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What Is Direct Cinema?

Direct Cinema is a documentary film movement in which the director observes the action without participating in it.
role of film image by Slobodan Djajic from Fotolia.com

The concept of using a camera to record and report events as they happen without staging the action for the benefit of the director, has its roots in the film movement known as Direct Cinema. Similar to Direct Cinema, organizations that cover news want viewers to believe that their camera crews are capturing news events in an accurate and unbiased manner.


Direct cinema, according to Film School Direct, is a sub-genre of documentary film in which the director and his crew impartially observe and record the events shown in the final movie. There shouldn't be any attempt made by the filmmaker to interfere with, or change the outcome of the events. Direct cinema requires restraint on behalf of the director, and a professional detachment to—but not a disinterest in—what’s being shot. The filmmaker does not use his film to advance any type of political or social agenda; he is merely interested in accurate reporting, regardless of the outcome. Well-known examples of direct cinema documentaries include Woodstock, "Brother’s Keeper," and "March of the Penguins."

Cinema Verité Comparison

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, direct cinema and cinema verité are two distinct documentary film sub-genres. Cinema verité filmmakers, while still interested in the recording of true events, typically have a viewpoint they wish to convey in their work; MIT describes such filmmakers as “provocateurs, participants and catalysts for crisis." In recent years, these types of movies have often featured the filmmaker himself taking part in the action onscreen. Well-known examples of cinema verité documentaries include "Triumph of the Will," "Harlan County USA" and "Bowling for Columbine."


Originating in the late 1950s, direct cinema was made possible by the advent of lighter, more portable 16mm film cameras, which could be hand-held and operated with a very small crew. This lean shooting style allowed filmmakers to change locations and camera angles spontaneously, affording a degree of intimacy never before seen onscreen. For the first time, filmmakers could follow the actions of their subjects, rather than staging carefully planned shots for them to perform for the camera.

Seminal Works

D.A. Pennebaker helped pioneer the direct cinema movement with raw, unvarnished portraits of his subjects. "Don’t Look Back," his 1967 documentary about folk/rock singer Bob Dylan, earned attention not just because of Dylan’s mesmerizing—if sometimes unflattering and unwarranted—diva-like antics backstage, but because of the intimacy with which Pennebaker and his crew were able to capture him. "Salesman" by the Maysles Brothers followed a group of American salesmen as they traveled the country attempting to sell Bibles and religious books, with the audience privy to every triumph and failure. Later, the Maysles would score another hit with "Gimme Shelter," a documentary about The Rolling Stones. In this haunting work, the cameras would accidentally capture on film the murder of a young black man by members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, who were providing security for the band at the time.

Direct Cinema Today

Direct cinema is still popular today, with new technology making it even easier to capture reality on the go. Cheap digital camcorders have replaced expensive film cameras in most instances, and many filmmakers are even able to edit their footage on via laptop computer. Picture quality has skyrocketed with the introduction of affordable HD shooting rigs, while recording costs have plummeted as inexpensive digital tape replaces film. And, with the explosion of satellite television channels and Internet distribution models, filmmakers have more paths to an audience than ever before.

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