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Cinéma Vérité, Direct Cinema and COPS

By Mike McElreath

Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, <em>Chronicle of a Summer</em>, 1960

In the past few years, reality-based programs such as Cops, Unsolved Mysteries, America's Most Wanted and others have garnered precious airtime and, in the process, contributed to a wider popularity of documentaries with general audiences. The programs are relatively inexpensive to produce and they get consistently good ratings. They look "newsy," sound and feel "so real." General audiences perhaps consider them as documentaries, part and parcel of a long tradition of truth-seeking imagemaking—but, are they?

For sure, these programs contain many of the signals from the documentary approach-real life actualities, production tech­niques from direct cinema and cinéma vérité, and journalistic "reporter-narrators" such as Robert Stack in Unsolved Mysteries. There's a peculiar blending of television news and contemporary journalism with the more subjective documentary view that gives general audiences easy access to the programs and perhaps muddies their notions of what documentary can and cannot be.

Of all the reality-based programs, Fox's Cops most closely resembles and utilizes traditional documentary methods and techniques. Premiering in 1989, Cops established—and has con­tinued to hold—solid ratings. Audiences find this program riveting because it invites the viewer to become a voyeur, an eyewit­ness to law enforcement in the raw. Another attraction is listening to the cop on the beat talk candidly about his work. "Cops are our heroes," says John Langley, executive producer and co-creator of the series. "What Cops offers is a window to a world the average citizen seldom sees or experiences."

In a typical episode of the series, three different stories concerning the same police force in the same city are presented. Routine patrols are filmed on location, with actual policemen going through their daily routine. We watch as they deal with juvenile disturbances, drunk drivers, domestic disputes, drug busts, traffic violations and other assorted criminal activities. By all appearances, this is the normal activity of any large metropol­itan city of the U.S.—geographically, Cops has produced programs throughout the U.S., including Alaska, and abroad, in London and Moscow. According to Langley, "The average cop on the beat certainly deserves our focus. At its best, Cops calls into question a plethora of issues-crime and punishment, law and order, inequality in the legal system, social inequities that result in crime, the drug problem and its role in crime, recidivism, etc. These are witnessed in a very human context, without editorializ­ing or semonizing or the kind of 'spin' that requires a perceptual position from the maker."

Analyzing any episode of Cops, one can discover techniques associated with both direct cinema and cinéma vérité. And there is the assumption to dramatic narrative itself. We ride-a-long in police cars and chase suspects down alleys, into buildings, and through hallways and rooms: this is "good guy versus bad guy" stuff, and we're right in the thick of things, active voyeurs. There are high-speed auto chases and the hot pursuit of pedestrian suspects, always a sense of danger. The seemingly passive camera lens, on the shoulder of the cameraperson, catches all of this dramatic action, giving the viewer a "sense of being there." But these good guys and bad guys aren't actors; there's no mood music to tell us how we should feel. We don't see the camera crew, but we can sense their presence, capturing vivid scenes as the crisis builds—will the officer capture the perp? The action is neither scripted nor pre-conceived, and nothing is rehearsed. Unlike with cinema vérité, we assume that the camera crew neither influences nor interferes with the events. This is direct cinema at work, using no directed action. Scenes are not staged, nor is an individual asked to repeat an action—"Could you go back and come through that door again?"—or queried off camera about the feelings a scene provoked. Robert Drew, whose early work heralded direct cinema in America, called his approach candid television journalism, striving to give the viewer that "sense of being there." As early as 1960, Primary resulted from Drew Associates cameras (including that of Richard Leacock) merely observing a person or activity, waiting for a dramatic moment to occur without any prodding from the filmmakers. A few years later, using this fly-on-the-wall or "invisible" camera approach, brothers Albert and David Maysles were the first to describe their film method as direct cinema. The approach was distinct from cinéma vérité, most notably from Jean Rouch in France, where the filmmaker took an active part in the event being filmed, stimulating the subjects to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings.

In between the hot pursuits of any Cops program, we hear the policeman 's thoughts as he maneuvers the dark streets. In each segment, the featured police officer serves as narrator during these moments. We get the "inside story" as the officer guides us through the shift, describing the events, re-capping what has transpired and what might happen to the suspects. The perspective here is straight from cinema vérité, seeming responses from a policeman to a question or a prompting occurring off camera. As Rouch realized in his 1960 Chronicle of a Summer, the subject is transformed into the role of involved narrator, provoked and stimulated by questions, being placed into a particular locale. In Cops, the police officer's words seem "off the cuff," spontaneous rather than rehearsed or scripted. We don't hear the questions, but the nature of the commentary suggests what they were. Officers express their feelings about such concerns as "Why did you become police officers? What's the job really like during day-to-day activities? What do you think about the suspects/individuals you 're dealing with?" Here is cinéma vérité: encouraging statements of feelings, going beyond "just the facts." The camera is close-beside them, or from the rear seat of the police car. It is intimate interviewing, revealing values, ideologies, personal philosophies and thoughts. There has to be trust between the camera crew and the officer: this is commentary not ordinarily shared with a TV news camera crew. As the camera rides in this comfort zone, it both eavesdrops (direct cinema) and provokes (cinéma vérité). In traditional direct cinema, there is no narrator. Frederick Wiseman's films are well known for this characteristic. Some direct cinema films might use a very minimal narrative at the beginning of a film to establish the situation for the viewer. In some cinema vérité films, the director or other crewmembers often participate as narrators. The direct cinema piece is striving for spontaneity, letting the story happen, following it wherever it might lead. The cinema vérité camera is less sanguine, probing for answers, even forcing events if need be.

"Personally, I think we're as pure as you can be in this respect," says Langley. "Yes, we are affecting whatever we film (to some degree). The real question is to what extent are we affect­ing the material. Because of its dramatic context, I think Cops tends to avoid this phenomenon better than most reportage. Our camera people are trained literally to be 'flies on the wall.' As I'm wont to tell our crews, if we become the story, there is no story."

Nevertheless , there are portions of the Cops series that do not come from direct cinema's "fly on the wall" approach. Any program in the series opens with a montage of police activity and the music theme of "Bad Boys."This gives the series a cohesive identity, but it is a pointed use of dramatic elements. Also, the program resolves problems of family viewing and protection of the innocent by using a "blurring effect" over the faces of suspects, who might not have given their permission to appear in the program; this same effect is applied to scenes involving nudity. We also hear "bleeps " to cover explicit language. Spot lighting is often used for night scene shots. These obviously non-direct cinema techniques may in fact heighten the journalistic acceptance from viewers rather than call attention to themselves as interference.

Approaches from both direct cinema and cinema vérité operate in the natural, real life settings and the "on-the-shoulder" moving camera, including jerks and shaky motions. Available lighting will be used, even if it is poor. There will be scenes where "nothing happens": such "slow" scenes are often very powerful, capturing less obvious emotional tension. And editing is often perfunctory or simply non-existent. Says Langley, "I'm happy to say that we often have four or five minute stretches with absolutely no edits, which tends to give a less biased 'take' on the reality we are covering at any given moment."

Given the subject matter-policemen and criminal activity­ Cops uses the combined techniques of direct cinema and cinéma vérité effectively, perhaps even appropriately. But in this, it is not unique. The documentary today often features a mixture of methods and techniques—direct cinema, cinéma vérité, journalistic reportage, even reenactment: Michele Ohayon's Academy Award®-nominated Colors Straight Up is merely one recent example.

Does Cops take the same noble "high road" as the traditional documentary—to serve a social good, to enrich and enlighten an audience? In some ways, this may not be the case. Journalistically, we don't get the whole picture. Daily patrols are only one part of the entire judicial system. We don 't see and hear the views of the criminal suspects and those individuals connected to them. We see no coffee breaks, pit stops, eating donuts. We witness, in nearly every case, a solved crime. The good guys win. There are no long stakeouts, let alone any white-collar crimes depicted. And, unfortunate as it may be, it looks like African­ Americans and Latinos commit most crimes. Is this exploitation and racial bias?

For average citizens, Cops is as close to involvement in criminal investigation and apprehension as they will ever get. We can at least observe a portion of the typical police officer's duties and responsibilities. Other reality-based programs may offer public education for the viewer and society in the Griersonian tradition. Rescue 911 has taught many children how and when to call 911. And adults have learned how to react properly during horrible and intense accident situations. Many viewers have helped to resolve stories presented on episodes from Unsolved Mysteries, creating another whole take on the concept of the inter­ active viewer. Criminals have been caught as a direct result of a viewer's identification of a suspect on Unsolved Mysteries or America's Most Wanted.

So, whether Cops and other reality-based programs are actually documentaries, following or violating the principles of direct cinema and/or cinéma vérité, even journalism, does it really matter? Yes, it does. As the growing audience for documentaries on cable and in theatres is shaping its attitude toward what is truth and what is fiction, our concern turns to what exactly separates the documentary from its fictional counterpart, if not simply in intention then in reception itself. What is done will shape the acceptance of what is perceived.

Whatever the successes and accomplishments of Cops, the series cannot escape the questions and ethical issues concerning direct cinema. Many critics of direct cinema have long held that participants behave differently when the camera is rolling. Suspicions and questions were raised with the 1973 series An American Family as well as with many other works coming out of the direct cinema approach. That same skepticism can be applied to the police officers depicted in Cops. In most instances, the officers are quite aware of any risk to their departmental image, let alone their own. Are we seeing a performance rather than reality in Cops? From John Langley's perspective , "Most subjects in any given setting are more concerned with their specific problem of the moment than they are with cameras lurking in the shadows." Perhaps. And yet, the distinction between representation and presentation remains an issue, if not simply with Cops then with direct cinema in general.

How many filmed crime scenes are discarded, unused because of their lack of visuals and other dramatic elements? Are we really seeing a typical night of police patrols, or only those nights with the best production values? Do producers "pre-select" stories, such as drug busts, for the dynamic tensions inherent in the inevitable dramatic moment of catching a criminal on the spot? Skeptics of direct cinema note that arranging and selecting the "right story," the "right subject" is simply another form of manipulation, a subjective process that conveys the director's vision rather than reality. And in the process, truth itself is distorted. Limited as its perspective may be, the producers of Cops offer a vision of hard-working, patient, brave law enforcement personnel. We don't see a police officer acting unprofessionally, let alone committing a serious act of "brutality." In a spirit of cooperation, police departments featured in a particular Cops episode are given editorial authority over that particular program. Langley has acknowledged that it's their (the police department's) show. "Cops are the protagonist of our programs, but that doesn't mean that I necessarily agree or endorse everything they do. We aren't—nor do we claim to be—journalists in the sense of covering such issues as police brutality or other 'newsworthy ' events, things that in my opinion are often 'shockumentary ' by their very nature. I don't think we separate ourselves from the more 'noble' aspects of documentary simply because we work with police departments and seek their cooperation."

Nevertheless, some issues of concern remain. Some reality-based programs may be more interested in "shockumentary" than in the documentary tradition; yet, they gain some credibility, even respectability, by utilizing methods, elements and techniques from the history of classic documentary making. Unlike the single-play, one-shot documentaries appearing on P.O.V, The American Experience or Frontline, reality-based series such as Cops have the power of regular scheduling and promotion, an influence not unlike that of the evening news over the monthly news magazine. The same message of bravado and diligence is repeated at regularly scheduled intervals.

"It's my heartfelt hope that Cops in some small measure offers an 'enobling' insight into our society, by dramatizing and demonstrating problems within a human context that may be as real as we can get on television," concludes John Langley. Using that precious airtime, amidst the growing proliferation of documentaries—on cable and elsewhere-reality-programming causes us to reconsider the heritage of nonfiction imagemaking as it relates to current practices. To keep the documentary relevant and vital to our society, this is the way it should be.


MIKE McELREATH teaches broadcast/video production, documentary film history and is Coordinator of TV Program Productions at the University of Wyoming. NETA released his documentary, The Black 14, last January.