Whose Cinema?

Film historians usually map the documentary film along two modern tendencies which began to develop in the late 1950’s. One tendency, referred to as “observational”, is attributed to the American genre of Direct Cinema, whose creators included directors like Robert Drew, the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman; the other tendency, referred to as “participatory”, is attributed to the French genre of Cinema vérité, which originated with French filmmaker and ethnologist Jean Rouch. The common denominator to both tendencies was the desire to overcome the fallacious and exploitative relation that existed between traditional cinematographic representation and the reality or the characters represented. Using new technologies which allowed them unprecedented flexibility and mobility – primarily light shoulder-held cameras and the physical separation of the camera from a synchronized voice recorder – these modern authors wished to achieve a more “direct” or “true” documentary cinema.

Jean Rouch and his crew at work

The difference between the two groups, as schematically represented by most history books, lies in the fact that while Direct Cinema wished to give a faithful account of reality as it is – avoiding narration and downplaying the presence of the camera or the author – Cinema vérité, under the influence of Soviet pioneer Dziga Vertov, tended on the contrary to consciously highlight the camera’s presence and its interference with reality, seeking in this way to uncover and even create a deeper truth.

In his essay Our Arabs, published in Maarvon 2, Israeli film critic Shmuel Duvdevani criticizes two Israeli documentary filmmakers – Yulie Gerstel Cohen for her film My Terrorist (2002) and Avi Mograbi for his film Avenge But One of my Two Eyes (2005) – for the way they represent the Palestinian “other”. The main thrust of his argument is that these films exploit the other’s suffering in order to portray their creators in a self-righteous way, or as he puts it,

[t]he film’s creators sometimes position themselves as victims, as people whose willingness to acknowledge their responsibility makes them morally superior. Thus the Palestinian is appropriated in order to help them deal with the torments of their guilt.(1)

Duvdevani concludes his essay on frustrated tones, claiming that both films

[…] indicate that, despite the courage and sincerity of their creators, any documentation of suffering – of the creator or of the other – is considerably involved in exploitation, self-righteousness and manipulation. The reality of roadblocks, closure and oppression (for the represented Palestinian) stands opposite the reality of opening nights in prestigious festivals and pats on the back (the lot of the successful Israeli director).(2)

Avenge but one of my two eyes, Avi Mograbi

Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes, Avi Mograbi

Israeli artist and theoretician Roee Rosen takes up parts of Duvdevani’s interpretation in his essay Uneasy Love, which deals with another of Mograbi’s films. His main disagreement is with Duvdevani’s interpretation of a key scene in Avenge But One of my Two Eyes, in which Mograbi is seen spewing insults at IDF soldiers when they won’t allow a Palestinian school bus full of schoolchildren to pass through a checkpoint on their way back home. Duvdevani argues that

[…] this scene demonstrates the way in which Mograbi prefers to position himself as a morality warrior holding a camera instead of a weapon, and that the frustration and rage he feels in the face of the reality he is documenting serve his conscientious image. All this is happening while the Palestinian children – the struggle’s objective – are only seen in the background and do not say a word.(3)

Rosen, on the other hand, believes that

[t]he problem of the instrumentalization of suffering and the objectification of the sufferer is indeed central, but the question of the constitution of the creator-as-subject is not that simple. We could ask: wouldn’t this kind of construction take place even if the children were allowed to speak, perhaps in a film where the Jewish-Israeli creator completely seceded in favor of Palestinian subjects?(4)

Rosen’s argument is double: on the one hand, he claims that it is unclear how a different documentary approach would have solved the problem of the exploitation of the film’s subject; on the other, he doesn’t think that Mograbi constitutes himself self-righteously:

I feel that Mograbi’s self-representation in that scene is ambivalent. His speech to the soldiers highlights his coarseness. It is a violent self-presentation which is symmetrical to the violence in another scene, in which the soldiers are those that harass Mograbi himself.(5)

Their disagreements aside, both Duvdevani and Rosen explicitly tie Mograbi’s films to Rouch’s Cinema vérité. Duvdevani alludes to the fact when stating that Mograbi wishes “to create a provocation through his presence and his camera”(6), while Rosen (who writes on Mograbi’s film alone, and is hence more nuanced in this regard) sees the connection in the way Mograbi undermines the ability to distinguish reality and fiction in his films, and in the fact that his documentation is a productive endeavor rather than a mere reflection of reality. Besides agreeing that the representation of the “other” in documentary films is an important problem, both writers aren’t even sure it can be solved. How could a satiated Israeli represent a hungry Palestinian, asks Duvdevani; and Rosen adds: would a filmmaker’s self-negation before his film’s subjects really solve anything?

At first glance, it might seem that the ethical problem of representing the other, as raised by Duvdevani and Rosen within the Israeli context, exceeds the aspirations of modern documentary cinema and its two tendencies. In its search for “raw reality”, American Direct Cinema wished to reject the author’s subjectivity as well as the subjective perspective of the film’s characters, and replace both with a new ideal of pure observation of reality (and hence Wiseman, the Meysles Brothers and others tended to abstain from narration and character interviews). This cinema of observational Realism differs from Classical Realism or from any given television news piece in that it does not just posit a given objective situation and simply fits it with a “fair”, “balanced”, “credible” or “full” representation. Rather, it delves headlong into the situation with no preconceived notions, observing it from within while simultaneously minimizing its own presence and influence (it is for exactly this reason that Direct Cinema films are not constructed as narratives but rather as segments of reality whose unity derives from a different source, for instance an event or institution). Instead of an appropriate representation and its normative tendency, the filmmakers of this genre choose to present the event directly as it appears.

It would be pointless or simply dull to mock this observational ideal’s naïveté, to claim that nothing can be presented without recourse to the means of representation, to point out that all camera positions, all cuts, are always already subjective decisions made by the filmmaker. There’s no reason evaluating an ideal in relation to the possibility or impossibility of its realization, but solely on the basis of its intentions and effects. No one would claim that Claude Monet managed to supersede his own cultural investment, arriving at an unmediated relation between his observing eye and painting hand, but it certainly cannot be denied that this kind of Impressionist ideal imbued his paintings with an unprecedented optical sensibility. Indeed, Direct Cinema’s American impressionism succeeded in observing what had seemed invisible, as well as hear certain background noises hitherto considered ‘silence’ (Wiseman’s Titicut Follies is paradigmatic: the suppressed lives of mental institutions inmates). It is a cinema that does not wish to represent “someone” other than when he is present and operating within a real situation. The characters that populate the situation remain – and are supposed to remain – ambivalent, just as the filmmaker’s stance remains ambivalent or underdetermined as a matter of principle. Here the relation between filmmaker and characters is itself put into question. In this sense, one can say the ethical problem of representing the other receives an interesting twist within Direct Cinema: instead of suggesting a documentary procedure within which the other is to be fairly represented, what we get is a direct and necessarily partial – and therefore real – presentation.

Jean Rouch opposed to Direct Cinema’s observational ideal at the level of its principles and intentions. He thought attitudes like Wiseman’s were confusingly passive:

[Titicut Follies] is nothing more than reportage, reportage that might even be interpreted as cynical and sadomasochistic […] No one says anything, the message is unclear to me […] I do not think one can witness the things that take place around him without simultaneously taking a stand. I think one has to take a stand.(7)

Rouch’s point is that rather than a fantasy, pure observation is an inappropriate endeavor in that it leaves the viewer confused and ultimately at the mercy of his own preconceptions. His criticism, however, must not be understood as mere conservative reaction. An ethnologist touring Africa in the 1950’s with his 16mm camera, Rouch began making films about the customs of certain tribes for the French Ethnological Institute. Criticized by some of his African friends for his films’ colonial-stereotypical perspective, presenting Africa’s tribal-ritualistic exoticism in a manipulative manner, Rouch began filming modern Africa and developed unique documentary techniques. For instance, rather than occupying an observational stance (both cinematic and ethnographic), he believed that the presence of the camera did not impinge on the characters’ authentic behavior but on the contrary allowed them to reveal themselves in a special way. Thus, he did not cringe from formats such as interviews and narration, and also made use of artificial settings in order to interfere with the photographed reality and extract materials from his subjects. Despite claims by different historians who view the participatory attitude of Cinema vérité as an attempt at representing the author’s subjective truth or that of his characters (an interpretation that fits only his early ethnographic films), I will attempt to demonstrate below that Rouch’s documentary alternative in effect eludes both subjective and objective attitudes.

French Philosopher Gilles Deleuze offered an original interpretation of Rouch’s body of work. In his second book on cinema, Cinema 2, the Time-Image, Deleuze analyzed the importance of Cinema vérité while emphasizing the special relation it establishes between filmmaker and characters. According to Deleuze, Rouch created a revolutionary cinema where instead of the traditional ideal of compatibility (“synthetic identity”) between two distinct perspectives – that of the author/camera and that of character/subject, i.e., the ideal of the “faithful representation” – what we get in his films is a situation where the author and his subject renounce their identities and in effect switch roles:

[In Rouch’s films,] the character has ceased to be real or fictional, in so far as he has ceased to be seen objectively or to see subjectively: it is a character who goes over crossings and frontiers because he invents as a real character, and becomes all the more real because he has been better at inventing.(8)

Deleuze points out that this rule applies to the filmmaker as well, and not just to the characters:

“[h]e too becomes another, in so far as he takes real characters as intercessors and replaces his fictions by their own storytelling, but, conversely, gives these storytellings the shape of legends […]”.(9)

We will take Rouch’s revolutionary film, Moi, un noir (I, a Negro, 1957) as an example. Rouch accompanied several Nigerian villagers who immigrated to a large city in the Ivory Coast, and created with them a cinematic recreation of a typical week in their lives. On the one hand, this is a fictional representation: the characters assume movie-star aliases such as “Edward G. Robinson” and “Eddie Constantine” and all play roles that adhere to a proscribed plot, allowing several of the actions to be filmed from different angles. On the other hand, this is still a documentary situation: the characters play themselves, in their real living space and in interaction with an autonomous environment that does not take part in the recreation. Finally, one cannot fully claim that the donning of cinematic aliases is strictly fictional since these characters do actually live through Hollywood fantasies first revealed to them in the cinema halls of the big city, and even the actions they “play” for the camera are not different than the “roles” they play weekly for their livelihood, i.e., fundamentally alien urban roles. Hence, their “real” lives are no less fictional to begin with.

The fictional character of life, or perhaps the reality of fiction, can only be revealed/created in a political context where personal and collective identities are in crisis; and this kind of political context does not exclusively apply to African migrants but equally to the French filmmaker and the Israeli writer.

For Rouch, it is a matter of getting out of his dominant civilization and reaching the premises of another identity

[…] [The authors] must become others, with their characters, at the same time as their characters must become others themselves. The famous formula, ‘what is suitable for the documentary is that one knows who one is and whom one is filming’, ceases to be valid.(10)

If a certain kind of political context is the condition which allows reality to become indistinguishable from fiction, it is still an insufficient condition for the creation of an effective line of flight. The same impossibility of distinction could also serve, for instance, a reflexive attitude that would point to any reality as if to say, “caution, fiction!”; or a reactionary one, which would try to recreate the antiquated distinction at all costs. The first attitude leaves us alienated; the latter simply disregards the problem and oppresses life and thought. At any rate, it is quite clear that Cinema vérité offers a different attitude altogether.

Moi, un noir makes extraordinary use of narration: first in Rouch’s own voice, which supplies the film’s context and recounts the ways it was created; then in the voices of “Edward G. Robinson” and “Eddie Constantine”. At this point, they are no longer just playing themselves for Rouch’s camera but also recounting their own story in voice-over. We gradually become aware of the fact that the two not only narrate what is happening in front of the camera but simultaneously dub their own characters as well as others that appear on screen. Their voices are positioned simultaneously outside and inside the film, like the narrator of a novel who weaves elusively inside and outside of his characters. Rouch, however, does not abandon ship – he, too, returns from time to time to narrate the film in the style of a third-person, omniscient narrator. These narrative mutations and transformations color the images as well: Rouch is still the cameraman as well as the editor, but “Robinson” and “Constantine” close in on him from both sides – in front of the camera (with their bodily presence) and behind it (with their narration-cum-dubbing).

From which viewpoint is this cinema shot? Whose cinema is it? It cannot but be attributed to the French-Nigerian assemblage which has achieved a new, hybrid identity, where Nigerian becomes European and Frenchman becomes black. Rouch’s famous movie Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961, co-created with Edgar Morin), is noteworthy in this context, since in it the city of Paris is subjected for the first time to the same hybrid perspective; and Sigui année zero of 1966 features an African ethnographic mission carrying out research on the Parisian “tribe”. They are sucked into their work, and find they are unable to go back.

The originality of Deleuze’s conception of Cinema vérité lies in the fact that he refocuses the debate away from the relation between films and reality – i.e., from the referential relation debate – to a debate on the relation that exists between the filmmaker and his characters. The former is occupied with problems of knowledge and truth while the latter is occupied with an ethical question (although traditionally the latter is a function of the former: “to be able to help you, I must first understand you…”). Seen through this ethical perspective, Direct Cinema emerges as quite distinctly indirect – the filmmaker does not speak with his subjects, but is just “impressed” with them; in so doing, he indeed shies away from foisting false representations onto them but also maintains a safe distance. What do the characters want, and what does the filmmaker want? That remains unknown, outside the scope of the action – in some internal, private space we are barred from entering. It is an ethics of privacy whose criticism of the traditional attitude is still subject to the referential relation discussed above and the will to truth: instead of representing reality in an indirect, false way, it must now be represented in a direct and partial one; subsequently, instead of representing the other, one must abstain from judging him/her and simply observe (or rather, peep).(11)

All of this is turned upside down in Rouch’s work – he does not isolate the creator and the characters in order to force them out towards the ambivalent limits of the film’s space, but rather mixes up their roles so that any utterance or image produced doesn’t belong to either of them exclusively but rather embodies a kind of “middle voice”. Thus the collapsed distinction between fiction and reality finally becomes productive: the cinematic image does not represent (or even present) a reality any more, but rather re-produces it anew as other. This is why Rouch can claim that “Cinema vérité is a cinema of lies that is dependent on the art of telling yourself lies. If you are a good storyteller, then the lie becomes more real than reality…”(12)

The fact that the filmmaker and his characters ultimately belong to “opposing realities” makes no difference; an author like Rouch, who proclaims together with his characters that he is a “negro”, is already producing the promise of an other reality, a reality where we are all black: “not the myth of past people, but the storytelling of the people to come”.(13)

Of course a mere proclamation is not enough. One must go out with a light camera and allow the characters to narrate their own story and lead the film, to reinvent both themselves and yourself within the story. This obviously has nothing to do with making the filmmaker’s presence disappear from the film in light of an objective ideal of “pure observation”, but it doesn’t simply amount to an overt use of that presence to arrive at “subjective truth”, either. Instead, it is a unique third alternative primarily linked to the idea of transformative collaboration. In Rouch’s own words,

[i]t is not about a “candid camera”-like situation, but a provocation of a much more important kind – telling a story together with someone else, someone who does not simply see himself as a witness but as deeply involved in the story”.(14)

Rosen is right to highlight a lack of distinction between fiction and reality as the critical point that links Mograbi with Cinema vérité. The difference in perspective between this essay (in relation to Rouch) and Rosen’s stance (in relation to Mograbi) is that while for him the author/subject produces his object of desire, this essay describes a situation where a real encounter takes place between a creator-subject and a character-subject, an encounter that mixes and transforms the two categories. Subsequently, Rosen/Mograbi’s lack of distinction between fiction and reality is based on the paradoxical constitution of the creator-as-subject (it intentionally becomes unclear who the “authentic” Avi Mograbi really is); while here, this lack of distinction is based on both the filmmaker and the characters changing and inventing their identities together.(15) Duvdevani may be wrong in attributing self-righteousness to Mograbi, but I believe he is right in identifying a certain self-indulgence – sophisticated and interesting as it may ultimately be – blocking the voice of the other. The question is, of course, is there any cinematic horizon able to evade this impasse.

I believe that the Cinema vérité paradigm as I have presented it here through Deleuze’s interpretation does indeed offer this kind of horizon; but not, however, without demanding that we give up on our assumption that our identity is stable, or for that matter that it is our own to begin with. It all depends on stories and encounters: if we are all in the midst of an “identity crisis”, that does not mean that we are called upon to constitute our identities according to a lost model, but rather that we must become other through partnerships and collaborations with other crises and other people. No presentation or representation is in fact able to speak for the other; it is only we/they that can become other together, to tell the story of another people to come. (16)


1. Shmuel Duvdevani, “Our Arabs” (translated by Anat Rotem), Maarvon 2, winter 2007: http://chicky99.googlepages.com/maayan222
2. Duvdevani, “Our Arabs”.
3. Ibid.
4. Roee Rosen, Uneasy Love [ahava lo kala], in Maayan Amir (ed.), Documentally, 2007, Tel-Aviv: Am Oved Publishers, p. 74
5. Rosen, p. 74
6. Duvdevani, “Our Arabs”
7. G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations – 15 interviews with Film-makers, 1971, New York City: Doubleday, p. 142
8. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, the Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 146
9. Ibid. p. 147
10.  Ibid., ibid.
11. It is easy to see how the potential problems Rouch identified within Direct Cinema also feature in the televised medium of reality shows, historically linked to it: (1) on the one hand, reality television can show the subtle qualities of things that traditional representation is indifferent to; on the other, with the lack of any direction (or in less-interesting cases, through the creators’ indirect direction), viewers will tend to ‘observe’ only their own preconceptions; (2) on the one hand, this is the voyeuristic genre par excellence; on the other, those who create it are wary of taking any stance vis-à-vis what takes place within it (at least in the context of the show itself). The characters, too, aren’t asked to bear their souls (as opposed to their bodies) – those remain principally their own private business.
12. Levin, Documentary Explorations, pp. 134-135
13. Deleuze, p. 215
14. Levin, Documentary Explorations, p. 137
15. It is interesting to notice the fact that Rozen’s own film, The confessions of Roee Rozen (2008), these is a kind of perverse mixture of the two differing perspectives just mentioned: on the one hand, the artist dubs his subjects flagrantly and himself becomes a paradoxical entity; on the other hand, the characters subvert the text with their body and voice and so construct a hybrid assemblage.
15. It is interesting to note that rozen’s own film, The Confessions of Roee Rozen (2008), applies a preverse mixture of the two differing perspectives just mentioned: on the one hand, the artist dubs his subjects flagrantly and himself becomes a paradoxical entity; on the other hand, the characters subvert the text with their body and voice and so construct a hybrid assemblage.
16.  In an essay published in Maravon 5, I analyze Israeli documentary filmmaker David Ofek’s cinema as one which realizes the Cinema vérité paradigm in a contemporary Israeli context. To a great extent, that essay can be viewed as a concrete application to contemporary issues of the historical-theoretical background laid out in this essay.