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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Truth in the doc

Right now we’re living through a documentary renaissance, apparently (1). Celebrated examples of this include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. After spending a lot of time distinguishing reality TV from the documentary tradition (2), it’s pleasing to be able to substantiate the existence of said tradition with reference to actual films people have heard of. Meanwhile Big Brother, the centrepiece of the reality TV genre in the UK, is glowing in praise as the ‘best BB yet’. Whereas last summer I was calling it an empty ritual, this summer it is being saluted for its role in winning acceptance for transsexuals (3).

So what’s going on? Having finally got the spare time to watch Fahrenheit and Friedmans means I can discuss movies I’ve actually seen, staying out of the company of dishonourable film critics who don’t watch the films they write about. (I’m not keen to hear about Spurlock’s Big Mac-induced penile pains; reading about them is quite enough for me.) In their different ways both docs are compelling. Moore plays dirty with Bush, in ways that don’t always stand up to logical analysis: is W a golfing skiver or an evil mastermind (or both)? Jarecki is interesting because he incorporates the debris of three strange-ish brothers recording their own family meltdown and his own aborted documentary on children’s party entertainers. It shows the mess of rumours and dubious police interview techniques that led to the jailing of two of the Friedmans, one of whom was both guilty of something and caught up in hysteria (4).

Both docs demonstrate the role of editing in creating a narrative. They distinguish their own ‘tradition’ from reality TV in that documentary ‘reality’ needs sculpting in the edit suite. Without it incoherence would reign. In contrast, reality TV’s claim to authority is that it appears to be unmediated: viewers without live 24-hour feeds are supposedly watching the highlights, a bit like Match of the Day without the football. When Channel 4 was accused of rigging BB5 in favour of housemate Nadia Almada, viewer complaints - e.g. on Popbitch.com - hinged on biased editing.

Editing undoubtedly plays a role in both types of audio-visual non-fiction. Without it, both would produce little more than baggy monsters, akin to watching the surveillance camera tapes from a self-storage centre. But much reality TV is shaped by the rules imposed by the programme makers and by the career ambitions of the participants. Whereas some BB1 participants became famous as a by-product of being on the show, most BB5 applicants started out with a view to being famous. In contrast, several Friedmans get unhinged on camera, leading to video diaries that are as poignant as they are creepy when hindsight and editing put them in a new context. This is a world apart from the likes of Vanessa and Marco thinking through what to do to look right for the viewers.

(1) Blake Morrison, ‘Back to Reality’, Guardian G2, 5 March 2004: 4-6.
(2) See my 'Big Brother - Why Bother?', posted at Spiked, June 2003
(3) David Smith & Anushka Asthana, ‘Sexual healing’, Observer 8 August 2004: 18.
(4) Gaby Wood, ‘Once upon a time in America’, Harpers & Queen, April 2004: 160-167.

Read On:
Graham Barnfield, 'From Direct Cinema to Car-Wreck Video: Reality TV and the Crisis of Content', in Dolan Cummings (ed.), Reality TV: How Real is Real? (London: Hodder and Stoughton Debating Matters, 2002).
Louis Menand, ‘Nanook and Me: “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the documentary tradition’, The New Yorker Issue of 2004-08-09 and 16; Posted 2004-08-02.

Buy Capturing the Friedmans on DVD from Amazon here.

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