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Comparing Documentary Styles: Cinéma Vérité to Modern Docs

Matt Hibbard

Let’s take a look at the history of documentary filmmaking and explore the most popular approaches to the craft.

[Above image from Shutterstock]

The popularity of the modern documentary has steadily risen in recent years.  Since the Maysles brothers came onto the scene in the 1960s, it seems each generation since has embraced the concept of the documentary in their personal manner with increasing public interest. But what constitutes a true documentary? Who started the original movement? How did the modern documentary come to be? Let’s explore the answers below.

Defining True Documentaries

Although some films are based off of true stories, the raw essence of real people, real events, and real places are what separate documentaries from the rest of the pack. Though the definition of a “true” documentary has changed over the years, they all incorporate some form of truth and fact. There are two main categories that the majority of documentary films fit into: Cinéma vérité and the modern documentary.

The First Documentary

The roots of documentary filmmaking can be found in the frozen Canadian wilds, where Robert J. Flaherty filmed Nanook of the North, a 1922 silent film considered to be the first feature-length documentary. Nanook of the North was was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, but it is not without criticism – Flaherty is known to have staged several of the film’s sequences. Nonetheless, it is obviously worth a look.

Cinéma Vérité

The cinéma vérité genre originated in the 1960s in the French New Wave movement, due partially to technical advances of camera and audio equipment becoming increasingly portable. Contrasting with a studio-type style of production, the cinéma vérité genre captured a raw style using only on-location picture, audio, and lighting.

Robert Drew, alongside Albert and David Maysles, further advanced this conceptual style with direct cinema, which emphasized direct relations between the film crew and the subjects. The absence of a narrator explaining things for the audience allowed the editor the freedom to conceptually tell the story in an obscure way. Drew’s work on Primary, about the 1960 Wisconsin Primary election between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, is heralded as a masterpiece of direct cinema, and many consider Drew to be the father of cinéma vérité.

Here’s a brief clip of Drew discussing Primary.

Here’s a look at the landmark Maysles brothers film, Salesman.

Modern Documentary

The modern documentary is different from the raw cinéma vérité style that came before. In contrast, interviews are set; narration is present, the cinematography can be sophisticated and a great deal of post-production is present in the way of editing, graphic effects, music and sound design. With the shift away from cinéma vérité came more informative directorial control, much like the style of Michael Moore’s documentaries (check out Roger and Me for a good example).

Great development in regards to styles of modern documentaries is often attributed to Ken Burns. His use of archival and pictorial elements became a landmark of documentary making, particularly with the “Ken Burns Effect.”

Theatrical releases of modern documentaries have become extremely successful in the last decade with box office sales soaring. Some critics will argue that the modern documentary lacks the “truth element”. The potential financial gain skews the truth and targets specific audiences. Whatever the case, the modern documentary will continue to evolve.


Box office sales show that documentaries have reached an unprecedented peak in modern culture. Though modern documentaries have overshadowed cinéma vérité type documentaries over the years, there are many films still produced and inspired in a cinéma vérité production. In keeping with the continuing development of documentary films, we can all learn something to apply from the past to the future.

If you’re interested in the world of documentary film, here are a few more articles you might enjoy:

What style of documentary do you prefer? What are some of your favorite documentaries? Let’s discuss them in the comments below.