Affect, Location, and Identification in 30 Days

Curator's Note

Morgan Spurlock’s documentary series 30 Days is built around the experiences of subjects who each venture into a different social reality for a month.  Replicating Spurlock’s stunt of personal participation that propelled the success of his feature documentary Supersize Me, 30 Days features a plunge into new personal experience to expose the fissures in American life. Many of the episodes revolve around a culture clash between representatives of opposing camps in society, in which one character enters the social world of her seeming opposite. Spurlock establishes his arguments through the play of on-the-site learning and identification. Using a complex design of interwoven perspectives, Spurlock creates a dialogic journey in which viewing attention threads itself through innocence and experience, ignorance and knowledge, stereotyping and personalization. The structuring device of experimentation through personal experience is meant to provide an undeniable authenticity to the episodes, but it is the deft construction of perspective and identification that more often produces the emotional power that the series achieves at its best. 

In “Immigration,” Spurlock introduces Cuban-born Frank, who came to the US legally as a child.  Frank participates in border patrols with the Minuteman group, and sees illegal immigrants as a grave threat to “Americans, like myself.” Frank moves in with the undocumented Gonzales family in East Lost Angeles. The family’s oldest child, Armida, is a high school senior hoping to get a college scholarship, which her illegal status makes doubtful. Frank’s complete identification with his sense of Americanness and consequent sense of the radical otherness of illegal immigrants is confronted by Armida’s political challenge to rigid definitions of identity, coincident with her attempts to be accepted into the American mainstream. In the climactic scene of the show, Frank travels to Mexico to see how the family had lived before moving to the US. His placement in the very location of their past experience forces Frank to start to identify more strongly with their perspective and desires for their future, and viewers can follow Frank’s own journey toward emotional reconciliation with those he had deemed outside the bounds of American society, however conflicted he remains.




Daniel, really interesting tension you describe between how the personal experiences of the participants is intended to authenticate the series, yet it is instead the acknowledgement of the construction of those personal experiences (in a sense their "inauthenticity") that produces the greatest emotional power. Obviously these are different kinds of authenticity - one is to do with personal experience in the moment and one is to do with the overall construction of the situation - but it is interesting that the emotional moments of this series tease out these two senses of authenticity that often seem to be conflated in discussions of documentary. What do you think about this idea of the viewer identifying with experiences that are so clearly constructed? Does our perception of the authenticity of the situation change our perception of the authenticity of the emotions experienced in the moment, or do these ideas operate separately?

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