‘The Contestant’ Director Clair Titley on the Fallout From Reality TV: ‘We Are All Complicit’

Long before Bethenny Frankel began fighting for reality stars’ rights, there was  “Denpa Shonen: A Life in Prizes,” a Japanese reality show that began airing in 1998.

The show starred aspiring comedian Tomoaki Hamatsu, nicknamed Nasubi.  In a room by himself and naked, Nasubi had to fill out contest coupons in order to win what he needed to survive. What Nasubi didn’t realize was that his experiences were being broadcast to more than 15 million people.

The true story of the show and Nasubi’s unwitting involvement are explored in Clair Titley’s “The Contestant.” The docu, which made its world premiere at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival earlier this month, recently screened at the 19th edition of the Camden Intl. Film Festival.

“Camden feels like such filmmaker’s film festival,” Titley says. “It’s wonderful when people love your film, but when your peers love your film and people in the industry that you respect say that they love your film, that’s the ultimate accolade.”

The U.K.-based documentary filmmaker began working on “The Contestant” seven years ago. In the film, Titley interviews Nasubi, his family, and Japanese television producer Toshio Tsuchiya to reveal the “reality” behind what happened more than two decades ago.

Variety spoke to Titley about “The Contestant.” The film is seeking distribution.

In the film, Nasubi is very candid about what happened to him. How did you convince him to relive such a painful period in his life?

Titley: From the beginning, consensus has been a really big part of this project, not least because of what happened to Nasubi. So, we always talked about this film as being a collaboration to an extent. Nasubi knew that he didn’t have editorial control, but I definitely wanted to make the doc with him. I told him what we were doing and why, and we even sought his ideas.

Why do you think Nasubi ultimately decided to participate?

Titley: I really didn’t want to make this film and re-traumatize him, and I was very aware of that from the start. I made him aware that he would have to watch this old footage and that this old footage would be rebroadcast in (my film). But I think the reason that he did this film now is that he has got to a point where he was ready to close this chapter, and he was ready to go there and explore it. I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but I think he found the whole process quite cathartic to an extent.

Last night, after the CIFF screening, you read a statement that Nasubi wrote for you to read out loud to the audience. Can you read it again?

Nasubi statement, read by Titley: “I’m in a complicated state of mind mixed with anxiety and expectations about how the people who watched this movie feel. I think this kind of work is probably often made after the main character’s death, but fortunately, I’m alive and well. And many people may think that I am an unhappy and poor person who lives a life hit by tragedy. But I’m never an unhappy person. Because I know that if I have a reliable friend who shares just an inch of happiness and that small happiness and supports me, I can live well with a smile. I hope that people who have seen this movie will think about what is important in living and live a rich life even a little.”

Japanese culture is part of the doc. As a U.K.-based filmmaker, was there any hesitancy around examining that culture?

Titley: I don’t think it’s a film about Japanese culture. I think that’s an accidental theme. I’ve been really, really cautious of the fact that I’m a Western filmmaker making a film about two Japanese men that is based in Japan. I worked very closely with Japanese producer Megumi Inman on this film. I spoke with her and Nasubi about what I felt my responsibilities were. I’m also very aware of Western media being very guilty of looking at Japanese culture and pointing and laughing, and I really didn’t want to do that. I also didn’t want to have a Western voice of God or a narrator who told an audience what to think or tried to explain things.

What do you hope audiences discuss after seeing this doc?

Titley: Although I know that the film documents the start of reality TV and that is a central theme, I haven’t set out to make a film about the beginning of reality TV. It’s a film about Nasubi and his journey.  I hope that people will question their roles in that journey. We are all complicit to a certain extent in these narratives.

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