American Cannibal purports to be a documentary about two struggling television writers who sell their souls to work in the grungy realm of reality TV. What it actually is, as The New York Times‘s David Carr suggested last year in an article that questioned the cinema-verité bona fides of Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro’s movie, is a mockumentary that mixes fiction and nonfiction. That the filmmakers refuse to publicly own up to their charade is certainly disingenuous. Yet such dishonesty is also intrinsic to their larger meta objectives, as American Cannibal‘s ostensibly authentic narrative cannily reflects the way in which reality TV manufactures fraudulent “truth,” and how such phony legitimacy can be both misleading and still seductive and gripping.
Armed with a believable documentary aesthetic, Grebin and Nigro follow partners Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts (not their real names) as they attempt to rebound from a failed Comedy Central pilot by endlessly pitching reality program ideas. This professional trajectory eventually leads them to Paris Hilton sex tape promoter Kevin Blatt, who signs on to produce a throwaway idea by the duo called American Cannibal, a Survivor-style show that would tantalize hungry castaways with human flesh. It’s a ludicrous premise, and yet one that, as interviews with reality TV vets like Real World co-creator Jon Murray make clear, is indicative of a creative field that thrives on lowest-common-denominator extremeness and is fueled by do-anything star-seekers. As they’re reluctantly pulled into Blatt’s porno environment, Gil begins to bristle at their enterprise’s seedy worthlessness while Dave, desperate to support his wife and kids, embraces it wholeheartedly.
American Cannibal too neatly plots out this conflict, and the seams of Grebin and Nigro’s ruse become even more visible once the show’s production is marred by a mysterious (and incredibly suspect) calamity that serves as the film’s dramatic climax. Nonetheless, if their subterfuge isn’t entirely successful, the directors’ untrustworthy storyline is so guilty-pleasure gripping that it not only makes an effective (though somewhat obvious) case against reality TV, but illustrates how deceptive line-blurring between the “real” and “unreal” is what helps makes the genre so compelling.