During four days of early April 1960, four documentary cameramen photographed a young politician's presidential primary campaign in Wisconsin. The man was 43 year-old John F. Kennedy. The cameramen were a team working with ex-Life magazine producer Robert Drew. They were: veteran Flaherty cameraman Richard Leacock, Don Pennebaker, Al Maysles, and Terry McCartney Filgate.
Kennedy was soon to become the 35th President of the United States; the five filmmakers were soon to become major figures in a new era of documentaries labeled direct cinema or cinéma vérité.
Primary, their hour-long film was an unprecedented, intimate look into the hour-by-hour movements of the Massachusetts junior senator as he traveled through Wisconsin seeking his party’s nomination. The cameras followed him from city to city via car and bus, stalking the charismatic candidate at fundraising dinners and stump speeches. Al Maysles executed one jaw-dropping 85-second shot as Kennedy moved through a crowd of supporters at a Milwaukee rally. Mayles held his camera over his head, walking behind the candidate, carrying the shot up onto the stage, pointing it at the audience below — this at a time when most news cameras were tripod bound, lined up in a rank.
This immediacy had become possible only with the dynamic freedom of a new handheld sound camera.
As election night returns came in, Drew, Leacock and his Auricon were in JFK’s hotel suite along with Kennedy's supporters and wife, Jackie. This intimacy was unprecedented, startling even, in its raw, real time view of the man and the unfolding political process around him. Primary was the first in a series of direct cinema documentaries made by Robert Drew and Associates, possible because of their labor intensive and expensive conversion of a clunky, sound-on-film camera that had been the stalwart of news cameramen. This “single-system” 16mm Auricon was a tripod-mounted, near 30-pound behemoth with an intricate threading pattern around the magnetic sound head inside the camera body. The Auricon used single-perf film stock, the sound stripe occupying one side of the film perf area.
Drew had used a million dollar grant from Life to strip down the bulky Auricon to half its weight. Leacock introduced a handgrip that allowed the camera to rest on his shoulder while being supported by his right hand.
Beyond the camera itself, the filmmaking technique of direct cinema was reductive in the extreme. It avoided voice over narration and editorializing. It avoided interviews; it avoided scripted and set-up situations. The goal was to film real events in real time without mediation or intrusion: in essence, as true to the moment of unfolding life as possible. Of course, this opens the dialectic premise that every camera shot is a de facto choice, and of every editing cut (in Godardian terms) a “moral decision.” Still, the approach of direct cinema represented not only a new kind of documentary filmmaking but a technique soon to send shock waves through the world of mainstream feature films in the tropes of the French New Wave, as well as in its offspring, New American Cinema. It was a dream promised, but until then unrealized, of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, the seminal Soviet era documentary of 1929.
A month after Primary was photographed, veteran ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch, along with philosopher/sociologist Edgar Morin began a feature-length documentary about the daily life and relationships of a group of young Parisians, Chronicle of a Summer; it was set against tensions of the Algerian War already in its sixth year, and of racial agitation in the former Sub-Saharan French colonies.
Morin was not a filmmaker, but a leftist intellectual with a definite socio-political agenda. After the film, he retreated back to the world of letters. But Rouch became one of the major influences on the auteurists of the French New Wave. Chronicle of a Summer also became a template for the European kin of America’s direct cinema — dubbed by Rouch and Morin cinéma vérité.
Unlike the much-sought objectivity of its laid back American cousin, Chronicle of a Summer reflected hot-button sociological/cultural values of contemporary France. The filmmakers themselves were ready participants in the film, hosting a pre-shooting discussion (which they also filmed), an analysis with the subjects after they viewed the completed film, and a finale walk and talk critique between Morin and Rouch as they strolled side by side through the familiar corridors of the Museé de L’homme.
The dual ghosts of Descartes and Deconstructionism haunt their approach. This landmark documentary incorporates planned street interviews with other no-nos of American direct cinema such as voice-over narration and internal commentary on the action. A side by side viewing of these two seminal documentaries is a perfect illustration of not only the contrasting filmmaking styles, but serves as an insight to the inherent intellectual and aesthetic differences of the Yankee and Gallic mindset: American empirical direct action without premeditation or judgment, against the French tradition of provocation followed by analysis. A taste of what Rouch and Morin were attempting to capture as a greater truth than what they saw as the mere recording of events can be seen in this short clip which intercuts between the documentary and Rouch’s commentary in a 1991 interview.
There is one scene in Chronicle of a Summer that has become justifiably famous, one that illustrates the fundamental difference between the American and French documentary styles. On an outdoor terrace, the white Parisian and black African subjects of the film discuss the issue of race and the ongoing Algerian War. Both Morin and Rouch are present at the table, readily entering into the conversation. At 3:45 in the clip below Rouch abruptly poses a question to Modeste Landry, the Niger youth also featured in the earlier Rouch documentary The Human Pyramid. He questions Landry about a tattoo on Marceline’s arm. It is a direct provocation and it introduces a back-story into Marceline’s character that had not been presented earlier, that of her incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. This dramatic intrusion by the filmmaker would not be tolerated in the stripped down, non-invasive style of American direct cinema.
Critic Barbara Bruni describes Rouch and Morin’s approach in a March 2002 issue of Feature Articles:
Chronicle of a Summer was one of the first films to make use of the innovative equipment which Rouch himself had helped to develop. The film’s object, nonetheless, was precisely the contamination so painstakingly avoided by exponents of direct cinema: in the film, Rouch and Morin begin by investigating the nature of happiness by questioning passer-byes in the streets of Paris, but as the film progresses, the investigation becomes a pretext in order to access people’s most innermost thoughts about life and their relationship with others.
Before Rouch teamed with Morin, he had made dozens of documentaries, most of an ethnographic genre, in Sub Saharan countries. His 1958 film Moi, Un Noir follows a group of young men around the capital city of the Ivory Coast, Abidjan, as they eke out an existence. He even gave them cameras to film themselves—decades before small digital camcorders became the province of contemporary documentarians. Rouch himself filmed with a spring wound 16mm non-reflex, non-sound Bell & Howell camera that only allowed for shots of less than a half-minute duration.
Rouch dubbed dialogue and sound effects in post-production. It is said that his camera technique of limited shot length necessitated a style of jump cutting in the editorial continuity of many of his films — a style that was quickly embraced by Godard, Truffaut and many other New Wave directors. Moi, Un Noir was a prototype of the cinéma vérité documentary.
Some scenes of Chronicle of a Summer were photographed with a studio camera on a tripod, but the street scenes were shot with the prototype of the camera that was soon to become the most sought after 16mm camera in the world, the Éclair NPR, the camera that surely even more than the Auricon “changed the world.” As in Primary, four cameramen photographed Chronicle of a Summer. One of them was the Godard and Truffaut cinematographer Raoul Coutard; another was Michel Brault, the brilliant NFB cameraman/director from Quebec. Rouch brought Brault to France for the demanding handheld street scenes. He wanted to break free from the “closed-room” discussion scenes that had framed earlier sequences and which the more academic Morin favored. Rouch called Brault’s walking camera technique “pedovision.” Writer Sam Di Iorio quotes Rouch years later:
Everything we’ve done with cinéma vérité in France comes from the NFB in Canada. Brault brought over a new shooting style that we weren’t familiar with, and we’ve all been copying it since.
Both of these documentaries are available on DVD and are crucial entries in the history of documentary filmmaking. Here is Primary:
Chronicle of a Summer is available in a richly remastered edition by The Criterion Collection. It includes, as is usual with Criterion, extra features such as a 2011 documentary with outtakes and interviews of the film’s subjects and of Morin.
This brief examination of Primary and Chronicle of a Summer serves as an introduction to an hour-long BBC documentary titled The Camera That Changed the World. It was shown at a recent ASC dinner meeting against the background display of many of the historic 35mm film cameras that line the walls of the Clubhouse’s main room.
The age old dichotomy of “the chicken or the egg” enters front and center in an evaluation of these new documentary techniques of the ’60s: did the development of portable cameras encourage a new filmmaking style, or did the mandate for new ways of making documentaries drive the development of new cameras and sound recorders? Close scrutiny in the BBC film suggests simultaneity, though it is evident, at least in Drew’s mission to re-design the Auricon, that he actively sought a camera that would have the same freedom of movement as did photojournalists. His dictum was: “It wasn’t really the camera, it was the idea that changed the world.” In the BBC documentary about those crucial years, some of its seminal figures act as guides through the labyrinth. Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Don Pennebaker and Al Maysles are articulate voices for American direct cinema; the raffish Jean-Pierre Beauviala, employed by Éclair straight out of college, and the great Canadian cinematographer/director Michel Brault, narrate the development of the French NPR — from its vertically held four pound prototype to its shoulder-slung iconic profile.
This riveting history is viewable on Vimeo. It will not embed here, but you can download it or watch as streaming video. For anyone interested in the evolution of documentary film technique, it is thrilling and indispensible viewing.
Robert Drew’s dream of a movie camera with the freedom of a still camera led him first to Leacock, described as the camera’s “godfather,” then to Pennebaker who was and still is a tinkerer. It was Pennebaker who crafted a handle attached to the Auricon which made it possible to rest the front heavy body on the cameraman’s shoulder. In France, Éclair engineer Andre Coutant crafted the lightweight prototype with a silent, slanted pull down claw. This is the camera that Brault used for the street scenes.
Back in America, the Drew Associates team went on to make vital documentaries with their Auricons during the next three years but went their separate ways by the end of 1963; the Auricon faded away except for filmmakers like Warhol who were attracted to its 1000' magazine ability.
In France, the story was different. The Éclair prototype evolved into the NPR, the dominant documentary film camera during the next decade. Its 400 ft. magazine could be pre-threaded, only 12 frames exposed at the front of the magazine, the entire magazine ready to snap onto the camera bod in a few seconds.
The exposed magazine could be instantly removed, the gate inspected, and a new magazine reseated in less than 10 seconds. It was customary to continue sound recording during the reload with a cutaway shot bridging the action.
Both Drew and Rouch discovered, after they had photographed their movies, that the sound recorders had not kept sync speed with the cameras over long takes; hundreds of hours were spent in the editing room slipping the sound to re-establish sync. This problem was solved with the introduction of the Swiss-made Nagra 1/4" tape recorder with crystal-sync drive, the brainchild of Stefan Kudelski.
The combination of the NPR with the Nagra made it possible to document the social, political, cultural chaos of the ’60s with an unparalleled immediacy and urgency. It was at Woodstock and Altamont and in Vietnam.
I was with cameraman Dave Myers and his battered Eclair NPR on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, and with Erik Daarstad in East Africa while tracking black rhinos for National Geographic. The NPR was the workhouse camera of many of today’s feature film cinematographers who began their careers in documentaries. I used this wondrous camera until the late ’70s — and I miss it today.
It is the storied legacy of this 16mm camera that anticipated the even more immediate and “democratized” use of smaller digital camcorders for today's personal documentaries. Still, for many of us cinematographers working in both film and video — that special sense of tactile artistry in handholding the NPR just can’t be duplicated by the point and shoot aesthetics of today’s video. Perhaps Mikhail Kaufman felt the same about his DeBrie Parvo, his whole body in sync with the rhythm of his hand cranking.