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The Art of Observing Life cover photo

The Art of Observing Life 2014


Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Marina Goldovskaya
Director Marina Goldovskaya
DVD, color, 88 min.

Jr. High - General Adult
Documentaries, Cinéma vérité

Date Entered: 08/22/2014

Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University

Documentarian Marina Goldovskaya had the good fortune to meet documentary pioneer Richard (Ricky) Leacock early in her career teaching film at UCLA. Through Leacock, Goldovskaya befriended many of the most renowned documentary filmmakers working in the United States, especially those associated with the Direct Cinéma/Cinéma vérité movement that blossomed in the 1960s. Over the years she was able to film short interviews with many of these people either in her classroom or at their homes and the result is this outstanding collection of intimate moments with these individuals. The best-known of the genre are here: Robert Drew, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Lionel Rogosin, Allan King, and Jonas Mekas. (Note: Although the Mekas interview is a welcome addition, Mekas is more often considered a guiding light of the avant-garde film movement than a leader in the documentary scene.)

Goldovskaya’s questions aren’t particularly probing but are friendly, and she elicits many insightful comments on the struggles and triumphs of documentary filmmaking. One gets a good sense of what it takes to build trust with a subject before the camera rolls.

A viewer’s familiarity with the canon of Cinéma vérité classics will add to the enjoyment of this film, however, there are enough examples included with the interviews to inspire further research. A particular surprise was the moving interview with Allan King and the excerpts from his film A Married Couple (1969) which will be a revelation to anyone who has overlooked this film. King’s work had been long unavailable until Criterion’s 2010 release of the collection titled The Actuality Dramas of Allan King. The significance of Robert Drew’s film, Primary (1960), as a technical breakthrough and as the Big Bang of Direct Cinema is also clearly described as are many other moments in the making of other classic documentaries.

The Art of Observing Life bears some similarity to Peter Wintonick’s exceptional Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment (1999) mostly in that several of the same filmmakers are profiled and some of the same stories told. Cinema Verite is a more structured film and probably a better teaching tool, but sadly it is out of release. The Art of Observing Life is more than a suitable stand-in. Another film covering some of the same ground, though not exclusively focused on Cinéma vérité, is Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary (2009). All three of these films should be available in any collection with strength in documentary film.