Monday, January 18, 2010


I believe that one of my early inspirations in documentary filmmaking was a PBS program, "An American Family," which followed the large Loud family of Santa Barbara for six months in 1971. 300 hours of film was cut into a 12 one hour episodes that captured the national imagination. Not only was this the first intimate "behind closed doors" portrait of an American family, it also recorded the collapse of that family. By the last episode of the series, the parents were divorced and the teen and young adult children were struggling with the monumental changes hanging over their lives. During the course of the series, one child revealed he was gay, and thus became the first openly gay character on American television.

Today, when "reality shows" are rampant, this all may seem quaint in comparison. The "John and Kate," "Big Brother" and "Survivor" freak shows purport to portray real people. After all, we're told, they're not actors. Remember MTV's "Real Life," which placed a series of young adults in special equipped homes and geographic environments? These shows don't represent reality. All participants are cast, just like actors, to provide for the best conflict, and the most outrageous results. In shows lke "John and Kate," families are chosen for their oddness - either in numbers of children, physical issues, or over-the-top personalities. The Balloon Boy incident, created by a family desperate for "reality show" attention, shows just how bizarre the "reality" world has become.

"An American Family," however, was different. While I'm certain the Loud family was chosen for the promise of conflict and (at the time) relative similarity to the PBS viewing audience, the entire 12 week series was shot by the time the program aired. This was, it seemed, an typical (though upscale) nuclear family: Mom, dad and the kids. The audience could identify with them - and so feel a more intimate connection when the family collapsed.

I'd like to say this was reality - but in truth, it's quite possible that the upheaval in this family was, just like today, impacted by the presence of the documentary crew. In those days, compact video equipment didn't exist. The Loud family's home was wired with heavy lights, audio equipment, heavy film cameras and full crews that no doubt added to the stress in a family already on the edge. In "Big Brother," cameras are tucked away with the hope that the participants will lower their guard and forget they're being observed. I believe that such an approach with a American family today would be as intriguing, engaging and ground-breaking as "An American Family" was in its day. Given the right family, and careful production that's as unobtrusive as technically possible, I believe that such an approach with an American family today would be as intriguing, engaging and ground-breaking as "An American Family" was in its day.

"Reality" doesn't have to be a freak show.

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