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Cinema Verité Writing

I have just finished reading Jennifer Gonnerman’s “Life on the Outside,” the story of Elaine Bartlett’s sixteen-year incarceration in Bedford Hills prison for selling cocaine, a first offense under New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. Unprepared for release at the age of 42 into a changed world and troubled family, the book rarely strays from Ms. Bartlett’s point of view. This is empathetic immersion journalism at its best. It’s no wonder it won the National Book Award and landed Ms. Gonnerman a job at The New Yorker. The reporting is encyclopedic and the narrative so gripping I could not put the book down. Considering the discourse we are having at the moment about incarceration and rehabilitation, I’d say it’s a must-read. Some of the harsh sentencing has been rescinded, but there is more reform of the criminal justice system pending, and more still that is necessary.

“Life on the Outside” reminded me of Katharine Boo’s Pulitzer-winning book, “Behind The Beautiful Forevers,” an intimate portrayal of the shanty-town under the airport in Mumbai. Ms. Boo, an American married to an Indian national, used translators—students from the university—to capture the story. Despite the language barrier, she became close to her subjects.

The reporting and narrative methods are similar in both books: immersion reporting, third person story-telling, and an epilogue in the first person that describes the reporting process and the reporter’s role in the process. It’s an approach shared by Tracy Kidder and Alex Kotlowitz, among others. I call it cinema verité writing.

In film theory, cinema verité is sometimes referred to as “observational cinema.” The camera/director is a fly on the wall recording whatever passes before him. There is no voice-over narration or guidance for the viewer other than the way in which the director frames each shot and edits the takes. It can be informative and powerful, it can be salaciously voyeuristic, or it can be boring.

Gonnerman and Boo’s books mimic this process. They are the camera eye observing, recording and framing, deciding on what goes in and what doesn’t. And, as reporters, they do ask questions, but we don’t hear their voice at all until the end. They remain behind the camera and behind the scenes.

Does this reportorial self-effacement work? Yes, for the most part. Are there drawbacks? Yes, one or two.

By the end of “Life on the Outside” I cared about Elaine Bartlett and felt I knew her. She loved clothes, she loved her children, she was a hard worker, she loved men, she was well respected. I wanted to keep her out of harm’s way and for her most successful child, Apache, to continue to do well. In this sense, the book succeeded admirably. But when subject matter is difficult, challenging, or controversial, the absence of a narrative persona feels like a lacuna. Many questions about our criminal justice system remain unanswered, solutions and interpretation are absent. Now, more than ever, we need them.

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