Cinéma vérité is one of those topics of film studies that doesn’t exactly have a definition, on account of the many different manifestations of it. However, as the term implies, the French had a big hand in bringing it about. It turns out that as the French New Wave was swelling, a filmmaker and an anthropologist did a little film-theorizing of their own. In 1961 Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin released Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été). The documentary attempts to answer the question, can authentic life be captured on film? Can human beings be “sincere” in front of a camera?
The film opens with an explicit mention by the filmmakers (who guide us through the film and perform interviews) of cinéma vérité, as they explain their goals to the viewer and a woman in their presence. The whole premise seems filled with irony. A fellow Frenchman, Jean-Francois Lyotard, made the famous claim that Postmodernism can be defined as “incredulity of metanarratives.” This epistemological rejection of higher powers and explanations of things only begins to describe the popular sentiments of the 20th Century and following. If “Postmodernism” is anything, it is incredulity, period. Rouch and Morin begin their quest already in doubt that humans can be trusted in front of a camera. This question begs a much larger one: can human beings be trusted at all? What would be the determining criteria at film’s end when the two men assess their data and make their conclusion? The two men essentially disagree at the end as to whether their subjects were true to themselves or not.
But this was only part two of the film’s epilogue. Part one had the two men posing the question to the group of subjects following a screening of the film “about” “them.” In general, those asked found problems with the film on the basis of other subjects not being sincere enough – or in some cases, too sincere. (It’s interesting to note, however, that no one complained about how s/he spoke or behaved before the camera.) In this sense, the film provided a fascinating crossroads between epistemology and ethics. Some subjects, men and women, were greatly offended at other subjects conveying their thoughts and feelings too openly, making themselves “bare” in front of the camera. Other subjects (in some cases the same ones) argued that fellow interviewees were disingenuous or overly general based on the presence of the camera and the knowledge that they were being filmed.
The assumption here is that the subjects were morally obligated to be “true” to the interviewers in front of the camera. One might state that the moral obligation arose only by virtue of their willingness to participate in the project; don’t spoil the experiment by being fake. However, something else is at work here. Already, there was implied a moral component to the experiment. True, the unstated hypothesis (that people probably cannot be sincere before a camera) is chiefly epistemological in nature. The question boils down to, can we know a person’s true self through the medium of film? But the act of the experiment places a moral obligation on the subjects actually to be “real.” There is an ethical prerequisite to knowledge.
As interesting as that is, though, the film seems to stand or fall based on the previous point. In this case, it falls. It is a fascinating experience with an intriguing hypothesis, but the filmmakers are without the tools or the initial axioms that would enable them to make a sound (let alone a valid) judgment. The proposition would have to begin something like:
1. People can be “sincere.”
a. “Sincerity” can be defined as _______________.
b. “Sincerity” can be determined through ___________________.
2. People seem to be less “sincere” when they are being filmed.
The missing “therefore” at the end can’t even be begun until the blanks are filled in (and probably more). Of course, all of the above is only true analytically speaking. From an intuitive-perceiving point of view (thank you, Myers-Briggs), the experiment is completely valid. In fact, it actually works better as your good, old-fashioned “spring-board” discussion in the vein of “Postmodernism,” which is much more about “community” and “consensus” than “knowledge” and “truth.”
But at the risk of repetition, we have to return to the point regarding narratives and metanarratives. In the truest sense, what Rouch and Morin were shooting for here was to capture the stories of particular persons from their own points-of-view, in their own words, and with their own particular nuances of communication. Since the Continentals (in particular, the French, ironically) have already established the problems regarding language and the act of discourse/communication, the experiment of this film becomes even more problematic. And it’s one thing to distrust metanarratives, but what now, when we cannot even trust the micro-narratives of individuals? One must give credit where it’s due: the latter must follow the former. Without metanarratives, narratives become obliterated at worst and wobbly (that’s generous) at best. Stories become nothing more than tales good only for utility and entertainment. And this isn’t true merely on an interpersonal level. As to whether or not they were being “sincere” or “true,” Rouch and Morin said it best at film’s end in a statement as revealing as it is ambiguous: “They don’t really know themselves.”
Notes: “Anything you object to can be cut.” More likely to be “sincere” in 1961 (before the age of mass-media, reality TV, everyone-being-interviewed)? “Long” walk home – whistling, smoking, people staring, editing, shot of little girl. Exercising. Starting a book? Recruiting interviewers from pool of interviewees. Necessarily limited to willing parties. Some silent periods chosen. Nihilism. Group conversations more “real”/believable? Less thought given to the presence of the camera? Freeze frame on rose. She talks in 1st/2nd person before camera while walking down street – variety of camera shots. From above/below, silhouette. Talking to dead mother after discussion at table of Holocaust revelation. Zoom-out of her walking through hangar. Cut to dancing & music. Staging scenes/scenery – closes window before sitting & interviewing. Close-up as conversation progresses. Til toward shaking/fidgeting hands. Is she being melodramatic? Cuts seem to be hiding things. Rugged, earthy scenes emphasized, made artful by camera. Close-up of held hands. Renault guy loses job b/c of film. Willingness of subjects, filmmakers’ choice of subjects. Playing on rock wall. “Mass of generalities…not true to life.” Lone woman thinks being alone is closest to truth.