Sunday, January 31, 2010

Gimme Shelter

"It is far from simple to show the truth, yet the truth is simple."
- Dziga Vertov

Capturing this truth is what the Maysles brothers set out to do when they decided to film the story of Rolling Stones in the Documentary Gimme Shelter. This masterpiece can be considered their seminal work in the field of Direct cinema.

Gimme Shelter is a 1970 Documentary film directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, tracing the Rolling Stones 1969 US tour The Rolling Stones, which culminated in the disastrous Altamont free Concert.

The documentary adopts the Observational form of Reactive Filming, which involves minimal intervention, a 'fly on the wall' method where the camera crew works as unobtrusively as possible viewing events candidly as a fly on the wall might see them.
In Gimme Shelter we see this distinctly throughout our viewing experience. Gimme Shelter brings raw footage that is unadultered and unfiltered. There is no tampering whatsoever with the flow of events. All the characters are real and there is no element of fiction involved.

The documentary has many close-ups which brings forth the real size and impact of the individual on the screen. Throughout the concerts, the focus on Mick Jagger for instance, keeps us well aware of his over-bearing presence. The focus lies in the drama of specific individuals. Mick Jagger being the lead band member of Rolling Stones, steals the limelight even on camera, as his real life importance gets translated into the screen with visuals of his experience as a singer.

The camera has captured real emotions and expressions of the individuals. The actors are caught unaware, giving originality in responses and expression of feelings. This is most seen during the concert when the camera tracks through the audience and captures their responses during the show. There is spontaneity in the way the camera is handled. The camera captures visuals in such a way that a person’s eyes may react in the same situation. The camera movements don’t seem planned and are on the spur-of-the-moment. Capturing is most natural and goes with the flow of unfolding events.

Another interesting aspect of the camera handling is the pace at which the visuals are shot at. We notice how the pace at which the visuals are captured are in sync with the mood of the events unfolding. For example, when the band starts performing a slow jazz number, the camera moves across the performers and the audience in a way to bring about the swooning mood. Slow movements capturing the feeling of enjoyment and bliss by the listeners is brilliantly brought out on the basis of how the camera takes us across the scene. In contrast to this mood, the camera has jerky movements when it shoots the crowd going ballistic and out of control. Unsteady camera takes us through the action within the crowd. This brings in the element of reality as we experience it the way a person would see it.

Sound is also left as it is recorded on the field. The music is that which is played by the band during a concert, and the dialogues are those which are spoken in conversation. Also, showing the footage of the concerts to the band members prove to be an eye-opener to them in knowing what actually happens in the crowd.

All these elements of Direct Cinema has disregarded the beauty and grandeur of non-direct cinema. True to the spirit of Kino Pravda, Gimme Shelter puts together fragments of actuality, which have a deeper truth unveiling itself through the eyes of the camera.


  1. Probably your most technical review yet :) I haven't watched this doco yet, though I did watch Scorsese's Shine a Light on the Stones long ago.

    I have always loved the art of documentary making - they are usually more real, intimate, urgent and fascinating than most mainstream films. And I haven't really heard of Direct Cinema till now...and you've really made it sound quite interesting. Will surely check it out. Thanks! :)

  2. Thanks a lot!

    I agree with you about the art of documentary film-making. Can't get it out of purely fictional films. Documentaries give a better sense of the real and are definitely more informative.

    Glad you liked the review and that it taught you a bit about Direct Cinema.:)

  3. the commentary is overwhelming with "a fly on the wall" effect; wonder! even after seeing the documentary, I would rather "fall" for the commentary than the documentary. Zulfiya you have god-gifted way of saying things... I am a lot prouder than ever.

  4. Thanks a lot, uppa. It's the habits you've inculcated in me that has allowed me to think as critically as I can, and constantly be alert to detail, reason and effect.