Journalism’s most disruptive Journos- how to build on their legacy.
I’m so nervous. I mean I’ve stood next to or interviewed pop stars like Jay-z and Quincy Jones and I’ve not been this nervous. Who’s making me nervous? Albert Maysles, an acclaimed film and news making in his own right.
Then he teamed up with the crew who would forever disrupt journalism and documentary with the equipment used, sound obtained, and style.
The camera you’re using today and styles of shooting owes everything to Maysles and his crew.
This handheld tracking shot from the film Primary (1960) (below) could not be replicated by any broadcast network, because cameras weren’t mobile then and no camera operator would have the audacity to shoot this.
The film, illustrating that shot is preserved by the US National Film Registry by Congress and Academy films in 1990 and 98 respectively was so revolutionary.
The crew which Maysles teamed up with included Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Terence Macartney-Filgate. What made them so special is pioneering a style of filmmaking called Direct Cinema.
Here in three and a half minutes they Maysles, Drew and Pennebaker talk about their breakthrough.
Fancy that? In trying to radically change thinking towards journalism and docs, they looked to cinema. Yes, they were journalists. Their essential point was to let the camera observe events with intrusion forbidden by the rules of the filmmakers. Obs docs, would be the name the form obtained. In the shot of the trio above is the architect of the movement Robert Drew. More on him in a moment.
It was revolutionary, disruptive journalism and media, but it wasn’t without controversy as documented in Claiming the Reel by Professor Brian Winston (book below). Because the style prohibited journalists from intervening. Say you hear a confession to a killing, you couldn’t interrupt at that moment and probe deeper, because that was contrary to the Direct Cinema style. This would come to a head.
In a film by Albert, his brother David and Charlotte Zwerin, called Gimme Shelter (1970), there would be a fatal stabbing of a young black man by a Hell’s Angel that was caught on film. The doc was about the Rolling Stones concert near San Fransisco. Was this exploitative, critics asked. See the Guardian piece: Albert Maysles obituary for more on this.
Now in the 60s just as Drew, Maysles et al were making their findings, in France another set of pioneers, Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch had a different take on a new cinema. They called theirs Cinema Verite. For them
(and they also miniturised the camera) leaving the camera to roll on a scene was out of the question. Someone had to prompt something, ask a question, direct a shot.
This tussle between the two forms continues today. So who’s right or wrong? Of course neither is and that’s in no way to denigrate Mayles or Drew whose shoulders I’m standing on. The interpretation of a scene depends on where you come from or your cultural references and understanding of film, or indeed cinema. Audiences develop what’s called a functional fixedness.
And often that fixedness is delivered by people who want you to invest in seeing their product their way.
You may record the same event as someone across the ocean, but reality is a configure of your conscious (collective national conscious) particularly in a multi-cultural world. It’s the reason British TV e.g. Tarrant TV systematically ribs Swedish commercials.
This difference in reception is what I arrived at from following the work of Direct Cineaists and interviewing Robert Drew (see below). I can prove there’s no such thing as a fixed film reality by showing you this simple experiment. It takes the view of two exemplary filmmakers, one from the US and the other Italian, setting out to make the same film. It’s a work of art in (fictional cinema) but grounded in truism.
The assumption, and that’s not necessary the case, is that both directors would frame and block the same way. What then if we introduce Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story) into this experiment. Ozu was known to shoot from low at seated level.
Now what if we introduce Haile Gerima behind the recently restored Sankofa. Then Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev) in the seat, and then Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman?
The point is there are different frameworks of cinemas at a national cultural level, let alone individual styled approach which lead to mixed up forms. What of more contemporary brilliant filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow, Denis Villeneuve or Paul Greengrass? Greengrass, a journalist retook a style (shaky look) that had come to be generally recognised as documentary into cinema.
In all of these, reality is reconfigured through the sensibilities of the cinema maker, but what’s important in meaning making is the audience and the terms they’ve come to to accept what they’re viewing ie functional fixedness. This was the brilliance of TV News which proclaimed if we all have one way to record the world, there can be a system of recognisable checks and balances. It would also mean someone owned that method and could make money from it.
In the West broadcasters exported their style and made a shed load of money.
In the worlds of Drew and Rouch, the discrepancy could be overcome by letting the audience decide. Hence direct cinema may be OK for US audiences, and Cinema Verite for French ones.
That though was the 60s (not quite the globalised world today) and although TV News was fighting its own rear guard to prove there was only one way to do TV News (just as there’s only one way to practice democracy), these forms would wear thin. In part because video and cinema is a living langue and societies and tech lead to fresh demands and interpretation.
In 1994, I would become one of the world’s first officially recognised batch of videojournalists in the UK. We were one wo/man teams doing everything — not so radical today, but in the 90s mind numbing.
And during my many films, and being called to explain videojournalism, I came across many different VJs. Some were doing interesting work introducing recognisable cinema styles into their stories. They would readily cite directors that influenced them, like Tony Gatlee says Travis Fox (see video).
I’m sure Drew, Maysles and Rouch knew this back then, but the use of the word “Cinema” in their styles could never be unproblematic because it depended on what cinema you were framing.
During my PhD that analysed different media e.g. photography, docs, news art etc., this revelation made sense. TV News ascribes a style for commercial hegemonic reasons, and it had to do this to look and feel different from its cinema moorings.
I refer to my practice of making factual, news sometimes, docs or even promos as cinema journalism — videojournalism but not as you might know it. I invited one of the UK’s most innovative filmmakers to share thoughts when I was an artist in residence at the Southbank Centre. Mark Cousins said this.
The judgement I make on each story is impacted by how well a style I deploy which might best be accepted by the audience.
But there are firm understandings. Each scene, each beat, each sequence adds to the story, and if my continuous seeking of the truth is anything to go by, it’s not diminished by the camera or lens I use, rather it works towards the scenes’ verisimilitude.
Cinema journalism is art; the art of meaning making on factual and news events and one of my thrusts is it’s less predictable than the style of television news whose underbelly is continually exposed for exploitation by language fiends and authoritarians.