Film Review — Hoop Dreams (1994). How the cinema verité and traditional documentary form collide to create magic.
The direct cinema style of Hoop Dreams uses the camera to provoke and reveal truth by taking aspects of cinema verité and aspects of traditional documentaries and blending the two techniques together to create a middleground as far as capturing reality. The film consists of many cinema verité type shots, letting action play out unstaged and capturing everything on camera, an example of this being within all of the actual in-game basketball scenes and many of the street scenes, such as those that are shot in Arthur Agee’s neighbourhood. However, the film also consists of many traditional documentary style interviews with subjects, as well as voiceover narration and some staged or reenacted interactions, such as those that take place in meeting rooms, one-on-one conversations inside of Arthur and William’s family’s houses and their schools. However, despite some clear manipulations from the producers of the documentary, the film creates strong cinematic realism and all of the subject interviews and interactions seem authentic, natural and completely unscripted.
There is a really interesting relationship between the subjects and the camera in Hoop Dreams and there is a very balanced stance that you can see on screen, letting the subjects behave without any self-consciousness and being in the right place at the right time to capture raw emotion and honest insight and conversation. The traditional documentary style interviews never feel like they pulled me out of the cinematic realism of the film, and almost all of these scenes were instead very confessionary, rather than standoffish, which helped me as a viewer to understand the perspectives and feelings of the subjects. The film convinces you that you are watching the subject’s real life coming of age and growth from teenager to young adult and the very up close and personal nature of the documentary makes you empathize and focus solely on the two subjects depicted in the film, rather than get lost or distracted by the many competing athletes backgrounds and journeys. What helps Hoop Dreams feel so authentic, with many reverse shot transitions and a variety of angles in every sequence on screen, is thanks to the use of likely at least two cameras capturing almost every scene.
The use of more than one camera would be almost essential for a documentary of this scope and pace, and to reenact or stage the majority of the scenes in the film would be incredibly hard in terms of deriving cinematic realism out of the film. The in-game scenes are masterfully shot, with one camera focusing on the events of the game itself on the floor, and another camera focusing on the emotions and the reactions of the crowd watching the game, including the parents of both Arthur Agee and William Gates. The attention to detail and human emotion in every scene, creates an intimacy between the relationships of the subjects, and the complexities of all of the subject’s lives that are unfiltered on screen, separates this film from a lesser ambitious sports documentary format.
Some of the most important cinema verité or direct cinema style techniques range from the continuous take of Arthur playing street ball in his neighbourhood, while Arthur’s dad is clearly in the background purchasing drugs, which is entirely documented on camera, to sequences of Arthur’s tears in the hallway of a gymnasium from the emotion and heartbreak of experiencing his team’s fateful loss. Some of the most powerful scenes from Hoop Dreams are included in the film as a direct result of the cinema verité technique and its “fly on the wall” observations of the subject’s most critical moments of their on-screen journeys. The film wouldn’t be as emotionally provoking if it wasn’t for the techniques of the cinema verité documentary style being used as much as it was throughout the film.