When filmmakers of cinéma vérité — French for “truthful cinema” — began a documentary, they never knew what the story would be. The cameraman followed the subjects through every revealing moment of their lives, allowing reality to replace scenario.
“Eddie” and “Letters from Vietnam,” two documentaries from this nearly extinct genre directed in the early 1960s by cinéma vérité pioneer Robert Drew, were screened last month by Yale Center for British Art associate director David Mills. The films were donated to the center’s collection by David Mills’ father, Abbot Mills, who filmed footage for the documentaries.
The films, which follow real incidents in real time, bring a heightened sense of objectivity and reality to journalistic filmmaking, said film studies professor Charles Musser, who attended the screening.
Rather than conducting interviews and narrating stories like a typical news reporter, the typical cinéma vérité reporter-cameraman would act as a “fly on the wall” that follows people around. This method resulted in footage of people as they went though critical moments in their lives, David Mills explained.
“The cinéma vérité movement was about capturing something on film and editing it and presenting it as it unfolds,” he said. “Drew used to have this rule: if you miss something and must say ‘Wait, can you say that again?,’ you’re fired.”
This style required trust between the person being filmed and the one filming, which resulted in revealing footage that a less compassionate journalist would not have gotten, Mills said. Cinéma vérité differs from what Mills dubbed “gotcha journalism,” where the journalist has an agenda, asking leading questions several times for the right sound bite. Mills contrasted cinéma vérité with Katie Couric’s persistent probing of Sarah Palin, waiting for the slip that would highlight a politician’s ignorance.
“Eddie,” the story of 36-year-old racecar driver Eddie Sachs, depicts the driver crying at the start of the 1961 Indy 500 race and vomiting after he finished at second place. But it was Abbot Mills’ footage of Nancy Sachs, cheering as Eddie advanced and scowling as Eddie made pit stops, that provides much of the drama in the film.
On the left corner of the vomiting scene, white streaks flash in sync with the sound of racing cars: the undeveloped film had popped out of the canister when Abbot Mills dropped it. Though he quickly placed the film back, closing the lid and shielding the rest of it from exposure while director Drew shouted expletives and kicked cars, the damage was done, David Mills said.
“Drew got really mad,” he said. “But the French critics liked it, calling it real cinéma vérité.”
Though the genre was more widespread in the1960s, today it is a memento from a different era. Audience member Lenore Stelzer, a 63-year-old educator, said her husband, engineer Manning Stelzer, laughed when Eddie’s crew changed Eddie’s tires by hammering at the bolts because he was reminded of an age before the tire-changing process was mechanized.
But footage of the 1962 Indy 500 race, where Eddie crashes into the wall and dies in flames, can be found on YouTube.com today.
The second film, “Letters from Vietnam,” features Second Lt. Gary Ramage’s letters to his wife and infant son in the form of tape recordings.
Abbot Mills was filming in a helicopter when Vietcong fire hit one of the chopper’s rockets, which exploded. Six men were wounded and a patch of hair was burned off Abbot Mills’ head while his camera was nearly lost in the debris. David Mills joked that his father cared more about the 30-pound camera than surviving the explosion.
The film was the first documentary ever shot in sync sound during combat in Vietnam.