Due to copyright restrictions, this film requires the use of a password: alexiascreenworks
Author: Nina F. Grünfeld
Format: TV Series Episode (1 of 7)
Duration: 21′ 48″
Published: March 2022
How does converting an epic psychological film portrayal meant for the movie theatre/art scene into a formatted reality series for commercial television affect the result?
My point of departure for the film project Alexia Alone (Grünfeld, 2018) was an ambition to understand and portray how Alexia—a woman who continuously fights her inner demons—lives with the consequences of social behaviours that challenge our perception of normality.
I had known Alexia since our early teen years. She was the crazy, loud sexy girl we all talked about in the school yard. For many years, I had no idea what had happened to her, until she began publishing books with provocative titles. A book-loving friend of mine then invited Alexia to one of her literary salons—something far removed from Alexia’s preferred activities, but she was flattered. This sparked my idea to portray this complex character through a film: an unrecognized author with book titles intended to shock; a femme fatale riffing on rock-n’-roll and pin-up images in an Instagram world; a sister and daughter, with siblings and parents with whom she no longer has a relationship; a single mother; and a woman who has suffered from a personality disorder and prescription drug abuse throughout her life.
The challenges Alexia faces are well addressed in psychological literature (Forouzan and Cooke, 2005), and as a filmmaker, I am interested in how human psychology and behaviour are being depicted in film and television. It is my perspective that the way we present ourselves and engage with one another is crucial to how we will succeed in life. Often, the greatest obstacle to these accomplishments lies within us, in the flaws we carry. When our shortcomings become unsurmountable, drama can easily arise—as it continuously does in Alexia’s life.
Two films served as major reference points while working on Alexia Alone: Grey Gardens (Maysles, 1975) and The Good Life (Mulvad, 2010). Both films tell the story of an elderly mother and her adult daughter: originally upper-class, with corresponding privileges, they now live in poverty and isolation. (The Good Life has been described by Knegt (2010) as a Danish version of Grey Gardens.) Alexia, too, is from a formerly high-status family, which once belonged to the entertainment industry but lost much of its fame and fortune.
My ambition was to work from a direct cinema tradition, shooting with an observational camera style to unveil truth, combined with improvisation to highlight subjects hidden behind reality. The only person narrating the story in a voice-over would be Alexia, commenting on or explaining her behaviour, such as when she says: ‘I know I’m a narcissist with a slash of psychopathic behaviour, but I am a narcissist with empathy’ (Grünfeld, 2018). This quote speaks to a key ethical issue within the production, as I believe it also does in Grey Gardens and The Good Life: namely, the need to address the uninvestigated core characteristics of personality disorders among females (Forouzan and Cooke, 2005).
My original idea was that by filming Alexia over a period of 10 to 20 years, she would eventually acquire the knowledge and drive to make changes in her life, similar to Joseph Campbell’s description in The Hero’s Journey (Campbell, 2003). Watching Alexia develop into a healthier version of herself would dramaturgically justify scenes that were otherwise ethically questionable, as they would create hope and lean towards a happy ending.
After filming Alexia on and off for about 5 years, an opportunity arose to produce a 7-episode linear television show, and a 14-episode web version, for the highly commercial media house Nordic Entertainment (NENT) Group. Moving the project into the world of contemporary reality formats—such as the docu-soaps The Real Housewives (Dunlop, 2006) and The Bloggers (TV2, 2014)—made me anxious. I had doubts as to whether I would be able to preserve Alexia’s integrity. Alexia herself was thrilled by the idea of having her own television show. As the deals were negotiated and the contracts signed, my curiosity regarding whether we could achieve a hybrid show increased. All parties—Alexia, NENT Group and I—agreed to aim at a show that in form and content would be fun, emotional, dramatic and intelligent. Perhaps we could even push the genre to another level, digging more deeply into human psychology, beyond the narcissist’s need to be famous and seen (Mark Young and Pinsky, 2006).
In my opinion, psychological issues are usually not explicitly thematized in movies like Grey Gardens and The Good Life, but they are clearly present. We can sense them as unarticulated underlying conditions that explain why these people live on the verge of society, and why they agree to be filmed. To me, this becomes an ethical and aesthetical challenge, both as a viewer and as a filmmaker. Steve Thomas elaborates on how the notion of informed consent is a key issue in debates about documentary ethics (Thomas, 2012). It is a) the filmmaker’s ability to be clear about what she wants to say and b) the clear consent of whoever is in front of the camera that will ultimately decide whether the film becomes what we associate with an artistic portrayal—where the audience is trusted with the role of intelligent analyst and co-author—or the opposite: just another reality episode, consumed as ‘junk food’.
Over the first years of this project, I tried out several techniques and methods: shooting with one and two cameras, using a tripod, taking a handheld approach and filming from afar—in totals and close-ups. Here, my approach followed Bruzzi when she writes:
Documentaries are a negotiation between filmmaker and reality, and at heart, a performance. (…) The traditional concept of the documentary as striving to represent reality as faithfully as possible is predicated upon the realist assumption that the production process must be disguised (…). Conversely, the new performative documentaries herald a different notion of documentary ‘truth’ that acknowledges the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film. (Bruzzi, 2013)
I wrote scripts with dialogue for Alexia, to which she would respond with ‘I could never say such a lame thing’ or ‘Gosh, you know me better than myself’. Alexia enjoyed playing herself, but she did not have the patience to learn her lines. I would therefore suggest that she read the script out loud, in frame—a method which proved dramatically efficient, as Alexia would immediately protest, and conflict (i.e., drama) would follow. Other times, I would give her a task: I would instruct her to do something concrete, such as get a haircut, change the tires on her ancient (unregistered) convertible, or buy groceries and prepare dinner. These were daily life tasks that placed Alexia in situations of great challenge. To work around her limited funds, Alexia often makes people do favours for her: for example, her long-time hairdresser-friend and the mechanic at the garage where she takes her car. As Alexia suffers from an eating disorder, food is problematic for her. To spend her limited resources on food she does not want to eat, nor prepare, is challenging—but her teenage children need to eat.
Scenes like these could easily make Alexia appear as a victim—which she is, to a certain extent, because of her personality disorder—and this often reminded me of journalist A. J. Liebling’s statement ‘that it was difficult for the cub reporter to remember that her great story was somebody else’s disastrous fire’ (Winston, 1988). Further, Alexia’s unpredictable moods and behaviour often made me wonder whether she was capable of consent. I ultimately followed the advice of people who knew Alexia well and cared about her. They told me, ‘What’s good for Alexia is good for all of us. If she wants her TV show, then you should do it’. Moreover, my concern that it would be difficult to obtain consent from these individuals (who would themselves be appearing on-screen) were quickly allayed. It seemed they cared for Alexia and wanted to contribute what they could—even if that meant being filmed and televised.
For a while, I experimented with a direct cinema approach, bringing myself into the film, inspired by Louis Theroux’s tactic towards his subjects in his television show When Louis Met… (Theroux, 2000). Here, my idea was that by standing in front of the camera with Alexia, I might make her feel less vulnerable, and she might therefore say and do things she otherwise would not. I wondered if this would even lead Alexia to reflect upon specific issues, such as her conflicts and unorthodox behaviour. However, by entering the film, I had to justify my presence and relationship to Alexia. This could have been done similarly to Theroux, but I was not a journalist making a critical documentary: I was a filmmaker portraying a woman I had known since I was a teenager. What I experienced when walking into the frame was myself turning into another narcissist. It was an uncomfortable feeling, reminding me of what we as filmmakers push our human objects into. Experts on fair use Patricia Aufderheide, Peter Jaszi and Mridu Chandra quote one of their respondents: ‘There are some filmmakers who love the down and dirty—“I found a fool and I will show them as a fool”’ (Aufderheide, 2009). Was this me?
As one might expect, numerous incidents sparked these kinds of ethical questions. I would typically talk to Alexia about them and ask for her opinion. Most of the time, her wish was to continue further than I dared. I had to remind myself: Alexia was an adult, legally accountable for her actions, who participated in drafting the contract that she signed. I also let her watch the episodes and gave her the opportunity to comment before we closed the edit. And, perhaps most important to me as the filmmaker, Alexia wanted her television show so that she could tell her story.
I decided to establish Alexia as a strong character in each episode, to make it clear that she will not accept, nor be influenced by, other people’s judgments. Hence, we created an intro in which Alexia says in a voice-over: ‘Some people believe I should be protected against myself, but I can fucking well take care of myself’. But can she take care of herself? Or should she be protected against herself? Have I been able to lift Alexia up, or do I victimize her? Although most of the controversial footage (e.g., showing Alexia nude or in a state of inebriation) never entered the final edited episodes, in my opinion, the television show failed to lift Alexia to the moral standard I had planned for the original film—where the epic (i.e., longitudinal) style would have allowed us to understand and maybe even learn from her. Nevertheless, Alexia remains proud of the show, and often refers to the fan base she acquired; this suggests that she does not feel like she was victimized by the process of telling her story in this format.
Outcomes and Impact
Steve Thomas (2012) claims that the industrial and economic changes within the television industry have placed pressure on the filmmakers’ relationships to the participants, leading filmmakers to behave in ways they deem unethical. Since Thomas published his article in 2012, extensive changes have affected the television industry: the greatest has arguably been turning linear television into online streaming platforms (Sundet and Colbjørnsen, 2021). When Alexia Alone was in the editing process in 2017, most of the decision-makers at TV3/NENT Group were unsure where they were heading; as such, the content was created for both platforms. Having little experience with the increased workload this would demand (logistically and post-production-wise), the production turned out underfinanced—a calculated risk my small production company had to bear. However, I found it more challenging to submit to the regulations requiring that each episode start with a teaser highlighting the content of the episode, then again teasing before and after the commercial break, and ending with a trailer for the next week’s episode. Moreover, each linear episode had a fixed length of 21 minutes and 30 seconds and was divided into two 11-minute web episodes. The consequence of giving the web episodes a three-act structure (with a beginning, middle and end) was that each linear episode in fact consisted of two individual stories—a program structure I worried audiences would not be used to and might find confusing.
However, the greatest challenge I would face would come from my protagonist herself: Alexia. During production and shooting, things went smoothly. Alexia was at the centre of attention and happy, but when the shooting was finished and boring daily life resumed, Alexia found it difficult to adjust. Her coping strategy was, unsurprisingly, to create drama. By the end of post-production, Alexia had bullied, harassed and threatened me, members of the staff and people at the television station, all the way up to the CEOs. Moreover, Alexia’s earlier conflicts with journalists and head editors at most major newspapers made it difficult to get press coverage and reviews. It is no wonder that the show fell under the radar for most of its target audience.
In hindsight, I believe I should have predicted this outcome. I should not have tried to convert an epic, psychological film portrayal meant for the movie theatre/art scene into a formatted reality series for commercial television. I am glad the show did not garner much attention, even though Alexia likely regrets this.
The question remains: Will I ever finish the feature version of Alexia Alone? Nearly four years have passed since the launch of the television series. I have not abandoned the project: my ambition is to film Alexia for three to five days each year, as well as whenever something extraordinary occurs, throughout the next decade. In doing so, I hope to collect enough raw material to create the epic story for which I was originally aiming. I argue that the epic approach is a better way to contend with the ethical challenges sparked by a film like this. The slowness and poetry enabled by an epic angle justifies subjects and issues that, in a television series, easily become vulgar and blunt.
Alexia’s behaviour is often difficult to understand, and the life she leads is arguably problematic. However, it is still a life that deserves respect. Moreover, it is one we can learn from—unless we let ourselves sit back on our sofas and maintain that alienating illusion of Alexia as the ‘other’.
Aufderheide, P., Jaszi, P., & Chandra, M. (2009) Honest truths: Documentary filmmakers on ethical challenges in their work. Washington, DC: Center for Media and Social Impact. Available from https://cmsimpact.org/resource/honest-truths-documentary-filmmakers-on-ethical-challenges-in-their-work/ [accessed 15.10.2021]
Bruzzi, S. (2013) ‘The performing film-maker and the acting subject’. In: B. Winston, ed. The documentary film book. London: British Film Institute Publishing, pp. 48-58.
Campbell, J. (2003) The hero’s journey: Joseph Campbell on his life and work. Novato: New World Library.
Forouzan, E. & Cooke, D. J. (2005) ‘Figuring out la femme fatale: Conceptual and assessment issues concerning psychopathy in females’. Behavioral Sciences and the Law. 23 (6), pp. 765-778.
Knegt, P. (2010) ‘A Danish “Grey gardens”? Eva Mulvad on her “Good Life”’. IndieWire[online]. Available from https://www.indiewire.com/2010/11/a-danish-grey-gardens-eva-mulvad-on-her-good-life-244386/ [accessed 16.10.2021]
Sundet, V. S. & Colbjørnsen, T (2021) ‘Streaming across industries: Streaming logics and streaming lore across the music, film, television, and book industries. MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research. 37 (70), pp. 12–31.
Thomas, S. (2012) ‘Upfront filmmaking: The ethics of documentary relationships’. Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine. 171, pp. 80-84.
Winston, B. (1988) ‘The tradition of the victim in Griersonian documentary’. In: Gross, L., Katz J. S., and Ruby, J., eds, Image ethics: The moral rights of subjects in photographs, film, and television. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 34-57.
Young, S. & Pinsky, D. (2006) ‘Narcissism and celebrity’. Journal of Research in Personality. 40 (5), pp. 463-471.
Dunlop, S. (2006) The Real Housewives. United States: Bravo/NBC
Grünfeld, N. F. (2018) Alexa vs. Verden. Norway: TV3/ViaFree: NENT Group.
Maysles, D. A. A. (1975) Grey Gardens. United States: Portrait Films.
Mulvad, E. (2010) The Good Life. Denmark: Danish Documentary.
Theroux, L. (2000) When Louis Met…. United Kingdom: British Broadcasting Corporation.
TV2 (2014) Bloggerne. Norway: TV2.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
The filmmaker/author has tackled a perplexing question: how do we categorise and judge factual genres that seems to sit on the border between observational documentary and reality TV? And has Grüning as a producer/director lost her way, and ethical principles, in planning for the first and shifting to the second?
Alexia Alone is a portrait of Alexia, a woman nearing 50 who struggles with her identity as an author but also wrestles with the difficulty of a woman, growing older, who is highly invested in her appearance. The reality episode submitted shows her leap between these two obsessions, offering sketchy portraits of those she interacts with: editors in publishing houses that gain to profit off her writing; her best friend, who is quietly conservative; her helpers, such as her doctor, tasked with helping her cope; and those she employs to produce her public persona, make-up artists, photographers and the like. Alexia herself dominates the frame in every encounter, excited to be the subject of the film and possibly showing greater exhibitionism as a consequence. The episode’s style is observational but also reflexive, in that Alexia is consistently addressing the camera, reminding us that filming in underway.
As a text, Alexia Alone is both original and not. Portraits of similar outrageous characters abound on US/UK reality shows, in Youtube clips etc.. Alexia didn’t seem that extreme to this jaded eye. She was emotional, narcissistic and hyperactive but engendered neither shock nor particular sympathy. At best, Alexia Alone points to some feminist themes, the struggle women face being creative and their persistent self-doubt, the constant awareness women have of their appearance and desirability (or lack of it), and possibly the struggle to raise her three children, although they received short shrift in this episode.
The exegesis was well-written and insightful, granting Grūnfeld’s overall project greater depth. Her own thoughtfulness, her grappling not just with ethical issues, but the demands of broadcasters and broadcast form, and of Alexia herself made for some compelling reading. Grünfeld’s thinking recalls some of the cultural studies scholars such as Jon Dovey who analyse popular genres such as Big Brother and Wife Swap to mine the deeper currents of racism and class in the cultures that produce such shows. I can also see why she sees Grey Gardens as a possible model – aside from the ethical issues the classic raises, like Alexia, Big and Little Edie exhibit a kind of unruly femininity, a reworking of acceptable constraints.
Grünfeld has created a ‘production studies’ experiment from the front line. To my knowledge, few scholars involved in production engage with the populist end of genre production, preferring the avant-garde route. Her conclusion is that although the line between observational documentary and reality TV might be blurry, it does exist. Her determination to return to her original project is to be commended, as is her honesty in attempting to lay out the complications and contradictions of working in the very commercial end of the production industry.
What are the main claims and purposes of the work?
The author is interested in ‘how human psychology and behaviour is being depicted in film and television’, and specifically wishes to explore ‘the need to address the uninvestigated core characteristics of personality disorders among females’. Pointing to the fact that classic, cinema verite documentaries such as the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens fail to do this, Grünfeld proposes to make an ‘epic’ film that will. And when the chance arises to convert her idea into a reality-formatted TV series she wonders if it might be possible to use this as a vehicle for ‘digging more deeply into human psychology, beyond the narcissist’s need to be famous and seen’. The research then, becomes the making of the series and analysis of the results against the stated aims.
I think this is a bold topic undertaken with courage and tenacity (as well as an essential naivety) and at some personal risk. My comments should be seen in the context of this acknowledgement.
Does it seem to make a genuine new contribution to knowledge or understanding of practice-research?
This is important research because it purports to explore the practical possibilities for the ethical redemption of the ‘reality TV’ genre. I say redemption because the tropes of the genre generally dictate a standardised means of storytelling and minimal (if any) control over the process by participants. This is a challenge to filmmakers concerned with the ethics of filmmaker-participant relationships, who wish to work collaboratively, give agency to their participants and provide space for open-ended storytelling. The notion of working with the genre to see if genuinely ethical creative and personal outcomes can be generated is bold, if rather naïve, as turned out to be the case.
Thus, the research question might be better modified to: ‘How does converting an epic, psychological film portrayal… effect (sic) the result?’ For the result will undoubtedly be affected, the question is whether for better or worse?
Another characteristic of reality TV is that it rarely gets beyond ‘what is so’ to ‘why it is so’, and whatever explanations of the latter are included are usually delivered by a ‘voice of God’ narration. This allows for only one way of seeing things and disallows the possibility of being editorially provisional or reticent. In this regard cinema verite (or more correctly direct cinema), by definition a genre without commentary or comment, similarly tends to stay on the level of ‘what is’, something which the author hopes will be transcended by an increasing self-awareness on the part of Alexia as the years go by, so that she herself will, in the end, provide the necessary explanations. This hypothesis remains untested however, as the ‘epic’ film has not been made, but certainly the restrictions of the reality TV genre in this regard are not overcome in the TV series.
Is there any important relevant work that the submission does not acknowledge?
There is a deal of contemporary scholarship regarding revision of ideas about informed consent and I feel that as a key issue a little more theoretical context and discussion could be included. The author refers to one paper (Thomas, 2012) and then says ‘similar challenges impacted and informed my own work’, which is rather unspecific.
Similarly some more preliminary theoretical analysis and contextualisation of ‘reality TV’ would be helpful given that the aim of the research is to usurp or at least clean up the genre. I have provided some of this here and there is a wealth of scholarship on the topic (e.g. see Thomas 2019, Exposed on Screen – Real People’s Stories, Unscripted TV and the Virtues of Collaborative Documentary Filmmaking, Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, Vol 33.)
How strong is the research and theoretical context of the accompanying written statement?
The stated aim of ‘digging more deeply into human psychology’ is a noble and ethically sound one. But I noticed in the submitted creative work (the reality TV product) that opportunities for comment in this regard were apparently shunned. The characters with whom Alexia interacts almost universally appear mute – offering no opinions of Alexia, her issues or how she is dealing with them. I wonder if this was deliberate on the author’s part, or discouraged by the commissioning broadcaster/editor? Some comment here would be valuable.
Certainly, the author discusses the limitations imposed upon her in regard to story structure and context (requiring ad breaks and inclusion of teasers), and states that, in her opinion, this was a major reason for the moral failure of the project. She also mentions the ethical issue of consent and its centrality – but fails to elaborate on this. This seems particularly important as Alexia’s bullying of both author and broadcaster during post-production is commented on as being a major challenge. What then was the filmmaker’s methodology regarding ongoing consent and was it supported or undermined by the broadcaster?
Furthermore, the question is posed several times as to whether Alexia can take care of herself and one might wonder in this respect whether she is capable of consent. There is an interesting tension here as the filmmaker is bent on respecting Alexia and not allowing her to be victimised, but Alexia appears by virtue of her bullying to be behaving as a victim. I think more discussion of these kinds of contradictions would strengthen the work.
I also think that some indication of what the ‘epic’ film might achieve in opposition to the reality TV series would be a useful contribution to the discussion. I know that shooting is ongoing etc., but the editing together of a sample sequence from rushes collected over what appears to be an 8-year period ought to be possible, and would demonstrate the virtues of an alternative, ethical filmmaking approach. After all, if there’s no progress to a deepening understanding over eight years then one wonders if the next eight will provide anything new.
Are there particular changes that you would deem either necessary or helpful for the work to be published?
I have suggested above some areas that would benefit from development or further comment.
Some smaller points are as follows:
Regarding the creative work I was unsure as to what I was viewing. Is it an episode of the TV series (in which case was it the first, or perhaps a pilot?) or a compilation of moments from the series? I suspect the former, but it would be helpful to give some context if this is the case e.g. is it regarded as an episode typical of the series or included for particular reasons? The author’s quoting of Stella Bruzzi is inaccurate in part and thus confusing. The second part of the 3-part quote should read ‘reality as’ instead of ‘realities’ and ‘realist’ rather than ‘reality’ (see Winston’s The Documentary Film Book p. 49, start of para. 2).
There are also obvious spelling errors in the English sub-titles to the creative work, e.g. ‘burried’ for ‘buried’, ‘fuzz’ for ‘fuss’, ‘sigar’ for ‘cigar’ and ‘appologize’ to name a few. The hazards of working in a second language I know, and maybe too late to correct.
How well organised and written is the accompanying statement?
Generally well organised and written. Occasional lack of clarity e.g. i) confusion over ‘issues’ on p. 2 para. 4 – does the second ‘issues’ refer to the first or to informed consent? ii) reference to ‘controversial footage’ (p. 3, para. 5) – what does this relate to?
Are there particular changes that you would recommend to its presentation?
Layout and headings are fine, although I suggest a section headed ‘Discussion’ would be a useful addition.