Social Realism is a type of film which aims to get right into a situation and make an audience believe that it is all true, and that they are actually there with the characters. The story is generally quite loose and is normally not closed. There is usually a thin story to the film, but so much irrelevant dialogue and actions happen over the top of this, that sometimes it is hard to decipher what the actual narrative is.
The narratives in social realism normally focus on the less well-off people in society. It shows them doing things that you would never see in Hollywood, such as drinking straight from the tap, going to the toilet, etc. If the rich are filmed, conventions are used to alienate them from the audience. The directors don’t want the audience to empathise with the rich. There is not often romance involved in the narrative, and if there is, it is portrayed unglamorously.
Another big thing in social realism is the way it is filmed. There are very often a lot of long shots which tell the audience exactly what is going on in the surrounding area, so that they can empathise more with the situation. After this establishing long shot, a lot of the time, the director tries to get the camera in as close as possible to the characters, sometimes so close than the audience feel uncomfortable being there, as if they are invading the characters’ privacy. It also allows the audience to see the expressions on the faces well, and this again helps an audience feel what the characters are feeling.
Music is not often used in social realism. It is especially not used to tell the audience what they should be feeling. Most of the time the music is diegetic, and is meant to sound like it is coming from the scene itself, not put on in post-production. This is to make the film seem more realistic, and to let the audience decide what to feel.
Sound in social realism is always diegetic. There is never an unexplained or ‘fake’ sound. Of course a lot of the sound is still put in during post-production, but it is always naturalistic. Dialogue is often in a strong local dialect, and can sometimes be hard to understand. People speak as real people do, without trying to make sure the audience can hear them properly. They speak fast a lot of the time, and even speak over the top of each other so neither of them can be heard. Again, this makes everything more realistic and allows an audience to believe it more.
There are never large special effects in social realism. There may be pyrotechnics if fire or explosions are needed, but most of the time everything is kept simple and quite low-budget to give a more realistic approach. Camera effects such as slow motion are never used because this breaks the realistic viewing for the audience. The lighting in social realism films is almost always naturalistic.
Some examples of social realism include:
Sweet Sixteen - Ken Loach
Ladybird Ladybird - Ken Loach
Raining Stones - Ken Loach
Family - Michael Winterbottom
In This World - Michael Winterbottom
Kes - Ken Loach