Real Reels

By Jenni Mann

In a swimming pool in late July, the sun beats down on the clear turquoise water. A rumble underground causes ripples to start spiralling in the pool, growing shakier and shakier, water pours over the edges of the pool until the tanned body of the swimmer jumps out of the water, terrified … by a gigantic worm-like monster burrowing out of the ground. Cracked mud flies all around as the swimmer shrieks at the sight of the 20ft tall beast… *record //Pause* STOP! This is not real life. These kinds of scenes are right out of a Hollywood CGI blockbuster – the ones we love to lap up, to be scared by, to be made temporarily terrified for 190 minutes. They are not real – we know that. Sometimes we prefer something a little more raw, more pertaining to the human experience, so take a look at some Real Reels here, and get to know the movies made in a far more realistic way.

Yes, fantasy, explosions, and CGI (computer-generated images) beyond our wildest imaginations have massively grown in popularity especially as technology allows for more extreme events to be created. But we also can be emotionally drawn into the films that entice us in with their honest view of life and make us feel as though we could be the character behind the camera or even feel we are in the film with them.

We want to see the gritty truth in cinema, and here are the film styles that sum it up perfectly.

Dogme 95

Ever heard of the directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg? In March 1995 they presented the 10 Commandments for their new style of film making; Dogme 95. This movement was all about confronting the realities of life, and focusing only on the quality of the performance and storyline, not the special effects and props. So think no fancy sets, no unnecessary after-effects, no ‘bling’ costumes; just raw characters telling a story that feels true.

The Celebration (Festen), dir. Thomas Vinterberg

By stripping the films of any post-production and filters, it’s as raw as it gets in filmmaking. This way viewers were not distracted by special effects. The movement lasted until 2005 to rave reviews, where many of the films were (and still are) described as essential watches. The filmmakers even named their commitment to the 10 Commandments; they called this their Vow of Chastity.

The Idiots (Idioterne), dir. Lars von Trier

The 10 Commandments are:

Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).

The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).

The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).

Optical work and filters are forbidden.

The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

Genre movies are not acceptable

The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

The director must not be credited.

Most films in the movement broke or bent one or two of these rules, such as with director Hamony Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey – Boy. The first American film in the Dogme 95 movement, it broke the rules by using a fake pregnant belly (read back to rule number 1), and Korine himself was credited in the film (read rule number 10). However, the Dogme 95 group accepted the film with a statement from the 4 leading members; Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring.

Julien Donkey-Boy, dir. Harmony Korine

Ending in 2005, when the founders decided that the rules were producing formulaic films, the movement had a good 10 years of creativity.

“I think Dogme was inspiring for quite a few peoples and sort of started a digital movement. Personally, I found it extremely uplifting and fantastic making Dogme movies, but I felt I completed it with ‘The Celebration.’ I think that was the end of the road on Dogme for me. It was as far as I could go.” – Thomas Vinterberg

Open Hearts (Elsker Dig For Evigt), dir. Susanne Bier

There are 35 Dogme 95 films in total, but it’s worth the wade through them all. We’ve included some trailers to show you what you’re in for.

Italian For Beginners (Italiensk For Begyndere), dir. Lone Scherfig

Cinéma Vérité

Next up in our search for raw filmmaking is the documentary-style Cinéma Vérité, invented by the French filmmaker Jean Rouch in the 1960’s. Directly translated from French it means Truth Cinema, which gives you a good guess at the type of films to come out of it. The style combines improvisation and reality to unveil the truth or highlight hidden subjects. We’ve included some examples of trailers of Cinéma Vérité films to give you a glimpse of the style.

Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin

It’s most often associated with documentaries; before the introduction of Cinéma Vérité they were shot like newsreels or educational films. Cinéma Vérité has a much more direct approach. Getting rid of narration meant that for the first time the subjects spoke for themselves, each viewer was able to make their own decisions and conclusions, and the speakers could tell their story as they really felt it.

Grey Gardens, dir. Albert Maysles, Favid Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer 

The filmmakers got up close and personal with real people, with non-professional actors, handheld shots, and unscripted dialogue and action. It often featured overlap with filmmaker and subject, opening up the film to directly talk to the audience in a new way.

Don’t Look Back, dir. D. A. Pennebaker

It didn’t take long for Cinéma Vérité to be used in other types of films, not just documentaries. Independent filmmakers ran with the concept, creating ‘fly on the wall’ style films on a low budget with nonprofessional actors, and leaving a lasting legacy.

Titicut Follies, dir. Frederick Wiseman

The film industry’s love of this style can even be seen today, as it has influenced a lot of modern television with the creation of reality shows and mockumentarys. Shows like The Office are a nod to Cinéma Vérité, a testament to the wholly objective style of shooting with a dialogue that appears unscripted (and does a good job at fooling us all with thinking we are really in the Dunder Mifflin office with them).

Our love of seeing real lives playing out in front of us branched out in to all sorts of ventures; namely the comedic melodrama web series Ikea Heights. It was a spoof on Soap Operas filmed entirely in Ikea – a stroke of genius that made the mini episodes both intriguing and hilarious to watch. Released in 2009, it adds humour to the idea of intruding on peoples ‘real lives’. A new take on Cinéma Vérité, it’s interesting to see how society has become enamoured with this style of film.

Ikea Heights, dir. Tom Kauffman

Handheld Cameras

A common theme in these film styles is using a handheld camera. Giving the viewer a feeling of really being in the scene with the characters, a handheld camera allows the filmmaker to get deeper into the film’s reality. The movement of the camera also moves as a human does too, which gives the viewer the sensation that they are filming with their own eyes. The experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas said that shooting with a handheld camera allowed for greater artistic and financial freedom.

These days, handheld shots can be found in low-end indie films to big Hollywood blockbusters. The ‘shaky-cam’ was popularised by The Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi; this was a camera that they screwed on to a plank of wood, and had someone at each end of the plank, holding it. It mimicked the Steady Cam in a much more affordable and hands-on way, and the results make for movements that seem very human, and as though we are looking through the eyes of someone in the film itself. One example of this is in Raising Arizona, where the camera is the perspective as a demon, drawing the audience in to feel as though they are in the film – which you can see in this clip

A film renowned for its handheld shots is the Blair Witch Project, which shocked and thrilled viewers. It even had some people wondering if it wasn’t just a work of fiction, and instead people genuinely recording their spooky forest excursion and eventual demise. The shaky camera work, absence of a soundtrack, and chaotic witchy energy made for a believable and scary film, that felt like real life.

This camera technique gives us rawness in the sense that we feel involved in the film – we are seeing life from the perspective of being immersed inside the scene. They aren’t however, showing us a real view of life with their fantasy aspects.

La Haine

To view life through the lens of Mathieu Kassovitz is to see the harsh truths of the world. There are few films that show life in its truest, most gritty form as La Haine. It follows three French boys in the 24 hours after a riot and holds a mirror up to France’s issues with racism and police brutality. The black and white film radiates with rage and still resonates with viewers 25 years later. The fury that Kassovitz felt over the deaths of Makome M’Bowole and Malik Oussekine is shown in the vividly truthful portrayal of life at the time and still translates to how people view life today. It is heart wrenching and enlightening and sucks viewers into the lives of Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd.

Whilst it was met with controversy upon its release in 1995, it was seen as such a realistic representation of a typically ignored aspect of French society that the French Prime – Minister of the time (Alain Juppé) organised a screening for all cabinet members to see. An important and revolutionary film, La Haine is probably as real and raw as cinema gets.

All of these styles of films have different ways of showing us the rawness of life and it can be very humanising to soak up life through the lens of these directors that have plucked at our heartstrings with astonishing truths of the human experience.

For more information on great films why not visit the BFI Here. If you enjoyed Real Reels, then why not check out Fine China or Books On Film.