A worthy effort at putting cameras into the hands of ordinary folk, “Right Here Right Now” is a mixed bag of “video diaries” that ultimately doesn’t feel any different from other documentary formats already on the air. Pilot episode is clearly the best of the three completed so far, and there are potent moments in the other segments as well. However, the notion that this represents innovative work capturing authentic first-person voices is belied by the narrative templates that are sometimes laid on awkwardly to give the material dramatic shape.
In 1997, producers Ellen Schneider (“P.O.V.”) and Steve Atlas gave several “ordinary” people a small-format video camera and teamed them with a producer. The idea was to explore the first-person perspective of people’s lives at important moments. From the very start, there is a strong hand guiding the work here, beginning with the choice of diarists, all of whom are confronting some kind of life-changing event that can be documented.
First episode to air follows a 39-year-old deaf woman named Jeanne who is about to undergo a cochlea implant which will restore much of her hearing.
Because she wasn’t completely deaf, and because her mother insisted, Jeanne learned to read lips and speak clearly enough to engage in basic communication with the hearing world. But she’s been constantly frustrated by the limitations placed upon her. She’s looking forward to the independence the operation is supposed to provide her, but the most riveting element of her story is the revelation of her greatest fear — that she’ll be able to hear too much.
This particular piece is excellent television. It’s well-rounded in its exploration of Jeanne and her family (who never learned sign language), and it has clear, unforced drama and simple moments of insightful beauty. After the operation, Jeanne goes through a period of several weeks where she is in complete silence, and there’s a moving scene where she stands in the middle of a busy city street and proclaims how peaceful and quiet it is. Throughout the docu , she confides different thoughts to the camera late at night while she’s in bed , and there is the strong sense that she’s just telling us what’s on her mind. This kind of impromptu monologue is exactly what “Right Here Right Now” has to offer.
But not all of the diarists have stories as interesting as Jeanne’s. The second episode of the series combines the work of two diarists. The first is Jack, a pre-med college student whose parents immigrated from Taiwan and who fully expect him to make their travails worthwhile by becoming a doctor. Despite the fact Jack is easy to relate to, and that he reveals a lot about his underlying personality when he mugs for the camera, the drama here is somewhat contrived, and it does feel as if Jack’s story hasn’t really started yet.
The second half of this episode is far more compelling. Jonelle is a Ph.D. candidate who goes to an intensive stuttering management program to deal with her speech impediment. There’s some contrivance here — the story is structured to imply that she’s doing this specifically to be able to defend her dissertation before the doctoral committee, but there seems to be little evidence that this is her primary motivation.
Nonetheless, we’re taken into the very under-examined world of stutterers, and it’s impossible not to root for them. Jonelle, like Jeanne, has a handicap where the struggles can be far more subtle than people understand, and these nuances are powerfully captured.
Remaining pilot episode follows Yolanda, a pregnant teenager in Philadelphia, as she moves in with her boyfriend, gives birth, and deals with the aftermath. This is a diary where clearly Yolanda learned a lot about herself by taping her own life — the last shot is of her crying after watching an edited version — but again, there’s nothing especially unique about the way this format tells the story. Newsmagazines on the networks have done similar pieces.
There is a clear producer’s hand in editing every single one of these documentaries, and while the diarists were given final approval, it probably is not accurate to claim they are telling these stories themselves. That doesn’t mean there isn’t power to what’s on screen. It does, however, present “Right Here Right Now” with an uphill battle as it tries to set itself apart from the crowd.