Cinema Verité is a made-for-TV movie (1-1/2 hours long) about a real-life historical event: the making of a documentary about a “typical American family” by a film crew that stayed in their house with them nearly constantly, which was shown on PBS. This was evidently the first time such a thing had been seen, and there are a number of videos already available that cover some of the same material, in journalistic form.
Cinema Verité dubs An American Family the first “reality TV show” and addresses the intentions of the filmmakers, as well as the family members who agreed to this, and continues to follow the characters in the calamitous aftermath of the broadcast itself. The documentary followed the lives of an upper-middle class family in Santa Barbara, in 1970 (including one family member who at the time lived in New York, and was gay but not out to his family), and turned out to be the documentation of a process that resulted in their divorce. The TV movie suggests that divorce is what the film’s director wanted to show all along, and that he may have manipulated the family into cooperating with him in ways that documentary ethics shouldn’t have allowed.
The movie isn’t perfect. Its focal point doesn’t always seem to be in the right place, and its pacing is off. There isn’t a real narrative arc. And there isn’t enough context for a present-day viewer to understand the cultural issues that would have been in play in 1970. Instead, the themes are contemporary ones of surveillance and privacy, media shaming, ordinary people versus the elite, and the desire for fame. On the one hand, the family’s oldest son is treated as their voice of wisdom, and on the other, his not-quite coming-out as gay to a family that seems ridiculously clueless about him is played for laughs. The movie cuts back and forth between a dramatization of the mother’s marital troubles and her manipulation at the hands of the documentary’s director, and a long monologue from the original series in which she holds forth equally on her feelings and on clichéd commonplaces about women’s psychology.