Radiant City - bending the documentary genre

So, spoilers ahead. The film introduces a family who have just moved to the suburbs, and follows as they adjust to the new way of living. The mum loves their big house and her new kitchen, whereas the dad is not so convinced that they’ve made the right choice. In between scenes are also the talking heads - experts on urban studies who give their opinions on suburbanisation, and some animated statistics as well. The camera work is snazzier than your usual expository documentary, with some nice time lapse sequences and vignettes.

Then towards the end, it’s suddenly revealed that the family are not a real family at all. They are actors, playing out a version of what many similar families are probably experiencing as they move to the suburbs. I was totally taken in, right up until events started building to a climax which clearly had to be staged. I felt a very mild sense of being duped when I finally realised only minutes before they did the big reveal - perhaps others will watch it and pick it from the beginning, I don’t know. (Some may call me gullible, I prefer to see myself as ‘trusting’).

This mild feeling of disappointment also highlighted, for me, one of the differences between documentary and fiction. I think viewers invest themselves somehow differently in a documentary; there’s an assumption that what we see has received minimal direction, that it is at least a version of the truth. Had I known at the beginning that the family was fictional, I would have watched the film completely differently - but it’s hard to explain exactly why.

The family members weren’t played by professional actors, they were people who live in the area and have direct experience of the lifestyle they are portraying. This somehow made me mind less about being taken in. I still think it’s a great film, and it has a lot of interesting points to make about the subject matter. It can’t really be called a mockumentary because the tag implies some satire or subversion of the genre, and I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers here were intending. I can see why they chose this approach - the suggestion that this is an ‘ordinary person’ story seems to hold so much more weight when you really think it is ordinary people opening up their lives for your inspection. I guess by the end of the film I realised that rather than feeling duped, I really just very much wanted the family to be real. Which is not to say that they aren’t, in any number of incarnations spread throughout suburbs across the world. Also, in a way I was disappointed that I was disappointed, if that makes sense - being such an interesting film, I felt that the duplicity shouldn’t be the most memorable part of it. But I also loved that it was an innovative approach, and don’t know if I would do it any differently.

Have you ever felt a bit miffed about being taken in by a film? Or is anyone out there the eternal cynic that never gets duped?

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About this Blog

In the video store a year or so ago a Canadian documentary caught my eye, and having not heard anything about it, I borrowed it to watch at home. It’s called Radiant City, and it’s now available to watch online for free at the NFB website. The subject matter - urbanism, city design, suburban sprawl - is an interest of mine, but I was also drawn to it by the interspersing of a real family’s story with ‘experts’ talking about the issues. But there’s a twist - the NFB site says the filmmakers ‘turn the documentary genre inside out’, which is probably true. I want to talk more about it but will have to include a massive spoiler, so if you want to watch it, perhaps do that first and then come back to this post.