Parkour Free Running in Films

When ‘cinema verite’- meaning the ‘cinema of truth’ – became the code word for filmmakers as a result of the French New Wave, the world discovered that the power of film lay in its telling of reality the way it is: untouched, unstaged, untainted. For the movie novice, the French New Wave was a film movement that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, initiated by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Tr uffaut, who created a string of films presenting reality as its very own aesthetic. Watch one of these films (‘Breathless – A bout de souffle’ or ‘400 Blows’) and you find yourself captivated by the magic of reality itself, simple touches such as the naturally amplified sounds of footsteps create its own magic.

Fifty years later however, moviegoers find that they have their senses dulled once again by movie convention – CGI special effects and run-of-the-mill storytelling – elements threatening to drown out the beauty of ‘cinema verite’. The camera is powerful as it reproduces reality, unlike high art or literature, which only interprets it. In the quest for more movie magic, many filmmakers now choose digital effects for action movies (‘The Matrix’ being a great example) over real-life action, but how much more can the audience suspend their disbelief?

Now thanks to Sebastien Foucan and his friends, like David Belle, the French have found the way back to ‘cinema verite’, but this time, action movie-style. This is ‘parkour’, or ‘free running’ in French. Parkour is the new urban extreme sport. Better than skateboards, which can be a nuisance to pedestrians, free runners use their own bodies, leaping from post to rooftop, wall to ledge, to overcome man-made obstacles in an urban jungle. This is a type of belief that has triggered these youngsters to train tirelessly at this art. A follower of David Belle, Stephane Vigroux, says in a documentary about parkour, that he has trained for seven years, walking along narrow ledges and climbing sideways on walls, before achieving the balletic grace that his founders have perfected. What attracts these youths is the philosophy that one can rise above all this man-made ugliness, with just one’s own body. Perhaps tinged with escapism, as a free runner can take flight from the city’s congestion by leaping from roof to roof on a whim!

Once discovered by filmmakers, such as Luc Besson, parkour has become the new action hero. Most people will recall seeing Sebastien Foucan, founder of parkour, leaping off buildings and cranes in ‘Casino Royale’, the James Bond movie released in 2006. Sebastien has also taken on the British challenge of leaping across London, as well as Britain in two fantastic documentaries: ‘Jump London’ and ‘Jump Britain’. Not at all a reckless person, Sebastien trains his followers strictly and with safety measures, before they attempt such death-defying feats. They practise jumping at walls and doing somersaults and leaps in a gym, using normal gym equipment such as mattresses and gym horses.

One of Sebastien’s friends is David Belle, who has also gone on to star in movies with a huge focus on parkour. French movie ‘Banlieue 13’, otherwise known as ‘District 13’, is fittingly set in 2010, where Parisian ghettos are overrun by druglords, a post-modern horror. David Belle’s character, together with a cop, infiltrate the ghettos to rescue his kidnapped sister, but only by deftly dodging and using (with their bodies alone) the urban infrastructure that is built up in the city. It is a fantastic movie, because the free runner embodies so perfectly the raw human spirit. He can leap over the tall, the wide, the abyss; scale the heights, and balance on the narrow. The free runner is the modern action hero of the movies, and rightly so. It even looks easy, and is therefore an art.

With every footstep, leap and grip, the camera records the sound that goes with the effort: a breath, a shuffle, a crumbling of gravel. Just like the cinema verite of the 1950s, except in an urban landscape. And moviegoers are impressed by such human ability, the same way they gape at Jackie Chan hanging off a train or Jean Claude van Damme balanced in a perfect split across two tables.

This is the power of film, when the camera’s reproduction of reality astounds the audience, without digital help, or obfuscation rather, through special effects. The enlarged picture and heightened sound is all the film needs to wow the audience. Cinema verite rules again.