Detractors of ‘shock’ reality shows have found two new allies in documentary filmmakers Christophe Nick and Thomas Bornot. The French duo made international headlines this past March when France 2 aired The Game of Death, their provocation on Fear Factor-type formats that are centered on pushing contestants to extremes. The film recently made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Opening with a montage that features clips such as British illusionist Derren Brown playing Russian roulette (from Channel 4′s Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live) and human cadaver dissections from C4′s Autopsy: Life and Death, the filmmakers ask, what if death on TV became entertainment?
To find out, Nick and Bornot took the controversial Milgram scientific experiment conducted at Yale University in the 1960s that showed most people will administer electric shocks to another person when instructed to do so by authority, and re-created it as The Xtreme Zone, a game show pilot complete with a beautiful host and smiling audience.
The result: 82% of the 80 players obeyed the host and administered the maximum amount of electric shocks to the other contestant (played by an actor).
Doing press for the film before its North American premiere at TIFF, Nick says he’s troubled by what he perceives as some reality programming’s preoccupation with ‘humiliation, violence and sadism… My big problem is why it’s not a bigger debate in our society.’
The Game of Death first aired on France 2 TV this past March and in a few other European countries. It opens in Quebec this week through Metropole Films. Mongrel Media has picked it up for English Canada and Nick says they are in talks with producers in the United States to remake the film for that market.
Much of the film’s drama is derived from the watching the agonized, conflicted expressions on the players’ faces as they argue and cheat in an attempt to wriggle out of the situation. After running through the concept in its entirety, the directors replay the footage with commentary from experts who break down the psychology of obedience using examples of players who successfully resisted authority and those that did not.
‘At school you learn how to read and to write but you don’t know how to watch,’ says Bornot. ‘Because you do not know how to watch, you cannot manage what you watch on TV and understand how you see it.’
Though The Game of Death is intended to spark a debate, the film is more of a provocation; as some of its critics have pointed out, it doesn’t present much counterpoint to its findings. The wider implication of the experiment is how regular people can be so easily manipulated to torture.
That predilection to obedience will be examined by Bornot in a sequel documentary that will catch up with 15 contestants to find out the impact the experience had on their lives. Instead of getting angry, Bornot says most chose to get existential.
‘Everybody changed,’ he says. ‘For instance, someone told me before the experiment, ‘I was very shy when there would be a problem at my office; I say OK and I don’t speak too loud’. After [the experience with the film] they can say, ‘I don’t agree with you.’ For them it’s a revolution because they can speak. They are proud of themselves.’