The camera that supposedly changed the world

The recent BBC documentary ‘The Camera That Changed the World’, directed by Mandy Chang, about the birth of direct cinema at the start of the 1960s, was a solidly crafted and conventionally narrated television documentary containing a good deal of fascinating material, especially in the form of the testimony of surviving participants. Unfortunately, however, these were embedded in a narrative that was historically askew—although truth be told, only in the same way as the versions to be found in most film histories that deal with the topic.

The first misreading comes in fact from foregrounding the camera. It wasn’t just the introduction of a new generation of 16mm cameras light enough to rest on the operator’s shoulder (fitted with new lenses and film stock which allowed filming in available light, which wasn’t mentioned), but the fact that they were capable of shooting in synchronisation with portable tape recorders. In the felicitous phrase of Mario Ruspoli, one of the new breed of film-makers who first filmed this way, for the first time ‘sound and picture stroll along arm-in-arm with the characters in motion’. Edgar Morin, co-director with Jean Rouch of the key film Chronique d’un été (1961), spoke of ‘an authentic talking cinema’ where ‘there are no fistfights, no revolver shots, not even any kisses, or hardly any’, in which ‘the action is the word’, conveyed by ‘dialogues, disputes, conversations’. Deleuze would later speak of the work of Rouch and the French Canadian Pierre Perrault as a cinema where a character becomes another person ‘when he begins to tell stories without ever being fictional’.

Chang comes to the question of sound late in the film and the account is thin compared to the explanations about the camera. It has nothing to say about the importance of speech, the word, the voice, people speaking for themselves. What is also missing is another crucial and parallel history of technical problem-solving following the introduction of magnetic tape recording in the late 1940s, directed at both the achievement of synchronisation and equally important, more effective microphones. But except for a brief mention of Robert Drew holding the microphone in the shooting of Primary, the poor sound recordist here remains as usual invisible and forgotten.*

This omission was coupled with another serious gap, again quite typical of most received written accounts. The resurgence of documentary emerged from three, not two, centres of production. As well as New York and Paris, Canada’s National Film Board provided a highly favourable environment for the same kind of free-spirited experiment, especially among the French-Canadian film-makers based in Quebec. In terms of technics, the Canadians were the first to adapt the military walkie-talkie to function as a radio mic. But this also has important consequences in terms of both style and discourse, since the two-person film crew could capture synch sound from a greater distance than the New Yorkers and the Parisians. One of these film-makers was the cameraman Michel Brault, whom Rouch invited to come and shoot Chronique d’un été.

This writing the Canadians out of history is matched by the way the film ignores the differences between direct cinema, the movement based in New York, and cinéma vérité in France, a term derived from the opening of Chronique d’un été, where over shots of Paris we hear Rouch’s voice announcing ‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinéma vérité’—‘cinema truth’, a term borrowed from the Russian Kino Pravda, the name which Dziga Vertov gave to his early Soviet newsreels.

The two approaches were completely different. The New Yorkers, intellectually formed by Anglo-Saxon empiricism and American pragmatism, believed the new documentary could not only capture what they called ‘the feel of being there’, but by not directing anyone to do anything for the camera, not interviewing anyone, and presenting the results strictly in chronological order, you could create a transparently true rendering of reality, or at least enough ‘to figure out what was going on’. The French, whose intellectual roots lay in the subtleties of European dialectics, set out in the knowledge that the subject was always aware of the camera’s presence (a question which greatly bothered the Americans), and that the relation of the camera to the subject is never neutral, but involves a kind of provocation, to which different subjects respond differently. To show this provocation instead of hiding it produces a new form of documentary reflexivity, already fully present in Chronique d’un été, but also often seen in Canadian documentary in quite unforced ways.

The opposition between these two positions quickly flared up into a controversy within the international documentary community, and in 1963, French television took the plunge and invited leading practitioners of the new documentary to come together at a conference in Lyon, including some of the technicians who had so expertly designed the new gear, both cameras and sound. It was a signal event which focused on fierce disagreement between the two rival practices, widely understood to constitute two camps with irreconcilable views and personified by two contrasting practitioners, Rouch and Richard Leacock. Chang’s film has nothing about any of this. I suppose it’s inevitable. It would make a dramatic story, except for one problem—there’s no victor, it’s not like two scientists vying for the same discovery. And television documentary isn’t in the business of allowing open endings, where the viewer is left with a puzzle, and unresolved questions.

In retrospect, the Lyon event was a confrontation which did not prevent the great respect of the two pioneers for each other’s work in the later years of their long lives. Rouch died first, in 2004, and Leacock earlier this year. It was a pleasure to see the footage of the aging Leacock at his home in France, which I guess must be last interview.

For those who would like to know more about it all, have a look at the chapter ‘Truth Games’, in my book The Politics of Documentary.

* Early synch systems were contrained by the need to run a cable between camera and tape-recorder, like an umbilical cord; the problem was solved by the introduction of crystal synch, using the same quartz crystal employed in the electronic wrist watches first developed for use by astronauts. This is not at all the only instance where the new gear benefitted from the military-scientific research complex. The Eclair camera borrowed from a camera originally developed for use in surveillance satellites. But this film completely avoided any reference to questions of the political economy of R&D or anything of that kind. It would be too provocative.

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