Playing to the Camera

Photo by Senado Federal via Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I worked as a documentary producer for television. During that time, a genre of filmmaking dating back to the 1950s called cinéma vérité had very much come into fashion again.

Cinéma vérité is an approach to storytelling in which the filmmaker shadows their subject(s) for a period of time, capturing their life – and story – as it naturally unfolds before the camera.

The hallmark of a vérité film is that it contains no narration, or commentary. The filmmaker presents the story as a succession of scenes, captured as if he or she were a fly-on-the-wall. Its practitioners call it an undiluted form of reality depiction. “The height of truth-telling,” some would say.

But not everyone agrees.

One viewpoint is that when the director (like all filmmakers) selects and arranges the raw footage in a particular way to tell the story, reality is altered. A subjective viewpoint is created. The depiction is skewed.

Another point, less recognized, is that pure truth is also subverted by the presence of the camera itself. Why? Because the subject knows it is there. The camera influences the subject’s actions. It is a catalyzing factor.

Put another way: the filmmaker is interfering with the reality he or she is trying to depict because the subjects, to some degree, are playing to the camera. It’s much like the law of physics in which the observation of a sub-atomic event has an impact upon it. The term ‘Hawthorne effect’ was coined to describe an alteration of behaviour of a subject due to the knowledge by that person that they’re being observed.

That’s not a hard idea to wrap your mind around. It’s almost impossible as a documentary film subject to speak, act and plan future actions without having in mind the camera. Events are altered from what they might have been had the filmmaker not been there.

But here’s an important question: could much behaviour in the modern world nowadays be influenced by this very same dynamic? What if we went beyond the documentary filmmaking context to include all cameras and their subjects.

Think of the murderous, destructive actions of the so called “Islamic State”, or the performance of any given politician, or the headline grabbing actions of criminals that turn them into instant celebrities. Media circuses often become drumbeats to which the subjects learn to dance to. With a bit of thought, many things begin to resemble this causal relationship.

If we go one step further and replace the word “camera” with “observer” then the examples multiply.

How much of what we do at any given time is simply playing to the camera – or to human eyes? And how would the narrative of our lives, the truth of who we are, change if this were not – or less – the case?