The Verite Soap Opera

When I wrote the above last sentence for the first edition of this book, neither the series The Real World nor Sylvania Waters had yet been born. Both are amusing diversions from the "honorable" path. Whether they are worth emulating is another matter, but both works try to pull verite in new directions.

The Real World hit American TV in 1992 as MTV's idea of a documen tary entertainment experiment. The music video network rented a New York loft, which it then offered as a home to seven young adults who had never met, but who had been selected from hundreds of applicants. A number of video cameras, sometimes singly, sometimes simultaneously, then rolled for three months.

The series is cut in jumpy MTV style and, as Entertainment magazine put it, "plays shrewdly to the fantasies of the MTV audience—wouldn't it be a gas to live in a high tech New York loft with a bunch of cool people, to have cameras recording your silliest actions and most personal thoughts, while music from the MTV hit parade plays over everything?" Personally, I hated The Real World and found it totally unreal and boring. It uses verite techniques to simulate a real life soap opera but leaves you longing for genuine kitsch.

Paul Watson's Sylvania Waters (BBC and ABC 1993) is another verite soap. The original shooting took ninety hours of tape, which in turn was reduced to twelve half-hour episodes. In its own way, the series is as com-pellingly offensive as Watson's 1974 work The Family, and just as synthetic.

Sylvania Waters is a suburb of Sydney, Australia, and the series follows —verite style—the life of a comfortably middle-class family. Luckily for the viewers, the family is uncouth and has wonderful problems, like aging, drunkenness, and difficult children.

When the series was shown on the BBC, the reaction of the British was to look down on the family. The series affirmed snobbish anti-Aussie prejudices. As the Daily Mail put it, "Britain meets the neighbors from hell."

My problem with both Sylvania Waters and The Real World is that they lack any authenticity. I am not disturbed by the "shaped" interviews (a breach of verite tradition) or a deliberately crazy shooting style. Both are merely stylistic choices. What troubles me is the filmmakers' inability to probe beneath the surface of things. For verite to work, the filmmaker must be concerned about the subject and must bring some intelligence to the shooting. Merely to switch on the cameras is not enough.

Watching TV today one wonders whether cinema verite has been such a great gift as cheap docusoaps about taxi drivers, hospitals, Las Vegas, animals, and airports clog the screen. Luckily, in contrast to the soaps, verite is still being used here and there to observe and probe into the deeper places, as seen in Hoop Dreams and in the continuing work of Molly Dineen, Les Blank, Allan and Susan Raymond, Wiseman, and others. So the flag is still there and still provides inspiration.

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