What it is…

A style of documentary filmmaking that had its foundation in a string of documentaries made in the U.S. (and Canada) during the late fifties and early sixties. Direct Cinema was only a part of a wave of documentary movements taking place around the world, all of which were markedly shaped by major breakthroughs in film technology.

Who its pioneers were...

Direct Cinema surfaced during the beginning of a very messy political climate within and outside the country — escalating cold war, the Civil Rights Movement and the general fall from grace of Eisenhower-ian America — and at a crucial moment in American cinema — the diminishing of the studio system. It was the ideal time for committed filmmakers such as Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and the Maysles brothers to jump right into the heart of American society and check its pulse.

How it is characterised…

Objectives

Like many of the documentaries and documentary movements that took form during the time, Direct Cinema, true to its name, sought a direct relationship of cinema to reality. It worked towards this objective by often taking a quietly observing, keen-eyed, fly-on-the-wall approach. These films generally treat the camera as non-intrusive and do not have an expository voice over to supplement the images.

Style

The most crucial reason for the rise of Direct Cinema and the like is the invention of ultra-light portable cameras that resulted in minimal logistical hassle. These films are generally shot with handheld camera in direct/synchronised sound and are characterised by a lot of non-geometrical camera movements. Since filmmakers get physically close to their subjects regularly, one also sees an excess of close-ups in these films.

Why it is important...

Direct Cinema is one of the many film movements that, as it were, freed cinema from the technical, ideological and material constraints of studio-bound cinema. Moreover, since it is based on a simple, intuitive and transparent relationship of film to reality (unlike the more reflexive documentaries of the following years), it has served as a rough model for not only hundreds of issue-based films but also much of reality television.

Where to find it...

Albert and David Maysles’ Salesman (1968) follows a group of door-to-door salesmen who travel across America, trying, mostly in vain, to sell dazzling, expensive editions of the Bible. The filmmakers’ and the audience’s intimate journey with them becomes something of a guided tour through America’s socio-economic realities and a skeletal illustration of all transactions under capitalism.

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