just before he would roll cameras for a take.
Cinema verite stands at the other end of the spectrum from the Hollywood feature film. The typical Hollywood film has a complete script that has been through several revisions, movie star actors with million dollar salaries, costly special effects, expensive sets, props and locations, and a multi-million dollar budget to pay for it all. The producers of such films to try to attract a huge mass audience. To get their money back, the producers and the financiers mount an equally expensive and wide-ranging promotional campaign complete with newspaper, radio and television advertising.
Not so with cinema verite. Films made in this genre usually have none of the above. Cinema verite films are usually shot with light, easily portable, inexpensive equipment, hand-held cameras, actual locations, real people (not actors) and a relatively small budget. The films are usually shot without a script and assembled later in editing.
But the key difference between the Hollywood-type fiction/fantasy film and the cinema verite film is the respective goals of each. While the Hollywood film is usually aimed at creating a fantasy of some kind which will be sufficiently attractive to the mass audience that millions of them will come to the movie theater and pay enough admission charges so the film can make back its multi-million dollar budget and make a profit on top of that, the cinema verite film is aimed at showing the mundane truth of peoples everyday lives and the social context in which they live their lives. Cinema verite is part of the broader artistic tradition of realism and the cinematic tradition of documentary film making. These realistic traditions in are aimed at showing mans real situation in life rather than at providing him with an escapist fantasy experience which and audience will enjoy watching and will pay for by coming out to the movies in very large numbers. Realism and cinema verite try to show man as he is and the world as it is because the film maker often has a social conscience and sometimes a political agenda. His purpose is to enlighten his audience, to show them the truth a he sees it, so they will have the information they need to live better lives or to, in some cases, to take political action to right the wrongs the film maker often exposes.
It is in this proud tradition of realism and cinema verite that Sarah McConnell, a 1990s video producer, presents her realistic videos about French life and French culture. As a serious student of all things French, she wants to show her audience what really goes on in French social and cultural institutions.
Written by Robert McConnell, Ph.D. copyright 1997 (permission to
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