‘Instagram Stories: A Neorealist Window’, by Doosie Morris

If iconic film critic and theorist Andre Bazin were alive today, there’s a modern-day medium I’m sure he’d be keeping a close eye on. After his long day, deep in cinematic contemplation I’d like to imagine him kicking off his boots, pouring a nightcap and settling down for a nice evening-in with one of social media’s most recent trappings – Instagram Stories. Lighting up a Gauloises and tapping that enticing top row of circles, down the rabbit-hole he’d go, devouring collection after collection of user created micro-edits; hit and miss in their quality for sure, but often tantalisingly in tune with his well-documented tastes.

Bazin was a co-founder of the seminal film journal Cahiers du Cinema, and an ardent fan of the Open Form that came to prominence with the Italian Neo-Realists in the 1940s and went on to heavily influence the French New Wave. Distinguishing itself from the Hollywood Studio System and other Formalist cinema, the Open Form liberated the visual narrative from the shackles of artifice: largely doing away with manufactured sets, costumes and in some cases professional actors in favour of shooting real people, on location – just like most Instagram Stories. Bazin felt there was a particular kind of authenticity that most keenly arose when film-makers began to think of the lens as a window to objective realities rather than a frame for subjective ones; feelings that would surely have made him a fascinated observer of this recent social media phenomenon.

On Instagram, each user can upload unlimited 15-second videos and stills in order to tell their Story; and the resulting content, when the balance is right, often tumbles intriguingly into the realm of Neorealism – a delicate balance of the real and the contrived. The potential of such a concept would have Bazin undoubtedly hooked, a practically endless stream of compilations created by a sea of users, cataloguing their day’s events and pulling back the curtains onto marvellous movable windows into their own objective realities.

Composite images & screenshots by Doosie Morris, licensed under fair use.

A year ago the popular app, with more than 700 million monthly users, launched Stories – a feature that allows users continue adding unlimited 15-second videos, as well as stills, to a Story that is viewable on their account for just 24 hours. With its launch, the official Instagram blog declared “With Instagram Stories, you don’t have to worry about over-posting. Instead, you can share as much as you want throughout the day — with as much creativity as you want.” Like Snapchat, and Vine before it, the function taps into our natural urges to record and share stories: of ourselves and of the people and environments we encounter, applying our own creative flourish to the final product. The format of Stories allows users to create micro movies, that clip-by-clip open sometimes surprisingly engaging portals while also tapping into the very essence of what Open Form cinema aims to do: “offer a segment, a snap shot, or a fragment from a constantly flowing and evolving reality.”

A preference for this Open Form approach can be traced back as far as the films of the Lumiere Brothers, true cinematic pioneers of the 19th century who were not only among the world’s first film-makers, but also some of the first to embrace the power of true-to-life footage in storytelling. Shooting on-location rather than on-set and creating characters who were understood to inhabit a world that extended beyond the cinematic frame or the film’s plot was revolutionary. Such practices and ideals went on to become hallmarks of Italian Neorealism and The French New Wave; with Bazin being widely regarded as the godfather of the latter. By default Instagram Stories seems to honour “Bazin’s chief contribution to contemporary film theory: his appreciation of the revelatory nature of the photographic image [and his belief that] Film records the rich continuum of space and time as it happens.” Italian Neorealist classics such as Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City through to iconic New Wave films like Breathless, 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, each in their own ways laud the notion that film is at its most profound when it captures its version of reality, rather than creating one. The resulting influence of such innovative works has lingered well into many visual mediums to the present day; and through Instagram Stories it can even be seen in the everyday.

Since the advent of television, the Internet and more recently smartphones, the consumption of visual narratives has undergone unprecedented development, yet almost all of the work produced in the last century can be divided into simply being Open or Closed Form. This is the difference between the formalist framing and meticulous construction of works by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Sofia Coppola or Wes Anderson; as opposed to the more organic, free-wheeling tone of productions from Jean-Luc Godard, a fledgling Harmony Korine or Julie Delpy. While it’s conceivable that in the right hands Instagram Stories could be utilised by those with more formalist bents, it is evident that the medium most naturally lends itself to the sentiments of the Open Form. While there’s no hard data available yet on formal approaches to Instagram Stories, a survey of public users reveals a surprising number of Stories employing stylistically sound Open Form values to tell their stories. A 20-segment Story uploaded by a skateboarder from Mexico City (@bikpadrino), offers remarkable access, in that short time, to a unique narrative. Lying in his bed, shifting the camera from his own bare chest to his sleeping girlfriend; the discovery of a litter of puppies in an abandoned car; sneaking up on a friend in the shower; revving his motorbike, holding a tight shot on the exhaust, before panning to the long road ahead – his story is subtle, but astute; scrappy but deliberate.

I can watch another man (@jkirksy) who installs fake grass for a living as he goes about his day: annoying fellow employees, driving through Melbourne suburbs, eating at service stations and occasionally doing his job; what seems menial, often ridiculous at first, slowly develops into a meandering plot, with characters, locations and back story. The jump-cuts enforced by the 15 second restriction serve well to push these stories forward, with the spatial and temporal movement mixing and matching in ways reminiscent of the mood invoked by proponents of the Open Form. It would seem that the most intriguing of these stories exist with little consideration given to their overall impression, yet there is something innate in certain users’ ability to cherry-pick particular scenes from their day to enchanting effect, a spell that might be broken by over thinking the process. These are the accidental innovators, whose knack for the medium might inspire exploration of its possibilities by more intentional storytellers.

Of course not all Instagram Stories are created equal – many accounts are used by celebrities to promote products (or themselves) and literally millions of others are little more than asinine video journals. But when a user, intentionally or not, opens a window to their audience and allows the lens to capture a “diegetic world [that] appears as if what it depicts might continue in much the same way even if the camera were turned off,” then the results often speak the language of Bazin, of the likes of Rossellini, Godard and their contemporaries and to the doctrine of the Open Form. To Bazin film was “Ideally… a window on a given reality or specific milieu.” There could scarcely be a better description of what Instagram Stories are at their core and especially what they are at their best.

The creative role of the user as the director of their own story seems to prevent the Stories from appearing as testimonies. As with Open Form cinema, Instagram Stories in all their rawness and realness remain expressions rather than documents. The Stories that work best as visual narratives cultivate a sense of whimsy and vague stylisation, while retaining a spontaneous, true-to-life aspect. The close-up of a lobster in a restaurant fish tank, a long shot of child running into the woods, a street scene, the user in the bathroom mirror. These are simple, often crude snippets of a reality unfolding; but of course each user chooses what they record and what they overlook, making it easy to infer a degree of artistic sensibility to the resulting montage.

Allowing users to curate a series of micro-edits can then, in the right circumstances, produce detailed narratives with a distinct, individual style often emerging after some regular use, making each user an auteur as well. Ever ahead of the curve, New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard concurred in an interview regarding Film Socialisme, months before Instagram Stories was even launched declaring “…anyway, with mobile phones and everything, everyone is now an auteur.” What users choose to capture, from what angle, through what filter and with what soundscape ensures each Story is an exercise in amateur direction – and autership, whether the user realises or not.

In the same interview Godard was asked “about the significance of the llama and the donkey in Film Socialisme (2010), which have prompted much chin-stroking among critics.” “The truth,” he said, “is that they were in the field next to the petrol station in Switzerland where we shot the sequence. Voilà. No mystery. I use what I find.”" This spirit of spontaneity exists on Instagram too with most of the Stories I’ve encountered being just that: people using what they find, to tell, add to, support or enhance a broader narrative, enriching it with the truth found in things that appear organically.

None of this is to say that anything but a tiny fraction of the micro-movies on Instagram can be perceived to have any cinematic qualities, or that they are intentionally created as true narratives at all. It is to say, though, that the mode lends itself to ways of expressing stories and objective realities in ways that naturally align themselves with the stylistic sentiments echoed from the Lumiere brothers, through Rosselini, Godard and beyond – and that the medium has the potential to deliver sophisticated Open Form works of virtually limitless possibility. There is the small matter of the resulting production vanishing from existence at day’s end – however, users are able to download their work and publish it elsewhere; allowing creators to catalogue and control distribution of their work.

In much the same way as television, web-series, long-form drama and other AV advancements have changed the way we consume visual narratives, so too the little miracle of Instagram Stories takes the cinematic innovations and philosophies of some of Film’s greatest theorists, movements and directors and utilises them within the context of a new mode of creation and consumption. For now, Instagram Stories remains somewhat of a guilty pleasure with occasional moments of brilliance; but it would be both my suspicion and my hope that it catches on as an outlet for increasingly refined audio-visual storytelling.

Doosie Morris is a Melbourne writer and critic. She enjoys strong coffee, cold beer, deep breaths and big laughs.