The documentarians now leaving their higher ground for reality television do tend to see their films as all about “characters.” For example, docu-personae like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock—both are always cartoonishly effective “characters” in their own films—have helped to blur the line between reality television and nonfiction film.

In some ways, the creators of reality television and documentarians now share the same struggle. Forty-five years ago, when the great “modernists” of documentary film were at their apex, the media-soaked period we live in was just beginning. It was the start of the now evergreen (albeit slightly musty) debate about journalists altering stories by their very presence. As Pilar puts it, “things are getting cheated in docs as well—as soon as you train your camera on something, it’s less real.”

Today, it’s only gotten more extreme. The woman or man on the street is perpetually ready for the proverbial close-up. “Everyone living in New York City,” says Van Taylor, “now knows what’s expected of them when you turn a camera on them.” He could be speaking about most of America.


Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.