Reality TV, as you may have noticed if you've gotten hooked or channel surfed lately, is anything but. It's television that is meant to be gawked at as much as viewed, and succeeds not by being realistic or resembling the lives of everyday people, but rather by offering a fantastical escape to an exotic island or other isolated and alternate world.
You want real reality TV? Try Frederick Wiseman Domestic Violence, a harrowing six-hour documentary that airs Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS. (Tuesday's installment focuses on the stories of residents at a shelter for battered spouses; Wednesday's portion trails couples in court proceedings). The contrast in mood and method between Wiseman's work and the network freak shows is plain: the upbeat suspense is replaced by more genuine and heartfelt pacing; the quick edits and glib hosts have been removed so as to get out of reality's way. The result is raw, bold, if at times indigestible television. "I'm not making movies about sensational events," Wiseman told the New York Observer. "I'm making movies about the common experience."
It takes some getting used to, and requires what commercial TV almost never asks of viewers: patience and an investment of time and emotion. The reward is a subtly uplifting portrayal of women piecing together their broken lives. The 73-year-old Wiseman's works, which include Juvenile Court and Public Housing, "stand as examples of television's still-present-yet-mostly-abdicated power to transfix and inform," wrote the Observer.
Set in Tampa, Florida, the documentary begins with jerky, Cops-like shots of police responding to domestic violence calls and proceeds to a shelter where we sit in on intake sessions. At first, this feels voyeuristic. (In an interview transcribed for the press kit, Wiseman says only one or two women turned him down during his eight weeks of filming, and most appreciate the chance to tell their stories.) But it gets more relational as we follow some of the women at greater length and they adjust to shelter life.
The most wrenching scene of Tuesday's part 1 is an intake interview of a beaming preschool girl whose mother has entered the shelter, which provides schooling for children affected by warring couples. We are forced to reconcile her bright smile when she learns of the shelter's playground with her nonchalant comment that she wouldn't cry if her father were dead. Because of the length and honesty of the unedited take, the scene is a rare instance of television relating a child's pain rather than exploiting it (as the news media is poised to do with the story of Elizabeth Smart).
Nearly an hour in, the documentary finally gathers momentum as a senior group tours the shelter and the guide rattles off chilling statistics about the prevalence and diversity of domestic violence victims (the touring group stands in for viewers with their audible gasps and questions). Wiseman then takes us to a support group session in a classroom where a group of women explain how they felt trapped by their men and numb to their pain—in a thoughtful touch, the camera never swerves to the group leader, but remains on the women as they talk and react.
In can-do American culture, such victimization is frowned on—we are incredulous as one woman relates that she recanted her account of her husband's attack to spring him from jail—but only by sitting down and listening to these women can you keep your blame at bay long enough to get a sense of their helplessness and lack of logistical and emotional alternatives. The scene transforms a statistics-heavy discussion about Domestic Violence as a Social Problem into an uncomfortable but illuminating personal encounter.
Wiseman's success can to some extent be measured by how unremarkable he makes his work seem. After all, didn't he just turn a camera on and point it at people? But to have sifted through hours of footage (a task he says was the most depressing part of the project) to select the most poignant and informative moments—and more than that, to get the diverse scenes, characters, counselors and observers to flow together into a coherent narrative without narration—is what makes Domestic Violence an artful, if at times overwrought, work.
"Reality," of course, eludes confinement to any genre, and Wiseman's harsh slices of life are not the only alternative to the likes of Joe Millionaire. But what a challenge his work poses to the impoverished imagination of our most influential popular medium.
Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant at Books & Culture
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Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however …
The PBS website has only a brief summary of Domestic Violence on its site.
Other reviews of the program include:
PBS documentary lifts the veil on domestic violence—The Advocate (Connecticut)
Taking a time-tested approach to a cruel reality—The New York Times
Exploring the complexities of abuse—The Washington Post
Films exploring domestic violence to air on PBS—Associated Press
The real deals of reality TV—New York Observer
Christianity Today assembled a panel of Christian singles to look at reality TV dating and the question, "Would a Christian Bachelorette be different?"
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
Diagnosing "The Doctor" | A new assessment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preacher. (March 3, 2003)
Taken Prisoner | Stories from the far-flung frontiers of the British Empire, 1600-1850, challenge our preconceptions. (Feb. 24, 2003)
Another Third Way? | The mixed record of Catholic social thought. (Feb. 17, 2003)
Divine Numbers | Can you say "Christian" and "mathematics" in the same sentence? (Feb. 10, 2003)
Getting Beyond Victimology | A provocative collection of essays for "the black silent majority." (Feb. 3, 2003)
Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (Jan. 27, 2003)
Encounters of the Gods | Christianity and Native American religion in early America. (Jan. 20, 2003)
Books Present, Books Past, and Books to Come | Plus: A new format for this column. (Jan. 13, 2003)
Double Indemnity Meets Dead Souls | A conversation with novelist Richard Dooling. (Jan. 6, 2003)
Books of the Year | The top ten. (OK—make that twelve.) (Dec. 30, 2002)
Entertain Us | Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rapture of distress. (Dec. 16, 2002)
Boys Will Be Boys | A new book by a leading Christian feminist scholar inadvertently reveals the flawed assumptions underlying much talk about "flexibility" in gender roles. (Dec. 9, 2002)
Street Cred | Dave Eggers: The portrait of an artist as a … what? (Dec.2, 2002)
Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea | How we became hedonists. (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
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