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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: The Reality Spectrum

By Tom White

John Grierson, the pioneering nonfiction filmmaker, once defined the documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality." His definition resounded like a mantra throughout the Second International Documentary Congress, and never was his authority more profoundly felt than during the seminar entitled "The Reality Spectrum." For 90 minutes, a panel of producers and practitioners of reality television grappled with the many artistic and ethical issues that span this spectrum.

The panelists shared their particular aesthetic challenges in marketing their work to their audiences and meeting the bottom-line demands of their employers. For Cecilia Lazaro, producer of reality television in the Philippines, the challenge lay in introducing a new form of programming to a nation previously inured to propaganda under the Marcos regime. Leslie Woodhead, who helped to develop dramatized documentary for London-based

Granada Television, has struggled with the conflict between journalism and drama, a conflict that has intensified with Granada's ten-year association with HBO. Bill Harris, director of documentary programming at the A&E Network, readily admitted that his job was to reach a large audience and that such A&E programs as Biography demand a level of entertainment that "may not meet the quality of PBS." Moderator John Langley, who created the prototypical reality tv program Cops, has had to fend off accusations of sensation over substance as a price of his success. "Reality television is more entertaining," he allowed, "but no less socially redeeming." Veteran documentarians Bob Drew and Mel Stuart, both in the audience at the seminar, defended Langley's aesthetic as the "true [cinema] verite." Jonathan Klein, who has worked on the CBS productions 60 minutes, 48 Hours, and Before Your Eyes, observed that "the predominant perspective of documentary has evolved from one of history to one of personal story; the question is, which perspective has more authority?"

Turning to ethical issues, Lazzaro and Langley defended criticism over the dramatic re-creation as an easier, more impactful way to get to the truth, as long as the proper intent, vision, and facts are there. Langley did acknowledge the danger of not knowing where or when to cross the line between drama and sensation and news and tabloid. A&E's Harris stressed that "we have to consider what is reality and what is real. As a television producer, my main concern is whether the work is engaging enough." Jonathan Klein related that while CBS has strict guidelines with regard to staging and reverse questions, these guidelines have served to enhance the quality and integrity of the programming. "When creativity overwhelms reality," Klein maintained, "you interfere with the process."

After further discussion, Langley concluded the seminar by alluding to a parable by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, in which a protagonist, in a lifelong quest for truth and beauty, dies, leaving a painted portrait of himself.

One lingering impression about this panel and, indeed, about the entire congress: Not a word was uttered about the O.J. Simpson "Trial of the Century," very recently concluded before the congress and perhaps one of the greatest adventures in sureality the media has ever produced.  One can only anticipate the raft of documentaries to come that will creatively interpret this most kaleidoscopic of actualities.

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special