So this is the second installment of my verdict in response to Thor’s doc-marathon dictation. I just need to say this first though. Previously, I looked at the list Thor sent me purely in terms of the subject they were covering and picked the ones that sounded most interesting to me. After watching the first 2 of the 4 I’m hoping to finish by the end of the month, I am convinced that Thor’s picks were even more brilliant and well considered than I originally gave them credit for. Both of these docs have really raised a ton of questions in my head about the form itself. This one actually begins with a conversation about this very topic. The filmmakers, Rouch and Morin spend the first few minutes discussing whether or not it is even possible to be honest when one is put in front of a camera. With this Rouch pretty much introduces his intention of making a “cinéma vérité”. Filmmaker Rouch and sociologist, Morin then employ two market researchers to go out and interview Parisians on the street and ask them just one simple question, namely, “Are you happy?”.
Initially, as one would expect, the question is met with mostly frivolous responses. People either shrug off the interviewer by giving them strange looks or answer them flippantly. But soon the filmmakers pick a group of people and dig deeper into their lives and emotions. I was watching the movie pretty attentively and despite this, I can’t quite tell you how or when the doc went from people simply flippantly discussing their daily lives and annoyances to the revelation of intimate personal secrets and stories.
The central cast of characters we encounter and learn more about include Marceline, a Holocaust survivor; Angelo, who works at a factory; Landry, a student from the Ivory Coast; and Marilou, a young but seriously depressed Italian immigrant. In a lot of ways, this is really different from most documentaries. For one thing, Rouch and Marin are present for large parts of the film and are visible in front of the camera and interacting with the subjects. Secondly, they are not just silent observers. They actually actively provoke the participants and ask them rather personal questions.
So here’s where I found myself being really conflicted about some of what I was watching on screen. I thought the initial concept of asking people whether or not they were happy was a brilliant one. However, some of the provocative techniques used by Rouch and Marin to acquire richer and more personal responses from their subjects, I found to be rather disturbing. For example, they ask the student from Ivory Coast about the numbers tatooed on Marceline’s arm, presumably knowing fully well that he has no understanding of their significance. Similarly, they never hesitate to coax Marilou into talking about her problems and her depression in front of the camera. Some of their techniques, I could understand from the standpoint of executing an experiment. But the idea of getting all this on film for generations to watch still bothered me considerably.
In an even more interesting turn of events, the filmmakers eventually get all the subjects to watch the footage and comment on it. Excerpts of their comments and a discussion between Rouch and Marin form the final third of the film. The reactions from the subjects were utterly fascinating to me. For instance, the Holocaust survivor who seems to have really exposed herself in front of the camera claims later on that she was just ‘acting’. The audience seems to criticize the people who they think are clearly pretending for the camera but also disapprove of Marilou for being so raw and completely revealing her inner self to the filmmakers. A point that Rouch and Marin discuss that I think is also really pertinent here is whether the people who seem to or claim to be play-acting are even aware of whether or not they are being honest in front of the camera.
All of this really brings into question whether the camera is even capable of capturing reality or does it fundamentally change and meddle with whatever is going on in front of it? I can’t say that the documentary answered these questions for me but it was most definitely a completely absorbing and constantly thought-provoking experience.
Any criticisms I’ve raised about the filmmakers approach to the documentary is not really a criticism of the doc itself. As a documentary, I think it did everything I hoped it would. It was entertaining, informative and definitely challenged my notions about a lot of things. I think my only reservation is that Rouch and Marin’s approach somehow kept me from being as emotionally engaged and moved by the movie as for instance, Blood of the Beasts.
Most definitely recommended.