When did seeing cease being believing? There was a time when filmmakers like Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch could call their documentary practice cinéma-verité and actually mean it. When they set out, in the summer of 1960, to find out whether or not Parisians were happy, they firmly believed not only that the truth was out there but that it could be recorded. Abetted by the latest developments in portable 16-millimetre film equipment, the directors marched into the thick of reality like hunters bagging game. Not only would they bring it back, they'd bring it back alive.
That was more than a half century ago, a summer when the war in Algeria was raging, students were organizing, labour was increasingly unrestful and in France the national cinema itself was being upended by an upstart moment – also dependent on the new mobile technology – just being called la nouvelle vague. Not that long ago in terms of human history, but light years away in philosophical terms, as three recent DVD releases starkly attest.
Rouch and Morin's remarkable movie, called Chronicle of a Summer and recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, also kick-started an epistemological debate that has never really subsided: Can we ever trust what we see as being real? Is all film really a form of fiction? Or is all filmed fiction a kind of documentary?
To conclude their bold experiment in ethnographic inquiry, Morin and Rouch gathered their subjects in a screening room to film their responses to the movie shot so far, and the results left the filmmakers, shall we say, reeling. Rather than bring these various representatives of different classes, races and political inclinations together as intended, the film sparked accusations of fakery and acting among the participants – as in, "You were playing it up for the camera but I was not." "I was real but you weren't."
Ultimately, Chronicle of a Summer attained landmark status less as an objective historical document than as a series of first shots over the bow of perception. The conceptual war between film and reality was declared.
By 1968, when the activist filmmaker and cinematographer Haskell Wexler took his cast and crew to the Democratic national convention in Chicago to shoot sequences for a fictional movie about politics and images called Medium Cool (also just released by Criterion), the call and response between pictures and politics was like a drumbeat to a global march. When the National Guard moved in on protesters gathered outside the convention centre to voice their opposition to the war in Vietnam, a cry went up that indicated just how much of this struggle was about the claim to history made through the lens: "The whole world is watching!" chanted the crowd for the benefit of tanks and news trucks alike.
By the time Medium Cool arrived at its final shot, a Jean-Luc Godard-ian riff showing Wexler himself turning a camera toward a camera turned on him, the line between fiction and reality had been breached. We'd crashed through the looking glass, and in the smoke, shards and splinters it looked like we'd never see anything the same way again.
Perhaps we didn't, but the change marked wasn't necessarily the change Wexler – like Morin and Rouch before him – had expected. We didn't really learn to act differently from the knowledge that everything was a matter of perspective, we just learned to act more. With the realm of fiction now rezoned to include our daily lives, we began to live in one big movie, an almost half-century of rehearsal for the state of omnipresent surveillance and camera-readiness that now exists.
There are many remarkable things going on in Sarah Polley's family melodrama doc Stories We Tell (just released on DVD by the NFB and Mongrel Media), not the least of which is the clear willingness of so many members of Polley's family and friends to sit down and be (to use the director's own word) "interrogated" concerning a family secret that itself has become a form of collective, multifaceted fiction in which almost everyone is implicated in the telling. One might attribute this to the Polley family's own intergenerational seasoning in performance and play-acting, but only partly. The other fact of life affirmed by the film – which, in addition to several standard talking-head interviews, includes family movies, reconstructions of those movies, film and TV clips, and shots of the director making her movie and playing herself – is the extent to which we are all presumed to be in a state of perpetual performance these days, whether the camera is on us or not. The mere knowledge that it might be, that we never really know when we're being watched, is enough.