Cinma Vrit: Defining the Moment, directed by Peter Wintonick, is a documentary about film documentaries. The term, cinma vrit, which the French originally defined as 'camera truth,' was perhaps best personified by the groundbreaking 1960 film Chronique d'un Ét (Chronicle of a Summer), directed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. In that film, ordinary citizens were questioned about their everyday lives, and their responses offered a glimpse into France itself at that point in time. Since then, the definition of cinma vrit has changed somewhat, enough so for veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman to pronounce: 'My definition of cinma vrit is that it's a pompous French term that has no meaning.'

Fighting words those, but cinma vrit has survived over the years, and filmmaker Peter Wintonick's movie walks the viewer up through those years, from early pioneers like Robert Flaherty to Britain's Free Cinema, Karel Reisz's We Are the Lambeth Boys, the Maysles, Richard Leacock and Robert Drew's Primary, which chronicled John F. Kennedy's 1960 run for the White House. Plus the inevitable, and oddly evocative, civil-defense movies, in which an entire North American, post-World War II generation learned how to hide under schoolroom desks and walk up and down stairs. There's even a grudging nod to The Blair Witch Project for bursting into the mainstream via a low-budget pseudo-documentary.

Wintonick likens cinma vrit to 'a window onto real life and real issues' which freed the documentary from conventionally staged shots. Reisz defines it as 'the opposite of the scripted, the conceived, the planned, the argument-led documentary. It was finding bits of life and weaving them together into a coherent whole. Wanting what you got, rather than going out to get what you want.' Or, as Terry Macartney-Filgate explains in voiceover as we see him filming passengers with a tiny digital camera on a Toronto streetcar: 'It puts back tools in the hands of the peasants.'

The National Film Board of Canada is distributing Cinma Vrit: Defining the Moment, which is only fitting, since the NFB, established in 1939, has played a key role in establishing Canada as one of the world's leading centers of documentary film production.

--Ed Kelleher