observational documentary

Episode 2: Observational Documentary


This very special mode of documentary was born in the late 1950s- early 1960s to parents named Cultural Change and Technological Innovations.  

A result of the atrocities and heavy propaganda seen throughout WWII, the people of Allied countries then developed a desire to seek the truth and created this type of documentary to be a window to the world.  In this more honest style, the filmmaker is not trying to impose a message on the audience, but wants the audience to make their own decisions.  The filmmaker's sole task is to present the information as objectively as possible.

However, in order for this truthful effect to be achieved, sound and camera equipment needed to become more mobile.  The early 1960s brought with it a lighter weight camera that could simultaneously record sound in sync with image.  This allowed filmmakers to walk through crowds of people, stop walkers on the street, and enter into smaller spaces.


  • No interviews
  • No narration
  • No outside music or sound effects
  • No scene arrangement
  • Editing gives impression of real time
  • Shaky amateur looking footage
  • Limits filmmaker to present moment


This genre spanned many countries, but oriented in France under the name "Cinema Verite" meaning "truthful cinema".  The man responsible is Jean Rouche, a filmmaker and anthropologist who spent much of his career making films in Africa.  His mode of documenting the cultures of Africa required that no influence be made by the filmmaker to collect accurate footage for research purposes.  This method was then used on more developed societies, like teenagers in Paris in his film Chronicles of a Summer (1961).

A breakout of this style occurred in other countries such as England, US, and Canada.  Each country adopted it's own name and own rules for pursuing this genre of documentary.







Let's look a little closer at what distinguishes Cinema Verite from it's siblings.

This first version of truthful cinema actually has the most interaction between filmmaker and subject.  You might hear interviews, and sometimes the filmmaker might even provoke the subject.  While Cinema Verite tries to achieve the same goals as it's counterparts, it believes that the filmmaker should be the catalyst of action and that it is more truthful to acknowledge the camera.  It is by far the more aggressive version of truthful cinema.

Examples of this can all be seen in Jean Rouche's Chronicle of a Summer.  

CURIOUS? Do you feel that Jean Rouche achieved honest results in Chronicle of a Summer?




Like it's siblings, Free Cinema was created in England as a movement against propagandized information.  Co- created by Lindsay Anderson (also known for his narrative film work, The Sporting Life and If) and Karel Reisz (a Czech born filmmaker working mostly in England), they believed that "no film could be too personal".  Their film manifesto could be found in their own film publication "Sequence":

"These films were not made together; nor with the

idea of showing them together. But when they came together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and the significance of the everyday.

As filmmakers we believe that
      No film can be too personal.
      The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments.
      Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.

      An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude. "

What separates the British version of observational cinema is that they believe opinions can be shared visually.  They acknowledged that through the act of filmmaking, they were presenting an opinion, however they did not want the opinion to be overtly stated.  Another distinguishing fact for England, was that these films were made on the cheap and outside of the film industry.  Where American, French, and Canadian films were often shown in news reports, Anderson and Reisz were funded by an Experimental Film Fund.  They also chose to focus on the working class as their subjects.

Let's check out a clip from O Dreamland (1953) by Lindsay Anderson.

CURIOUS? How does Anderson's use of experimental sound add to the experience?


In Canada, Cinema Verite became Direct Cinema, and the man leading the charge was Michel Brault, of Montreal.  A cinematographer/ director/ and producer, Brault was most known for his employment of the hand held aesthetic.  He started as a cameraman for Montreal's news network.  Their tech supplies were not up to speed with these other nations of observational cinema, so he often had to over- dub his audio in studio, making a slightly surreal effect in his documentaries.  Brault mostly focused on local events to Montreal- wrestling, snow shoe racing, etc.  What makes him especially fascinating is his attention to people in crowds.  With strong photography skills, he gives everyone their moment in the light- from the participants in the main event, to those watching from a distance.

In this example from his documentary La Lutte (1961) you can see how the sound occasionally doesn't match, but most importantly you can get a feel for his great sense of humor.

CURIOUS? How does seeing reactions from the crowd enhance our own experience as the audience?



When this notion of capturing the truth made it's way to the U.S., it settled in Boston, MA.  This capital of academia became the source of legendary observational filmmakers such as:

To name only a few!

What separates the American style from the rest?  It withholds the presence of the filmmaker, and a more focused subject matter on American counter- culture (music/ artists/ protests), rather than every day life as seen in France,Canada, and England.  American observational documentarians brought us closer to the people that we could not see everyday- famous musicians, celebrities, and politicians.

Before we dive into these fine gents, let's have Richard Leacock and Robert Drew set the stage for us.

CURIOUS? What effect does being so close to the dancers give us as the audience?


  • ALBERT AND DAVID MAYSLES- A collaborative team of filmmaking brothers know for such documentaries as Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1976).  Born in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, both of these brothers initially studied psychology in college.  This interest in the human mind could be seen as the start of their careers in this anthropological style of film.  While Albert took his studies to Russia to document a mental facility in 1955 (which was aired on NBC!), David dropped his studies to go to Hollywood and gain experience on movie sets.  Their separate paths led them to the same place- a search for truth.  David was disenchanted with traditional Hollywood filmmaking and Albert was immersing himself in the controversial cultures of our world.  They joined forces in the late 1950s, and by 1960 were members of Drew Associates, the documentary production company founded by Robert Drew and including D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock.  This group is responsible for some of the most important documentary films to date.

Let's get a taste of what the Maysles brought to the tables with a clip from their film Grey Gardens,a film about the eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, at their home in East Hampton, NY.

  • D.A. PENNEBAKER- Considered one of the pioneers of the observational cinema movement.  His favorite subjects to shoot are performing arts and politics, therefore giving him the title of "Chronicler of the sixties counter culture".  Coming from an experimental filmmaking background, his filmmaking always blended the two genres of documentary and experimentation, mostly through music.  He was a force behind Drew Associate's first documentary Primary (1960) documenting the campaigns of JFK and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin.  This gave the American people their first glimpse into the reality of presidential life.  He made a similar documentary again in 1993 following Bill Clinton's campaign for president against George H.W. Bush called The War Room.  On the performing arts side, one of his most notable projects was a documentary about Bob Dylan during the height of his early popularity called Don't Look Back (1967).  

About his process, Pennebaker says:

"it's possible to go to a situation and simply film what you see there, what happens there, what goes on, and let everybody decide whether it tells them about any of these things. But you don't have to label them, you don't have to have the narration to instruct you so you can be sure and understand that it's good for you to learn."
  • RICHARD LEACOCK- Born in London and having spent time on the Canary Islands, like the Rouche Leacock had his start by documenting foreign lands.  A self taught photographer, he ended up at Harvard studying physics in order to master the science behind filmmaking.  This led to him personally working on the development of sync sound cameras, free from cords, free from restraints.  His inventions were first put to the test in Primary.  

"Like all documentary filmmakers, he [Flaherty] had an identity problem in that period. They couldn't deal with sync sound. It tied them down. Made them rigid… Except for the drilling sequence, which was shot with sound, it was essentially a silent film. And it wasn't till 1960, when we were filming Primary, that we were able to jump into the new world"

  • ROBERT DREW- Being the head of Drew Associates, and the man responsible for compiling this unique group of documentary filmmakers, Drew is often considered the father of Observational Cinema in the U.S.  A combat pilot during WWII, it was an article he submitted to Life about flying planes in the war that led to his employment with Time Magazine.  While working at Time, Drew received a fellowship to study at Harvard (like Leacock) but focusing on documentaries, his two main questions being:
  1. Why are documentaries so dull?
  2. What would it take for them to be exciting?

He began to approach documentary filmmaking as a science, removing word logic and replacing it with imagery.  His goal was to create a form of reporting without the summarizing and blatant opinions.  


Dutch documentarian, Leonard Helmrich is keeping Observational Cinema alive and improving on it.  Inspired by Andre Bazin, of the same group of auteurs Jean Rouche ran with, he felt that his forefathers of observational documentary were on to something, but a camera being in between the filmmaker and audience still do not allow for the most realistic reactions to come across, and the camera in front of the face to be restricting.  He has invented a way for the camera to be mounted at waist height giving it more movement and less intrusion into the subject matter.

I try to keep the camera moving at all times. Very slow or very fast but always moving, even if it is less noticeable e.g. when a person is speaking. Just like the surface of water, which is never completely motionless.
-Leonard Retel Helmrich-

In his documentary, The Shape of the Moon, which depicts the life of a multi- generational family living in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia, Helmrich's new camera device, the Comodo Orbit aids the audience in feeling even more immersed in the subject than ever before.  

In this clip from The Shape of the Moon, we can see that the Comodo Orbit can go where no camera has gone before!