I’m in Russia paying homage to one of the greatest news makers, Sergei Eisenstein. “What?”, you say. “News makers!”
Mention news and there’s a fair bet the words “state-controlled” and the downside of that become part of a conversation. Mention Eisenstein to a cineast and their eyes bulge as wide as saucers. They simply can’t stop talking.
There’s very long recognition of Russian theorists and auteurs e.g. Pudovkin’s contribution to the rich langue of cinema. The influences from Eisenstein and Tarkovsky to Hollywood directors in Spielberg, Scorsese, and Aronofsky are evident. Those parallel cuts, metaphors, slowing down and acceleration in the film’s pace — Russian filmmakers.
But news? Where’s this going? Russian filmmakers came to understand cinema as a way of propaganda; unlike any medium before it film was malleable. It could do things, like suggest lust, anger, fear without necessary showing it. Intrinsic to film’s langue were ways of communicating meaning to audiences, richly, visually and textually. They, alongside Western fiction filmmakers soon realised this.
As TV developed news and its progenitor newsreels tried execs to strip any unwanted meaning from film, but that was always impossible. They devised standard shots that looked to mask any alt. meaning. TV taught a generation onwards how to read them, despite borrowing the langue from cinema, albeit it was watered down.
There were many challenges to a burgeoning news industry in the 1950s. TV execs like the pioneering Grace Wyndham Goldie loathed documentary styles and non-fiction cinema entering the new lexicon of news.
In the 1960s, the most visible challenge to the format of news was Robert Drew in the US and Jean Rouch in France. The names Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite were responses to the status quo.
Most people associate these two styles with documentary formats, but when I spoke to Robert Drew he was adamant, he was a newsman first and foremost. It was news execs that cut him out of any talks. They took my camera and gear he said, but not my style.
Further challenges took place, but the news industry as an export was now very powerful and profitable. In the 1990s, in the UK its first ever videojournalists lived the conflict between news as it was and how it could be. I was one of them.
Videojournalists approached their work emboldened by what cinema was offering. Several would go onto win awards mixing genres. And then established news outputs got into the field of videojournalism and neutered it.
Since then there have been many attempts at remodelling news and TV production around a swathe of new forms, such as solutions journalism, mobile journalism and slow journalism, too name a few.
Yet in plain site, relatively few, but it’s growing, practitioners look to what cinema directors offer. It’s a complex language and means different things in different cultures, but that’s not a reason to ignore it.
It stares audiences in the face at present, not as friend but foe, as politicians, spin doctors, and depth manipulators strafe news reporters time and time again. Russian filmmakers realised quickly too the psychological affect of film on audiences — something PR and behavioural scientists deploy.
So I’m in Russia. I’m here because this is one of the places it started, and I reckon it’s one of the places journalism will at some point acknowledge for reframing 21st Century Journalism, just as they did with film.
If cinema is about life says French director Tony Gatlif et al, then its rich langue as Vertov showed as non-fiction, is needed to get underneath societies’ decaying underbelly.
To that end, a growing number of practitioners and I are calling what we do Cinema Journalism. It’s in deference to the likes of Vertov and Drew.