Mark your calendars! This Saturday (April 23, 2011), HBO premieres its film, Cinema Verite, about what’s commonly known as the first reality television show. It’s a fictional re-creation of the nonfiction filmmaking of a real thing. If that’s a tough concept to get your head around, don’t worry, HBO will be serving it with a spoon full of high-gloss sugar: a multi-million dollar budget, A-list actors (Tim Robbins, Diane Lane) and stellar production values.

Still image from the HBO film Cinema Verite

Still image from HBO’s Cinema Verite

It’s the story of PBS’ groundbreaking An American Family, the 1973 12-part series that depicted the everyday life of Santa Barbara’s Loud family. The show was a real watershed for both television and for how America saw itself. It’s a testament to how radical the show was that it took close to 20 years before the current reality television era kicked off with The Real World, in 1992. (The Paley Center for Media will be screening all of An American Family over two weekends starting April 30 in New York City and Los Angeles.)

HBO was clearly pleased with its multi-Emmy winning 2009 hit adaptation of the Maysles’ classic, Grey Gardens, and is returning to the trough. As much as I enjoyed that film, it was a tad slow in parts, and I had a hard time shaking the feeling that I was watching a vehicle for stars Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. They were both great, but they were also distracting.

I expect more from Cinema Verite, which I haven’t yet seen, though the notion that a movie could take that term for its title is weirdly exciting. What I have studied with great interest are the various HBO featurettes, which make the film look promising for fans of a good yarn, as well as anyone interested in the history and process of making documentaries. A large part of the drama is culled from the issues inherent in making nonfiction film: filmmakers getting too close to subjects and being torn between wanting to protect them and getting good material, whether someone who is being filmed can actually be “real” or is it artifice, and the business of convincing executives that the filming of everyday life can garner audiences.

And, wouldn’t you know it, The New York Times recently reported there’s even conflict over the veracity of Cinema Verite. Craig Gilbert, the producer who conceived An American Family, has criticized the film, while Alan and Susan Raymond, who were credited as the original’s filmmakers and who consulted on the HBO version, defend it. The main point of contention is the extent to which Gilbert was driven to exploit the Loud family.

It’s an added layer of irony for anyone who is tickled by the notion that the documentary form is inherently ironic in the sense that it isn’t what it claims to be, that by turning on the camera, a nonfiction film gets nudged down the line from being nonfiction to becoming a form of fiction.

Gilbert went so far as to dismiss HBO’s film as “fiction.” Now, that’s a low blow.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen