UFF 6 Review: ‘Tontine’ Is Reality TV Like You’ve Never Seen It Before
The main ingredient necessary for any successful reality television show is an eclectic set of contestants that producers can weave interesting narratives around through exploiting their problematic or dramatic character traits which reveal themselves during the paranoia-fueled, high-stress conditions these shows often foster. It feels strikingly authentic but remains a “safe” viewing experience because audiences know that it’s controlled to some extent; the situations depicted will never be allowed to devolve into anything actually dangerous to those involved and if it does, the production team will assist immediately. There’s also typically nothing at stake for the contestants, either, which means if they lose they can simply go back to their lives and continue living them. Ezna Sands’ lost 2011 mockumentary Tontine, which screened as part of the sixth annual Unnamed Footage Festival’s lineup, asks: what if these contestants had everything to lose, with the precautionary safety nets put in place to protect them subsequently stripped away by unexpected tragedy?
Cast members of the “show” Tontine are introduced briefly through on-boarding interviews before the on-camera questioning of executive producer (and real-life industry veteran) Ted Haimes lets viewers in on the fact that a hurricane-induced shipwreck derailed the entire production before it ever began. He tries to dodge questions almost immediately and it becomes clear that things went horribly wrong following the crash, which on-screen text reveals is still being actively investigated. The “twist” of the show is unveiled by would-be host “Boston” Rob Mariano (of Survivor and The Amazing Race fame) via a radio spot promoting what people believed at the time to be an actual television program. He reveals that the prize money in Tontine does not, in fact, come from the network but instead from the collective life savings of the contestants themselves, who signed over all their assets to the network in order to participate. An insane proposal, but not so insane that it kept the thousands of people who attended auditions (which were actually not legitimate and held as part of a marketing campaign in the vein of The Blair Witch Project after the film had already been shot on-location in Fiji) from being fully willing to risk everything for the “adventure of a lifetime” and a chance at winning ten million dollars.
The real meat on the bones of Tontine isn’t in the well-executed, highly detailed setup that encompasses the first third of the film’s ninety-two minute runtime, but in the way it uses this familiar structure to systematically highlight the ludicrous requirements and exploitative nature of similar shows by allowing the situation to unravel after disaster strikes. Reliving the events survivors of the crash endured firsthand — through recovered footage captured by the remaining contestants with cameras that washed up on the same beach they did — adds a level of gritty authenticity that couldn’t be realized as effectively through any other format. A very meticulously structured collection of what feels like a series of raw recordings depicting horrific events, that when cut together with relevant interviews paints a disturbingly tragic portrait of human nature. A portrait that realistically depicts how little misguided influence it can often take to sway an entire group into behaving irrationally or becoming hostile, specifically when tensions are heightened by a crisis situation, as well as perfectly encapsulating how people with the right tendencies (the very same tendencies that are typically possessed by good reality television candidates) can become rapidly unhinged when order is no longer able to be maintained.
Clever editing keeps the film continuously engaging throughout when paired with the excellent roster of performances from first-time actors as it cuts between revealing pre-production interviews, unedited on-the-ground sequences, and footage of the production side trying to handle the situation in a way that masterfully conveys the “truth” behind the chaos following the contestants’ ill-fated voyage. Over the course of the three days they’re stranded on the island there are startling revelations, massive confrontations, moments of complete hilarity, and multiple lives lost to the madness that consumes this unfortunate collective. With a polished execution that’s depicted in the most believable way possible at every turn and a product that manages to be one of the most successful fictional commentaries on reality TV ever made in the process, it’s honestly a real shame that Tontine hasn’t yet gotten to see the light of commercial day. Hopefully following what was a massively successful screening (that earned the film a standing ovation from a nearly sold-out crowd) Dean Zanuck and the production team can still find a home for the film. It would surely be a massive hit on streaming especially considering how convincing the marketing remains all these years later, still able to be capitalized on in a very meaningful way. There’s certainly a large, receptive audience waiting for Tontine even if they aren’t aware of it yet, so stay vigilant for release information and in the meantime check out a past trailer below.