Principal Vonda Viland runs Black Rock Continuation High School in the Mojave Desert, a school for students at risk of dropping out—and she’s the subject of The Bad Kids, a new documentary by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.
Fulton and Pepe, best known for their 2002 Terry Gilliam-centered doc Lost in La Mancha, premiered The Bad Kids at Sundance 2016; it also played at South by Southwest and Hot Docs. The pair follow Viland as she mentors three students: the outgoing Jennifer, unmotivated Joey and new father Lee. Those three teens, and many others in America’s public schools, struggle to cope with poverty in a system that Viland is tirelessly working to improve.
Here, Fulton and Pepe discuss three distinct modes of documentary filmmaking and why, ultimately, cinéma vérité was the best way to achieve their goals with The Bad Kids.
If you’re ever with a group of documentary filmmakers and you find yourself wanting to create dissent or pure chaos among them (perhaps you’re being held hostage by them and you need to pit them against each other to make your escape), just ask them to explain to you the difference between observational filmmaking, direct cinema and cinéma vérité.
No two documentarians agree on the meanings of these terms, and their distinctions, which have shifted throughout cinema history, are wrapped up in differences of filmmaking technique, filmmaker intention, and ideas about what it means to portray “the truth.”
In broad strokes, both direct cinema and cinéma vérité are forms of observational filmmaking, but they seek to portray the truth of real life through different approaches. The American direct cinema filmmakers effaced the presence of the filmmaker, eliminating devices like narration, interviews, and artistic stylization to achieve the illusion of life as seen by a “fly on the wall.” Meanwhile, the cinéma vérité documentarians believed that the truth of any recorded observation included the presence of the filmmaker and that, therefore, filmmaker intervention and artistic stylization were permissible as long as they were openly acknowledged.
These days, audiences are sophisticated enough to know that everything is mediated, that any moving image has a filmmaker behind it—if not shooting it, then editing it—and a lot of the differences between the American direct cinema movement and the cinéma vérité proponents are water under the ideological bridge. What we are left with is the term vérité filmmaking which, as the two of us see it, follows these tenets:
- It is rooted primarily in hand-held, non-interventional, observational footage;
- It avoids narration and filmmaker commentary;
- It avoids sit-down interviews with subjects and/or commentators, although it does allow in-the-moment interaction between subject and filmmaker;
- And these days, it permits some use of artistic stylization––musical scoring, tripoded and/or dolly shots, creative editing, to name a few––as long as these tools are used in service of capturing “the truth,” if such a thing were ever possible.
When the two of us were in graduate film school at Temple University in the 1990s, studying documentary filmmaking and on the cusp of working together as a team, we had the opportunity to screen our first documentary shorts to one of our direct cinema heroes, Ricky Leacock, who was a visiting artist for a semester. Keith showed Leacock a cut of his film John the Barber, co-directed with his colleague Michael Mulcahy, about the day-to-day strangeness of a South Philly barbershop and the titular character who philosophized with his oddball shop loiterers about alien visitations and the loss of youth. The film was mainly direct cinema, but it had been shot primarily with the camera on a tripod, and this was not truthy enough for Ricky Leacock. The shake and proximity of hand-held camerawork was part of the truthfulness of Leacock’s approach to documentary, and he dismissed Keith’s efforts as “not gutsy enough” to get close to the subjects. Next up, Lou showed him Roadside Eulogy, an anecdotal film about people’s very emotional remembrances of running over animals on highways. Because it was a story told almost entirely by talking heads, Leacock didn’t even deign to offer a critique. After a long silence, he mused, “Well… you’ve made one film. Now, go make another.”
We were both humbled by our documentary hero and wanted some day to make a film that would live up to the direct cinema or vérité label: observational, non-interventional, and, much like fiction features, conveyed entirely through the dynamics of characters, scenes, and dramatic structure. After all, this was the defining quality of the films we were studying and admiring, documentaries by the likes of Leacock, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Barbara Kopple, the Maysles Brothers. So, how to do that?
First off, no interviews. Watching a film subject speak about an experience is not the same as watching them live through it. A story, by its very nature, is at best once-removed from the experience it relates. And while there is a whole sub-genre of documentaries that explore the essence of storytelling and our human relationship with it, that wasn’t what we wanted to make at the time. So, first step, eliminate interviews: Go purely observational, in the present moment. Then, get the camera off the tripod and go hand-held. Get close to the subjects, “in there” with them and among them. Basically, immerse yourself in their world, their experience, and then try to capture that and convey it to an audience.
Achieving this proved to be more difficult than we thought it would be. In the case of the two feature documentaries we made about film director Terry Gilliam—The Hamster Factor in 1996, and Lost in La Mancha in 2001—taking the camera off the tripod and shooting hand-held was relatively easy. So was the process of getting immersed in the lives of our subjects and the chaos surrounding them. What wasn’t easy was figuring out how to convey information. On both Gilliam documentaries, there was so much backstory, so many opinions, and so many specific details that we ended up leaning on animated sequences, interviews, narration, film clips, even staged screenplay readings to fill in crucial information. We also knew that the choice to stick with an exclusively observational approach requires a lot more patience from an audience and thereby limits it. Especially with La Mancha, a film for which we raised money from private investors, we had in our hands the type of film that could (and ultimately did) attract a very large audience, so why risk screwing it up with an abstract formal limitation? As Terry Gilliam had often said to us, “Use whatever tools you’ve got in your kit to tell the tale.” So we did. And in both cases, the choice proved the most effective and engaging way to get to the essence of the particular story at hand.
Nonetheless, for years, we found ourselves continually saying, “Next time, we’re going to make a vérité film.” Vérité started to become for us a Holy Grail of documentary filmmaking, not necessarily because it is truer (because it isn’t always), but because vérité is the closest you can get in documentary to the condition of a fiction film: an experience of watching characters, whom you know only from what they say and do, move through a dramatic arc that feels like a coherent whole. This is a huge challenge for a filmmaker, but also, if you pull it off, it means that you’ve successfully taken pieces of the chaos of reality and given them a coherent narrative form that they don’t possess of their own accord: the filmmaker’s act of observation as a battle to find form and make meaning out of unruly bits of actuality.
Even our fiction film, Brothers of the Head (2006), had us flirting with vérité: It’s the story of Siamese twins plucked from obscurity and groomed into a proto-punk sensation, but we shot it in the style of a 1970s rock documentary, like Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues and the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter. However, in this case, part of the film’s point was that purely observational cinema could never capture the elusive truth of the dynamic between the two main characters. Neither could any combination of documentary cinema techniques. To this end, Brothers of the Head was packed with interviews, news accounts, photos, audio recordings, vérité footage, even fragments of a biopic directed by Ken Russell—all of which was completely fabricated and fictional—and none of which ever manages to approach any ultimate truth about its subjects. Does a photo tell the truth? Does observational footage? Do people’s conflicting accounts find in their collision a deeper kernel? These were the kinds of themes with which we were playing.
And yet when we’d talk about what to do next, there was that still that years-old creative itch: “Why don’t we make a vérité film?” Certainly we were of the firm opinion that no cinematic form was necessarily more truthful than any other, but vérité continued to hold for us a mysterious allure: that being able to capture how people act and behave, especially when faced with conflict, is perhaps the closest we can get to walking in someone else’s shoes.
On a purely practical level, there are numerous obstacles to this approach, namely that you can only shoot intimate and revealing observational footage with a subject once you’ve built a strong relationship with them, and that takes time and a lot of compassion. Vérité filmmaking isn’t accomplished in just a few hours the way an interview is. To gather the pieces of a purely observational story requires filming with subjects over weeks, months, sometimes even years; and all that time also costs money.
Most importantly, real immersion in vérité filmmaking demands a strong relationship between the observer and the subjects: spending time together as people (not just filming), building connections, negotiating differences, working through discomfort and awkward moments and learning about each other as human beings. When you watch a vérité film, you can feel those relationships. On this topic, we often cite films that have inspired us: the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman, Nicholas Philibert’s To Be and To Have, Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach—in each of which you can sense the deep affinity between filmmakers and subjects. These were the films, and the type of intimate relationships, that we discussed when we set out to make The Bad Kids.
As with our Gilliam documentaries, we started by reminding ourselves to keep the camera off the tripod and get in there with the subjects. We knew how to do that. But then we made ourselves a rule: We would not shoot any sit-down interviews this time. To get to know the students at Black Rock High School, we intended to interview them and ask about their lives and experiences, but to make sure that we didn’t get attached to these interviews and end up using them in the film, we recorded only audio. The choice was terrifying—akin to asking the ringmaster to set up the tightrope without the net—but it forced us to look even harder for the truly observable moments—the intimate scenes among the kids and with their teachers that had drawn us to the school in the first place.
It also meant that we had to work harder to make sure that our relationships with the students and teachers were respectful and compassionate. Knowing that we wanted to film over a long period of time (what ended up being 2 school years) and in a purely observational mode meant that we trained ourselves to tread lightly: not to push our way into delicate situations, to be gentle with our presence and even to withdraw from a sensitive moment before being asked to leave—all with the goal of being invited back on the next occasion. It was a slow and tentative process, but it paid off.
Many people who watch the finished film ask us, “How did you get in there? Everyone acts like there’s no camera.” This paradox—that we’re clearly standing right next to people, and that they’re still going about their lives—is what we now understand to be the essence of vérité immersion. The subjects obviously gave us permission to observe and record their behavior—there’s no way they don’t know we’re there watching them—and that condition signifies trust. An audience can sense this trust, and maybe that’s the key to what makes vérité such a potent form. What’s real, what’s truthful, is the relationship and everything that it implies: the trust between filmmaker and subject, the commitment to a long process of trying to understand another person’s experience, the moments of ease and openness, the moments of clear awkwardness and irritation. These are the elements of vérité that can’t be faked or fabricated, and they are more central to the essence of the form than any notions of capturing the truth. Perhaps the problem with the term vérité, and the reason that documentary filmmakers can never agree on its meaning, is that what is true is not necessarily facts. What is and feels true is the relationship. MM
The Bad Kids is currently in theaters in L..A. and opens in New York City on December 23, 2016, courtesy of FilmRise.