A parasocial production

Journal correspondent Kate Kilgour fills us in on a standout documentary from the Toronto Hot Docs film festival

Adrian Grenier produced, wrote and directed Teenage Paparrazi after a run-in with 13-year-old Austin Visschedyk.
Adrian Grenier produced, wrote and directed Teenage Paparrazi after a run-in with 13-year-old Austin Visschedyk.

We are connected in every way possible via the internet. Private investigators take form in anyone with internet access, allowing the average person to sleuth their way through Facebook ‘friends of friends’ to unearth the gossip and closeted skeletons. We’re in a time where absolutely nothing is sacred.

While this may be relatively new to us, celebrities have been battling it for years, with publicists on call and lawyers at their fingertips. Many will claim they got themselves into this, by craving the spotlight in a ‘be careful what you wish for’ tired tale. This past weekend I attended one of the last screenings of Toronto’s Hot Docs documentary film festival, where I stared at Director Adrian Grenier’s stunning features for over two hours.

Teenage Paparazzo focuses on a then thirteen-year-old photographer Austin Visschedyk, whom spends his adolescent nights skateboarding through West Hollywood after last call in the search for another $1,000 shot. Whether it’s Paris Hilton through her beach house windows (where paparazzi spend entire days waiting on the shore outside) or the regulars who stake out Britney’s house every single day, there is money to be made in La La land.

Much to the chagrin of some older, more seasoned members of this photo-stalking scene, Austin is adorable. Though he can be foul mouthed and seemingly older than his age, his blonde Bieber-esque locks and braced smile provide him with an air of naivety—how could a Hollywood teenager mean any real harm?

The documentary takes us through Grenier and Austin’s first meeting, where the latter shocks this director with a series of quick flashes, boldly at the front of a paparazzi crew.

This is where the project’s idea is birthed: to get an ‘in’ to this ironically private culture. More than anything, though, we learn about a kid who is home-schooled to accommodate his amoeba-like schedule, where plans are fluid and a potential scandal-snapping shot is priority.

At the buzz of his iPhone he’ll blow Grenier off—the star who is producing the film—in order to pack his gear and respond to a tip. In a documentary that starts with a captivating subject that had me asking, ‘Why weren’t boys this cool when I was thirteen?’ it slowly shifts to exploit Austin in a way that poses some serious questions about growing up in a celebrity-crazed society.

The entire project brings into question not only the public sphere and how we interact with it, but the intriguing state of America’s youth. Austin, who is five years my junior, is leading a life I could hardly have imagined at that age.

Perhaps if Perez Hilton graced the CNN screen during my formative years I would have seen the value in pushing boundaries rather than admiring celebrities from the comfort of a glossy magazine page.

Leaving the theater I thought about connectivity—these paparazzi have wireless-enabled laptops with them in their cars, where a photo can be taken and sent to tabloid editors within a matter of minutes. I sleep with my cell phone under my pillow and rarely go a day without checking Twitter. Toronto has dozens of party photographers who create their own little version of the Hollywood ‘see and be seen’ scene, so is this our own culture’s way of exploiting the upper-echelon of our social circle?

Parasocial relationships. We’ve all kind of been there—you meet someone that looks familiar and you realize you’ve definitely been to their Facebook page—but can’t say that without sounding intrusively awkward. These are the mentalities that fuel the demand for paparazzi-snapped photos, except that in our modern world it’s deemed normal to know the intricacies of celebrities’ lives.

In Teenage Papparazo we view the life of an unconventional celeb-stalker, and it works. After a jump towards the end of the documentary we meet Austin at a later time in his life, where he’s taller and more mature, and has a different perspective on his past-time come full-time job—he has grown apprehensive.

Various positions on this controversial career are thought provoking. The film taps into our voyeuristic mentalities and succeeds at commentating on America’s youth, showcasing a particularly unique individual who realized his gift for winning over celebrities with his youthful presence and exploiting the very people whom he, at his thirteen years of age, hoped to become—someone who evades the paparazzi.

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