American Cannibal - The Documentary

[18 October 2007]

By Marc Calderaro

American Cannibal opens on an interview segment with David Lyle, the CEO of FOX Reality Channel, about the nature of reality television.  Lyle defines Reality TV as “unscripted entertainment. And if it’s unscripted, non-entertainment, we call that documentary.”  Humorous, and with a touch of irony, but that line lacks the thought-provoking wit of the interviewer’s quick response, “But what if it’s both?”  This moment passes in 20 seconds and we’re on to the next scene, but if you ponder that singular question throughout the rest of American Cannibal, the film will open itself beyond any stretch of the imagination.  Along with the DVD commentaries that are inseparable from the movie, American Cannibal peels and reveals its way into your brain, not so much by its lampooning of reality TV, but by its lampooning of reality.

The basis of the documentary is simple: American Cannibal follows two out-of-work writers, Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts, who become desperate enough to start pitching reality shows.  Not truly caring about the genre, and not being the greatest pitchers, they end up delivering a half-joke about starving people on an island to incite cannibalism.  Surprisingly (surprising to them, not to us), shlock-hocker Kevin Blatt (responsible for the Paris Hilton sex-tape distribution) takes interest and gives them $100,000 to help produce the show, tentatively titled, “Starvation Island”.  Following all the twists and turns of promotion, casting, incompetent and disingenuous crewmembers and more, the film eventually lands on the island for production to commence.  They line up a great director, Neil DeGroot, and a great host, George Gray (“The Weakest Link”), and the true depravity of American culture is primed and ready to show itself for the camera.

Interspersed with many talking heads of pop culture and reality TV, American Cannibal explores the breaking-down of media boundaries from inception to fruition. The documentary ponders questions like what kind of people involve themselves in a depraved shot at celebrity, and where exactly we’re at in this country that a show like this can occur.  But these issues are the surface. Throughout this well-thought-out 90 minute exposition, more questions are raised and answered then raised again.  But the big one running through your head, if the filmmakers have done their job, is “What if it’s both?”  All the power, meaning, and ballast of American Cannibal can be placed in that four-word question.

The short answer is, “Yes, of course it’s real; it’s a documentary.”  But that doesn’t take into account the factors that go into making such a film.  The documentarians, Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro, explore this concept throughout their commentary.  Even at the first level of a documentary, the subjects, there’s fakeness involved. “As soon as you turn on the camera…nevermind, forget turning it in…just walking into a room with a camera is like holding a lit bomb,” Nigro explains.  The duo is quick to point out who acted “out-of-character” during certain scenes.  Of course, Grebin and Nigro also admit to crafting the what-would-be-called “characters” in the first place.  It starts to sound more and more like Grebin and Nigro have made a reality TV show.  And, as both the filmmakers agree, that idea’s not too far off for any documentary.

Referencing recent blockbusters like March of the Penguins, Supersize Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11 along with classic documentaries like Nanook of the North and Wild Kingdom, Grebin and Nigro illustrate a history of documentaries purposefully manipulating the footage, action and environment to create an interesting and entertaining movie.  Skipping over the obvious Michael Moore implications, among other allusions they discuss is the subjective topic Morgan Spurlock showcased in Supersize Me. They also talk of how Robert Flaherty made Nanook and his wife sleep in half an igloo in Nanook of the North, because the camera crew couldn’t get footage of them cuddling at night. 

These references are not made negatively (except perhaps the Fahrenheit 9/11 comments); in fact, Grebin goes so far as to say, “[What Flaherty did] is what we’re doing in this film – we’re cutting the igloo in half.”  At times, these two come off as a bit pretentious, as anyone who went to film school could tell you these anecdotal facts about the history of documentary. It’s how these ideas illustrate themselves throughout the actions of the “characters” and events of the documentary that make up for any sort of pomposity the creators present.  Additionally, their ideas and insights do effectively question of the role of truth and reality in a documentary.

So, perhaps American Cannibal isn’t real, in the sense that no event that’s been recorded can claim true reality from the recorder.  If so, then what is American Cannibal?  Can we even call it a documentary?  It’s obvious from the commentaries that “Starvation Island” wouldn’t have existed, or wouldn’t have gotten as far, if the filmmakers didn’t help shape the events in one way or another (sometimes the movie itself isn’t 100 percent convincing in that regard).  For this question, Grebin invokes the ghost of Morgan Spurlock and states, “Supersize Me is a totally set-up scenario; without a camera, why do it?  And that’s what we did with this movie – except with a thousand people.” 

So perhaps “social experiment” would be a better phrase.  All the reactions are real, all the people are real, all the sets are real, just some of the situations aren’t, kind of.  In many ways, that draws American Cannibal even closer to reality television.  The subjects aren’t actors, although they are acting; the situations are encounters, though some of them were forced. The ideas are real even though they’re being presented at the filmmakers’ discretion.

The concept of art as truth and art as truth-of-history correlates this film, in many contrasting ways, to the art-as-recorder films of Andy Warhol.  Both Empire and Sleep (among others) show subjects (the Empire State Building and a man sleeping, respectively) without cuts or action.  Though many reasons have been cited for these works, one of the chief ideas is that of art acting as a recorder.  If you can eliminate the artistry from art, can you accurately record events and history?  Regardless of these films’ shortcomings or failures, it would appear that the makers of American Cannibal would answer a resounding “No.”  Or maybe they’d suggest that “art” and “documentary” don’t necessarily line up the way filmmakers might want them to.  Either way, anyone can agree that American Cannibal is endlessly more entertaining and engaging than Sleep or Empire combined.  So maybe it’s not that “art” and “documentary” are diametrically opposed, maybe the opposition can be found in “art-as-truth” and “art-as-entertainment.”

Throughout the commentary Nigro and Grebin admit to the generous amounts of story crafting they used to make their version of the truth, though they don’t even call it ‘truth’.  So what are the responsibilities of the documentary?  What about the documentarians?  Do we expect to walk in clueless and walk out with the truth?  Grebin has a nice quote here when he says, “Anybody who wants the documentary to tell them the whole story will be severely disappointed.  Anyone who wants to be entertained will hopefully be entertained.”

Nigro and Grebin are blissfully aware of what the documentary is doing, and how it subverts what it “should” be doing.  They pull back the curtain to reveal themselves slyly throughout the film, and even go so far as to interact, on-screen with Gil Ripley in an extremely tense and emotional scene.  This film, along with all documentaries, is nothing more than reality television (or perhaps it’s the other way around).  American Cannibal subverts the entire television industry, from the people who dream of celebrity, on up through the TV executives, to the news, TV, newspaper and internet, who recreate truth to suit their 90-second needs. More importantly it also subverts the documentaries and documentarians, which place themselves on a pedestal as the beacons of truth, when their own truths are just as crafted and manufactured as everything else.  Though Michael Moore’s speech at the 2003 Oscars is not referenced explicitly, it’s hard not to think directly of his naïve, pompous and arrogant boasts about “truth in a world of fiction.”  American Cannibal ends up becoming a documentary about documentaries, though that might not have been the original intent. 

It’s not perfect. The events of the “Starvation Island” series clearly didn’t end in the way the filmmakers would have preferred, and the island scenes end up being a bit disjointed (though this matches the show’s disjointed planning).  And while it makes for an uneven final 20 minutes, repeat viewings aptly eliminate any need for such consistency issues and open the doors to stronger ideas than the fate of “Starvation Island”.

“But what if it’s both?” That phrase rings like a church bell because, of course, it is both.  The distinction between “reality television” and “documentary” is no more meaningful than that of “fiddle” and “violin”. It’s a class-based distinction with no place in art.  This documentary, with commentary in-tow, actually made me think about the state of culture and where we are. That’s much more than I can say for Bowling for Columbine which, ironically, won an Oscar for doing just that.

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