Questioning Reality and the Tenets of Documentary Film Itself
A mock documentary is successful when it is able to combine both the appearance of historically accurate elements and present believable situations through a false lens, leading the audience to question the reality of what they are seeing. The genre of false documentary aims to present a convincing story through the use of credible documentary tactics to portray a fictional documentary. Every mock documentary depends on its viewers believing its premise. The illusion of believability is most often either confirmed or destroyed by the credits. Frequently the audience first learns the people on the screen were actors, and that they have fallen prey to the thick veil of believability that documentary films are so able to portray. To capture the audiences trust directors of mock documentary films apply many of the tactics and conventions Mock documentaries serve to leave the audience questioning the reality and believability of what they view in the theatre and at home. The mock documentary can be both real and fake, both shocking and humorous, both projected and actual.
The origin of the mockumentary ranges back to the very beginning of film. The mock documentary as a genre owes a great deal to both fiction and nonfiction films. But, since a mockumentary adopts the formal behavior of a documentary it asserts a sense of believability. In the late twentieth century documentary films used an element of fakery to add to the plausibility of the footage. War scenes were also depicted by cardboard cutouts of boats and often staged in backyard lagoons. In Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film, Nanook of the North, Eskimo life was supposed to be shown as it existed without influence. However, this film which was supposed to depict how Eskimos really lived was heavily shaped by Flaherty, and wound up being a documentary of how Eskimos lived when a camera was in their midst. These instances of falsity are the predecessors of the mockumentary genre, though they serve very different purposes. The false images in the early films were used to provide authenticity; fake scenes were used to include the action and events that the camera was unable to capture to add to the credibility of their footage. When the camera was unable to physically be there and obtain the actual footage, or when the film didn’t turn out the way the documentarians wanted they would simply use false footage to make up for what was lost. The premise was if the audience was able to see even a re-enactment, they would be more apt to believe that it actually occurred. The goal of the mockumentary is not to enhance credibility but to explicitly question the believability of what the audience is viewing. While many of these early documentary films used fakery to add to the realism the directors were trying to portray, mock documentaries are set up to look as realistic as possible both to trick the audience, and also to challenge them to question what they accept as matter-of-fact.
For as long as documentaries have existed they have embellished the truth and taken liberties with the documentary form to make the truth seem more believable. In the beginning of documentary film the audience was not ready to question what was real and what had been staged, film was new and people were not questioning the actuality of the events they were accepting as real. Erik Barnouw, author of Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, states that directors of mock documentaries start with a fictional event or person, and embellish the fiction to make it seem more believable or convincing. Often times the aim of mockumentaries is to satirize the documentary form.
Still today, over a decade since the advent of film the relationship between images and truth remains blurred. As sited in Bill Nichols, Blurred Boundaries, reality television, programs like Cops and The Real World, today serve as further illustrations of biased documentary work. These reality television programs skew the perspective of the audience and manipulate the lens to blur reality. In Dirk Eitzen’s When Is a Documentary? Documentary as a Mode of Perception, he concludes; All documentaries-whether they are deemed, in the end, to be reliable or not-revolve around the question of trust (92). Mock documentaries test the viewer’s abilities to distinguish between truth and fiction by presenting them with a text that makes it difficult to decipher between the two. Directors of mockumentaries are questioning: Do you believe your eyes, or do you believe what I am telling you to believe? The audience is given the opportunity to decide whether they will accept what they are shown. If they fail to pick up on the satire (though mockumentaries are often riddled with hints) then they, too become an object of satire. Perhaps the most perfect example of this is Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner’s, This Is Spinal Tap, a false ethnography of a mediocre Heavy Metal band in the early 1980’s long considered a cult classic. Reiner’s directorial debut was shot without a working script and largely improvised. Spinal Tap traces the steady demise of an aging English Heavy Metal band desperate to make a comeback. When the actor’s names are revealed in the ending credits Spinal Tap acknowledges the falsity of the band. However, many do not pick up on that blatant hint and continue to believe that Spinal Tap really exists and is just another decent Heavy Metal band.
Another Christopher Guest film, Waiting For Guffman, chronicles the production of an amateur play in the fictitious town of Blaine, Missouri celebrating the sesquicentennial. Blaine happens to be the foot stool capital of the United States and was visited by a UFO long before Rockwell. A prime example of Guest’s attention to realism is in the hilarious audition scenes. All the auditions were improvised, you’re seeing the auditions you see in Guffman; those are the first time I ever saw them, Guest admitted in an interview. There was no screenplay for Guffman; Guest used a loose outline to allow for flexibility. In order to produce a final product that can be understood as believable Guest expresses his meticulous attention to detail, it took quite a long time to delineate all the characters and show how they would all interact in this town. Guest set out to show how to skewer human pretensions without looking like you’re stabbing the human spirit.
To offer a realistic portrayal, mock documentaries borrow many of the tools that traditional documentary form uses to produce truth and rather, use them to produce fiction. The verite style is synonymous with both traditional and false documentary form to provide a sense of realistic camera work. In the verite style, the camera is handheld and shaky, lighting is uneven, sound quality is poor, and the acting is impeccable. This unprofessional look aids in the aura of believability. The Blair Witch Project is a recent example of a very successful use of the verite style. The credits provide the background of three young adults sent into the woods to make a movie of their adventure. This documentary style film takes place in Burkettesville, Maryland were a subsequent legendary haunted woods is the center of focus. Upon entering the old cemetery from the legend, strange events start to occur. They enter the forest and hear strange noises from the woods, get lost, lose their only map, they are soon starving, cold, bickering through the forest while videotaping the whole time. The movie is a documentary of their subsequent disappearance made from the footage they shot and left behind. Blair Witch posits itself as a documentary in the verite mode. Similar to Guffman, the actors in Blair Witch were not given a script to follow but had to react to the scenario they were presented with. Another way the director of a mockumentary is able to add to the convincing appearance of the film is by shying away from the recognizable faces of Hollywood. The movie credits list Heather Donahue, Michael S. Williams, and Joshua Leonard as the three actors in the film, blatantly recognizing the falsehood of the documentary style film. Historically factual events are often referred to, or actual places are depicted in Blair Witch and countless other faux documentaries. Presenting a controversial subject in a matter-of-fact style that allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions after being presented with objectively presented evidence is characteristic of the verite style.
A lesser known film from Belgium, C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous, which translates roughly to You Could Be Next, later re-titled Man Bites Dog, confuses the strict boundary between fact and fiction. The premise of this film involves a documentary crew, which has chosen to follow a notorious serial killer as he goes about his murderous rampage. The film the viewer is presented with is supposedly, the film documented by that crew. Just as in Blair Witch, Man Bites Dog opens up announcing that what we are watching has been made by Benoit Poelvoodre, Remy Belvaux, and Andre Bonzel; consequently, these are the names of the principal characters. Benoit is the killer, Remy is the director, and Andre is the cameraman. As the film progresses, the crewmembers undergo a drastic change in their attitude of Benoit and his profession. At first, they are taken aback by Benoit’s disregard for human life and his attitude toward the victims. However, this does not discourage them from continuing their documentary. Their desire to gain this valuable footage drives them on past their moral objections to this morbid account of life.
As they probe further into Benoit’s life they are fascinated and in his grasp. Until Patrick, the sound recordist is shot and killed. Remy immediately reacts by grabbing the camera from Patrick’s wounded body to make up for lost footage, while leaving his friend for dead. For Benoit, Patrick’s death means little. Remy, on the other hand, is seriously affected. In a heartfelt message, Remy turns the camera on himself and describes Patrick’s death as an occupational hazard, of which Patrick was no doubt aware. Remy vows to continue filming and rationalizes it by saying Patrick would have wanted it that way. Though the movie reveals Benoit to be not only a heartless murderer but also an ignorant, self-loathing, opinionated but, poorly informed fool, the crewmembers are lured in by his way of living. By the conclusion of the film, all three characters are dead, leaving their film as their only legacy.
Like Blair Witch, Man Bites Dog is shot in verite style, emphasizing a jerky, hand-held camera, inconsistent sound recordings, very few non-digital sounds, and remarkably realistic acting. The use of the verite style is one of the most important steps the filmmakers take in assuring that the viewers find the film believable. Though the subject itself, a crew following the actions of a serial killer, is absurd the film positions itself firmly within a documentary tradition that is associated with conveying the truth or events as they actually occur. Because the documentary form is so meticulously copied, it seems as natural to follow a psychopathic killer, as it does to follow a Heavy Metal band in This Is Spinal Tap.
Certainly not the originator of false documentaries, but a master of it, Orson Welles pulled a widely successful hoax in 1938 in his radio broadcast War of the Worlds. Despite the numerous disclaimers throughout the entire broadcast many of the listeners across the nation mistook his elaborate hoax as reality. In his broadcast, Welles was able to overwhelm the repeated disclaimers in his broadcast to provide a plausible account.
All documentaries manipulate their materials to a certain degree. Mock documentaries depend on this manipulation of truth. Traditional ethnographic documentaries just like mockumentaries take liberties with their material to present a constructed view. The practice of editing selects particular footage to convey a message and leaves other images omitted. The word manipulation in the meticulously written and highly emotional voice-over narration serve to project one view.
Part of what makes a mock documentary successful is its ability to exist as the same time in the world of the fictive and the world of the actual. A mock documentary’s stance is that the specific world it projects does not really exist, though the larger world that encompasses that specific world does exist and can be studied through the lens of the smaller, more specific world. By making assertions about its projected world a mock documentary, like a traditional documentary, can refer to the actual world.
Cinema and Television