Docs

Daring to be different

Over five consecutive nights in late September, Sundance Channel aired an unscripted series that looks nothing like any other reality TV show: it's full of rich images, artful transitions and compelling juxtapositions that propel the dramatic, real-life narrative forward.
September 1, 2009

Over five consecutive nights in late September, Sundance Channel aired an unscripted series that looks nothing like any other reality TV show: it’s full of rich images, artful transitions and compelling juxtapositions that propel the dramatic, real-life narrative forward.

Brick City was filmed in Newark, New Jersey, and explores the community’s attempts to improve itself through four very different people: mayor Cory Booker, police chief Garry McCarthy, and youth mentors and gang members Jayda (a Blood) and Creep (a Crip).

While the series, which debuts Sept. 21, may seem more like a five-part documentary, it was conceived as episodic television – and designed to be different.

The co-executive producers and directors behind the project are Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin. Chatting with Benjamin, he maintains that the standard of reality TV is ‘antithetical to who we are,’ so he and Levin set out to ‘invent a hybrid genre-buster.’

The narrative that unfolds on screen is a ‘new way of presenting reality,’ Benjamin says. They shot for 200 days without conventional equipment such as tripods or lights, and their series basically lacks the visual and narrative cues viewers have become accustomed to. ‘We don’t have interviews, don’t have a narrator, don’t have a locked-off camera, and we don’t have lights to make you think you’re watching a video live show. It feels cinematic because of the style,’ he says.

Levin says they followed their subjects for more than half a year in order ‘to find really authentic nuggets,’ because the ‘essential moments are not contrived; they are found, and you’ve got to be on your toes to find them.’ The challenge was then to ‘create a structure around it so it rings true’ in the editing room.

In a climactic scene, Booker meets a murdered woman’s sister while grocery shopping. Levin says that moment stands out for him because of the ‘everyday banality juxtaposed with tragedy… That it would converge in the aisle of a supermarket with the music playing in the background – it’s almost surreal.’

Those sorts of jarring moments that play so well on TV are also the result of a lot of work and collaboration. The two are veteran filmmakers – Levin may be best known for his Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film Slam, while Benjamin has produced and shot a number of documentaries, including projects for National Geographic and Bill Moyers. Still, they credit their editors and cinematographer with helping to make Brick City as groundbreaking and original as it is for unscripted, narrative series television.

While too many shows look alike and look cheap, there are incredible unscripted series airing now, including Animal Planet’s outstanding docudrama Whale Wars, which, like Discovery’s Deadliest Catch before it, puts cameras into real-life situations and turns the results into compelling television. But perhaps because of the extreme environments they’re filmed in, both series still rely on some conventions, such as a narrator that explains things to viewers and bridges gaps.

Benjamin says that by giving the series a different visual and narrative aesthetic, one that’s far more cinematic, they might draw viewers to subject matter they otherwise wouldn’t watch. The audience will undoubtedly include some network execs among others, and Levin hopes that, after watching Brick City, ‘TV people will look and say, ‘I’m not as scared of taking a chance… Maybe there are other ways of doing it.”

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred (realityblurred.com) and writes TV criticism for MSNBC.com

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