Cinéma vérité

We’re on cinéma vérité in my documentary film class. I started them off with Salesman and War Room. I had no idea when I picked them they’d pair so well. To prompt my students’ writing, I wrote:

Cinema verité means “truthful cinema.” What aspects of the filmmaking style in Salesman and War Room might justify this claim of being truthful? Do you think it’s a fair claim?

Consider these questions in light of the subject matter of these two films. In Salesman, the subjects are selling bibles, which are purveyors of truth and piety to those with Christian faith. Yet it’s pretty obvious from the film that the bibles they’re selling are a rip off. In War Room, the subjects are part of a political campaign, which, like all such campaigns, purports to be truthful and righteous. But we know politicians are dishonest, and here we see how they craft their message and the deceptions involved.

So we have here “truthful cinema” about untruthful things. Does this challenge your notion of what’s true? Are these films somehow saying that the only truth you can trust is that nothing’s true? Or are they able to find some sort of deeper truth below the superficial untruth? And how can we be sure we can trust the film makers? How do we know they didn’t edit it to make it seem truthful? Can we trust the film makers and not the film subjects? Or vice versa? Why or why not?

I was surprised by how intensely my students bristled at the notion that this is truthful cinema. “Truthful cinema?” one asked, and, echoing the pervasive sentiment, answered: “Truthfully, no, I don’t think it’s a fair claim. It is a film, after all–ninety minutes of footage edited together in a way that makes some sort of point. One could undoubtedly root through the miles of tape on the cutting-room floor and piece together a film that makes an entirely different point.”

I was a bit taken aback because I’ve always bought into the idea that cinéma vérité is the truest of the true. I’m a devotee of the slow-cook – the longer a story lingers, the less the story teller intrudes, the truer the tale. But I think my students have a point.

I asked them, what if we were to approach this as if it were literature? What’s the message of this film? What’s the theme?

I said, I think it’s totally existential. It’s saying religion is a scam and life is meaningless. They said they thought it was more about money, how it corrupts. Both of which, we agreed, are simultaneously possible.

As for War Room, after I got home from class I got on Slack and posted:

I forgot to mention my favorite part of War Room. At the end, when they know they’ve won and they’re getting ready for the big celebration, George Stephanopoulos calls Clinton, and he’s just beaming. He looks like a little kid. “I just want to thank you,” he says with deep sincerity, “this is the best thing I’ve ever done.” And the next second he’s helping the president-elect edit his acceptance speech, haggling over words, massaging the message, till he finally just says: “Speak from your heart!” It’s extraordinarily genuine and phony, all at the same time.

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