Culture: Life's become one big reality show

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The Independent Culture

What film is likely to be the next Slumdog Millionaire? There are several British titles vying for this honour at the Cannes Film Festival (which starts on 13 May), but I'm putting my money on Sounds Like Teen Spirit, a documentary about the Eurovision Song Contest, which is released on Friday.

To be strictly accurate, it's about the junior version of that competition, which is restricted to those aged 10 to 15. We follow various tykes as they jump over a series of hurdles to qualify for the contest, then watch them compete in the final. Needless to say, there are plenty of tears before bedtime.

The film that Sounds Like Teen Spirit most closely resembles is Spellbound, the documentary about an American spelling bee that was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. The reason it works so well, apart from the skill of the director Jamie Jay Johnson, is that it has the same structure as a conventional Hollywood film. Like Spellbound, it follows a sequence of events in which all the building blocks of a text-book screenplay are in place: an unlikely hero plucked from obscurity; a cocksure antagonist; a series of increasingly difficult challenges; a dash of romance; and a thrilling climax in which the hero triumphs against all odds. (Or, as here, comes 14th.)

Feature-length documentaries that import these tried-and-tested story-telling techniques are now so common they constitute a mini-genre. Other recent examples include The King of Kong, Super Size Me and A Complete History of My Sexual Failures. They are the big-screen equivalent of reality shows, only they seem more authentic, as the protagonists aren't recruited for the sole purpose of entertaining the viewer.

Indeed, Sounds Like Teen Spirit looks a lot like a standard observational documentary – except the competition it's following has been created by various European broadcasters, so it's no more "real" than The X Factor. Like reality shows, these documentaries fall somewhere between fiction and non-fiction – exactly the same space occupied by the most interesting work in almost every creative field, whether it be literature, drama or computer games.

So what does Sounds Like Teen Spirit have in common with Slumdog? They both reflect the fact that children's imaginations in the 21st century have been colonised by successful television formats.