Tonight, April 23, 2011, HBO is premiering a drama entitled “Cinema Verite.” Now I haven’t seen the film, but there has been quite a debate on Documentary message boards like Doculink, IMDB and even between film reviewers over the tag line being used in the marketing as this was “the first reality show.” San Francisco Chronicle loves the HBO film, Los Angeles Times does not.
Just the term “Cinema Verite” is hotly debated in documentary circles, about how real anything is once edited. I wrote in one of my previous blogs, “Virtual Sundance” about a wonderful two hour discussion between Werner Herzog and Frederick Wiseman on this very subject at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
Filmed in 1971, “An American Family” (which the HBO movie is based on) followed the Loud family, Pat and Bill and their five children of Santa Barbara in their lives, airing two years later on PBS. At the time, it was considered a real life documentary series. I guess the HBO movie suggests things were staged, more like a contemporary “Reality” series.
This is all funny because Director/Producer David Zeiger and I were just talking about this with a few of the former characters from our series, “Senior Year.” Over 10 years ago we delivered thirteen episodes for PBS about fifteen kids at Fairfax High, the most diverse school in Los Angeles, as they navigated through their senior year on the edge of the new millennium. “Senior Year” is going to be rebroadcast starting May 5th on KCET and we were filming with some of the original students from the show, sort of a “where are they now” segment, to tag to the end of each episode.
We started to wonder aloud how audiences will react now that they’ve been poisoned by “reality” television. Would they think the scenes had been scripted, the diary cams and camera confessions a lame rip off of what was presently on television. The fact of the matter is there was very little reality television on in 1999/2000, so our influences were the Maysles Brothers, Richard Leacock, Wiseman and “American Family.” We wanted to be the fly on the wall, even hiring recent film college graduates to be camera people, so there wouldn’t be such a difference in age, to get a more honest approach. Of course, we edited the footage, but we refused to manipulate anything that wasn’t true. Maybe that’s why all the students we followed wanted to return 10 years later to recap and update their lives.
“Senior Year” was successful enough that after the series ran, I was offered and took a bunch of good paying gigs on reality television, (Simple Life, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Black.White., Dramatic Auditions) but I’ve also worked in narrative filmmaking, so I’ve always known the difference between reality television and documentary. I’ve almost lost friendships and jobs with producers that do not. My fear is that less and less audiences actually do anymore.
“American Family” lasts because it is still a great documentary. “Reality” shows, by contrast, have no shelf-life at all. Most have no success if repeated on television or sell on DVD. I guess that’s another reason why “Senior Year” is a documentary, it’s got a shelf life. But Reality TV is here to stay, it’s too cheap to produce and although many claim to dislike Reality television, I think everyone has at least one show they love (mine is “Amazing Race”). Just like a piece of candy, we know we shouldn’t eat it and it’s not good for us, but we indulge anyway. I’m sure the HBO movie will be fun to watch, just don’t take it as “documentary” or “reality.”
If you want to know more about the upcoming rebroadcast of “Senior Year” we’ve started a Facebook Fan Page.