Documentary versus Reality Television: Label Lines are Often Blurred

By Jessica WeisbergerMaroon-News Staff It was hard to pick him out of the audience. His tall build was decorated with shaggy brown locks, faded jeans, and an olive t-shirt with”Jazz Band Rock” printed across the chest, all working together to camouflage him in the Colgate college setting. His monotone voice calmly greeted students as they came into Golden Auditorium; “Howdy.” After a professor gave a generous introduction for Steve Cantor, the executive producer of two new reality television shows (Amish in the City and Family Bonds), as well as interesting details about the two speeding tickets Cantor picked up on his way over to campus, he pointed his finger at the sound booth, signaling them to begin the first show. After graduating from Colgate in 1990, Cantor went on to the USC film school and “worked his tail off” before starting the film company Stick Figures. Comparing the two productions, Cantor explained that if you change the term “Documentary” to “reality television,” it will catch. The first show, Amish in the City, is more reality based in a controlled situation, while Family Bonds is more like a true documentary in that it presents facts and information about a social issue. “I call myself the giraffe on the wall,” Cantor jokes modestly. He sits in the corner behind a camera watching others carry out their daily routines. Amish in the City proved itself to be the juxtaposition that its title promised. The contrast between an urban environment and, well, a Hamilton-like environment, was creatively portrayed with sharp camera jumps from skyscrapers to horse-drawn buggies. Five Amish young adults are tossed into a bright, geometrically furnished Hollywood-Hills home with six city kids. It is a tradition amongst the Amish that starting around the ages of 16 and 17, kids are granted their “Rumspringa,” a Pennsylvania-Dutch term meaning to “run around.” It is their prerogative to decide whether or not to stay in their crunchy granola environment or venture out and see what lies beyond their rural bubbles. The yellow metro chic couches rest in front of Grant Wood style paintings of pitchforks and cornhusks. Nick, a clean-cut guy from Boston, profoundly states: “Life is about fun, friends and music…” while the rural-bound kids from Ohio and Pennsylvania worry about things like, “This is my very first time on an escalator…I’m freaked out!” Cantor wisely chose his characters to be aged 16 to 22, when most are in great limbo. The Amish sat in neon bean-bag chairs and looked up at their new roommates who had taken the purposefully placed straw hats off the freshly painted walls and sported them with amusement. “I feel like I’m on’cribs or something,” one Amish commented. If you are at all familiar with MTV, you would understand this comparison, and maybe even recognize the Real World like theme of pairing a group of complete strangers “to live in a house and have their lives taped, and find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting REAL.” It was not an easy task for Cantor and others to scrounge up a willing group to be filmed in a such a constrained situation. Cantor recalls how a Senator from Pennsylvania called him, concerned that the strictly religious Amish would be exploited in such a film. Cantor honestly replied that, “if anything, the American kids look stupid” awash in ignorance and preconceived ideas.Says Canter, about what interests him most, “it’s when the Americans go to the Amish land.” After a fast paced 28 minutes, the audience is shipped from the Hollywood Hills to Queens, where a family of bail bondsmen and bounty hunters welcome us into their exciting lives.This sexy and violent documentary starts in a smoke filled room with a lit neon sign hanging in the window advertising “Bail Bondsmen.” A punching bag stands in the corner next to one of the employees who is firmly gripping his sub with grimy hands. Before choosing this flashy family for his documentary, Cantor presented 100 pitches per day to HBO until he finally presented them with the perfect family: the Evangelistas. Father and boss, Tom Evangelistas, and his partner, ride to work on motorcycles with their rainbow-tinted sunglasses as their wind-shields. This non-fiction show portrays the Evangelista family as having little class; they have sheep-skin car-seats, and wear bullet proof vests. The entertainment comes when we arrive at the “Classy Lady Nails Etc.” salon with Tom’s wife Flo and her sister-in-law Dawn. Their platinum blonde hair reflects in the mirror as they talk about their wild sex lives. Rather than characterizing this form of entertainment as reality television, in order to boost sales, it seems more fitting to label it a documentary, as it takes a closer look into the humorous and simultaneously difficult family lives of modern day America. The audience questioned Cantor, “How did you possibly get any sleep, since you got all that 3 a.m. footage?” Cantor explained that it is “pretty rough. I have had crazy hours this year.”He then mentioned how he had had to balance his camera in one hand and hold on for his life in the other, 2 a.m., while following Tom, who was going after a bail jumper up a fire escape. The questions transitioned from specific to general when the notorious question was posed: “what do you think about reality television?””Actually,” responded Cantor candidly, “I really can’t stand it.” He was quick to add, however, that, if used correctly, “it has potential…like the internet.””Cantor sings the same tune as other documentary producers, like Xan Parker of Risk Reward, believing that things get easier when your name is known. Once you are known, Cantor says mid-shrug, “the Execs will say ‘That’s genius! That’s brilliant!’ when you bring them anything.” He learned much about suspense from reality television and ends with the tell-all phrase: “I dunno …we’ll see…”