It is undeniable that one of the main appeals of horror is how we connect to it, on a personal level. Be it for cathartic reasons, to face our fears or to live out a fantasy, this genre has a unique ability to entice strong (and often otherwise untapped) emotions out of its willing audience. Over the years, filmmakers have experimented with blending reality and fictional narratives in order to strengthen the bond between art and audience even further. I am happy to report that the spirit of the cinéma vérité pioneers of the post-war years is alive and well, and perhaps, about to get stronger still.
ORIGINS OF CINÉMA VÉRITÉ
Allow me to turn momentarily into that pedantic film school professor you always hated, while I give a bit of historical context on the cinéma vérité movement and its long-lasting impact on movie-making. I won’t take long, I promise.
Though the term and its meaning (as well as its validity as an artform) have been called into question many times, the general gist of it is this: cinéma vérité is a style of documentary filmmaking in which the filmmakers interact with the world to create a narrative, within a real-life scenario. Doesn’t sound like a documentary to you? A conversation for another time, perhaps. The truth remains that this technique, first put forth in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s, “is concerned with notions of truth and reality in film”.
Early works such as Pour la suite du monde, directed in 1963 by Michel Brault, Marcel Carrière and Pierre Perrault were extremely controversial upon release due to what many considered “interference”. An ethnofiction film in its own right, Pour la suite du monde prompted islanders in a tiny Quebec community to resume whale fishing (a practice they’d abandoned since 1920), in order to document the experiment’s effect on the subjects. It is not a film of the kind you’d see every day, and I strongly suggest seeking this one out if you can.
By 1969, however, things would be much different. Critics would fawn over Salesman (dir: Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin), a direct cinema piece documenting Bible salesmen and their struggles, which is still lauded today as one of the greatest examples of early cinéma vérité.
While the semantic differences of direct cinema, observational cinema and cinéma vérité is a topic that continues to launch even the tamest of internet trolls into a frenzy, the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?
Right along cinéma vérité, another movement was starting in the 1960s. One that would gain an arguably much stronger hold on the mainstream film industry.
FINDING AND FOUNDING FOUND FOOTAGE
Let’s get one thing out of they way: 1981’s Cannibal Holocaust isn’t the first found footage film ever made. Reasons are twofold: neither was it the first, nor is it actually a found footage film. Quite a lot of the film is actually conventional narrative. I still don’t know who started this bandwagon, but I humbly ask that you all jump off it. Let’s climb The Connection (1961) instead: a true found footage film, and actually, quite possibly the first (or first “big one”, at least).
The great thing about The Connection is that it’s based itself on a book that was about a filmmaker trying to film junkies getting drugs. So, the first found footage film is based on a novel that depicted cinéma vérité before it even had a name! Talk about intertwining art.
Many moons would pass until The Blair Witch Project ended the 90s, and ushered a new millennium, by way of kicking maps into creeks and looking at walls. I have written extensively about my love for this film, so I won’t subject you to that misery again. Suffice it to say, the film’s approach to the craft, as well as its marketing, changed the cinema landscape forever.
After all, The Blair Witch Project subjected actors to an environment akin to Army survival training, and the marketing from the start suggested that the events depicted were real. They felt real.
And while the ability to make these films for a fraction of the budget of a traditional horror film is certainly appealing, their success is also due to their unique blend of reality and fiction.
Surely, the more a filmmaker can suspend disbelief in an audience, the more the audience feels in danger themselves. Regardless of how one feels about found footage, its intimacy and impact cannot be disregarded by even its strongest critics.
Though found footage has been getting less and less love as time passed, due in no small part to endless mocking (much like some cinéma vérité, in fact), filmmakers have still found ways to innovate and bridge the distance between audience and actions on the screen.
2014’s Unfriended is a fantastic example of the genre adapting to the changing times. Told entirely through a computer screen, the film was lauded as both innovative and down-right scary. Critics were once again quick to dismiss it, but audiences loved it, bringing total domestic box office earnings to US$64 million, on a budget of US$1 million. Proof, if proof was needed, that innovation and skillful storytelling will always find a way.
Moving calendar pages a bit further, 2020 gave birth to HARD DEFINITION. This oddity, which can be watched on Twitter for free, follows the bizarre tale of Koko and Willy, two Spanish friends on the quest to find the start of their movie on classifieds pages. The catch? The film is supposed to feature real-life torture and killings.
Over the course of a Twitter thread, 30 clips show the unraveling of what can only be described as… a found footage film (pretending to be snuff). However, much like The Blair Witch Project, HARD DEFINITION is all about the setup. If we’re talking about blurring the line between reality and fiction, very few things accomplish this as effectively as receiving the lead to this… “thing” on my Twitter DMs. I strongly recommend you give this a watch. It’s really quite something to experience “a film” through a Twitter thread; there’s a sense of intimacy bordering on invasion which really gives me the collywobbles. I think these guys are onto something. Beware, though: the realism is… quite high.
This year also gave us Murder Death Koreatown, another of the films that inspired this very article. Using the real-life murder of one Tae Kyung Sung at the hands of his wife as a backdrop, the film quickly unravels into a study on cultism, dementia and a whole host of other stuff which I won’t spoil.
I think it also hits home on a variety of levels, no less because it’s really easy to find a lot of real news pieces about the murder, which took place in an area of Los Angeles known as Koreatown.
This is, perhaps, one of the closest examples of found footage approaching cinéma vérité’s backyard and making a pick-nick in it. While the acting and editing are less-than-stellar, the appeal of the film is in its setting, and that is a matter at which it excels. There aren’t even any IMDb credits, and the filmmakers have refused my request for an interview. They sure stick close to the plot.
I have yet to find many more examples of recent horror films which use real-life events as backdrop, but I feel like all of that is about to change.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The year 2020 will surely be remembered, and it will likely be for all the wrong reasons. We’re facing the biggest pandemic of our times. However, due to its worldwide reach, it is inevitable that this pandemic will also be the basis for many, many films for decades to come. Much like the war and post-war propaganda that gave birth to cinéma vérité, COVID-19 is poised to produce a new movement in filmmaking.
Films that place the pandemic as the backdrop have already been announced. Many are simply films already in production that will be partially re-shot and edited to include COVID elements into their plots. Others, however, will interweave the situation organically, blending once again the reality of our generation with the filmmaker’s imagination.
The line between reality and horror grows ever thinner. Be it as a marketing gimmick, as a storytelling device, as craft innovation or simply as an opportunistic move, integrating real life into films is likely to scale up rather than down.
It remains unlikely that found footage, cinéma vérité and whatever comes in the future, will not have their critics and detractors. But for those of us who enjoy blurring the line between narrative and real life, film provides a unique opportunity to experience this phenomenon , as well as a vast wealth of material to explore it.
Be it through Twitter or by looking at walls, through 16mm slides or virtual reality projections, I cannot wait to see what the future holds. And I hope to see you along for the ride.
Just don’t kick the map into the creek, will ya?