Documentary Filmmaking: Truth or Fiction?
How documentary filmmaking set the stage for reality TV
In a world of tight schedules and limited budgets, real people are more often than not getting turned into underpaid actors.
Samir picked up his wife’s hand and told her he’d been thinking long and hard about their 10-year marriage. I glanced over to monitor two, a close-up of Veena looking anxious and hopeful. This was their anniversary dinner, after all, and she was expecting heartfelt sentiments and, at least, a bunch of red roses. We all paused, holding our breath. Then suddenly Samir faltered, dropped her hand, and looked searchingly across the hotel room full of camera ops and sound booms for the director.
“I forgot what I had to say.”
The director in question, frustrated and tired like the rest of us on take 13 of the final scene of the episode, reminded him that he only had to say what he felt, that he didn’t have a line, but Samir didn’t want to waste time being honest or thoughtful, he wanted to say whatever we wanted him to say.
It was nearly midnight and the crew was about to revolt. I pulled out my earpiece and walked over to him. “Tell her you love her.” The camera flipped back on, Samir told Veena he loved her, and we called it a wrap. I thought to myself: This is hell, get me out of here.
Actually, it wasn’t hell, it was a lifestyle show—one of my own co-creations that I produced with my partner in crime, Jeannette Loakman, at Chocolate Box Entertainment. In the show, we took boorish, unromantic slobs and turned them into suave gentlemen for their wedding or anniversary. It was typical makeover fare and required just two things—a real person and a happy ending.
How we turned those two things into good ratings was less simple and involved a complex dance of mutual exploitation. We needed to mine the maximum amount of drama out of their lives in the shortest possible time, and they wanted a free suit and fame. After a week of trying to teach Samir table manners and getting him in touch with his feelings, we found our subject had made no romantic progress whatsoever, but he had become a sly collaborator in the process of producing reality TV. Just what poor Veena thought of it all I shuddered to think.
That was 2006. Since then I haven’t made another reality show, but I am making documentaries, and I keep asking myself if they are really that much different. After all, documentary filmmakers are also purveyors of a tell-all, show-all, know-all culture. Everyday life has become pop-culture entertainment, exploited as much by big TV networks and social-media companies as by the Jacks and Jills who offer up their lives in exchange for being noticed.
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