Mockumentary represent a little-known aspect of cinema, yet it is full of creativity. It is a genre of movie created respecting the rules of documentary but with a fictional subject. It can be a band that never existed or an historical event that never took place. Mockumentaries often have a satirical aspect and common characteristics. For example, it is common that the director or someone from the technical crew work also as an actor. Sometimes, in order to seem more realistic, some movies are shot in the street with the major part of the participants not aware that they will appear in a fictional work. The topic itself can be more or less realistic, up to a reality show with vampires. A film is considered as a mockumentary as long as it uses genre’s codes.
By definition, a mockumentary is a comedy produced and edited like a documentary, it is important to set a preferential relationship with the audience. Commonly, all along a mockumentary, the actors will break the fourth wall to give matter and credibility to the documentary aspect of the work.
Most of the mockumentaries are comedy but it is possible to bring to the force other genres. We can think of The Blair Witch project by Daniel Myrick and Edouardo Sanchez or Paranormal Activity by Oren Peli, those horror movies are really inspired by the documentary genre without any comedy aspect.
Nowadays, the style of mockumentaries is also an influence for some well-known sitcoms (like The Office). It is explicable because of a very original style which give a lot of room to imagination. Indeed, every topic a potentially a good matter to make a great mockumentary.
A Breve history of mockumentar
We can find the origin of mockumentary in the early 30s, especially with Land without Bread (1933) by Luis Bunuel or several fake radio news during Aprils, 1st. This genre will grow several decades later. It is a well-accepted fact that Woody Allen with Take the Money and Run is the one who bring the genre in theaters in 1969. The movie is about a criminal, played by Allen himself: Virgil Starkwell, whose crimes are explored throughout the movie. This idea was a cornerstone for the mockumentary universe, it was explored many times after, particularly in Man bites Dog, parody of the Belgian emission Strip-Tease. Here, the main character is a mercenary who explains his job and all his exactions. This movie is one of the first French-speaking mockumentary and remain, even these days, one of the most well done.
It is acknowledged that the early 1980 are the principal years when the genre takes a brand-new turn and draw more and more attention. The number of productions is more important every day and the topics covered are broader (The Gods Must Be Crazy by Jamie Uys in 1980 is staged as an animal documentary with a so-called biologist voice-over. In 1982 The Atomic Café by Kevin and Pierce Rafferty is a movie centered on the Cold War with 1950s archives. In 1988 Woody Allen is back with Zelig…)
The most important year for the genre is probably 1984 with the come out of This is Spinal Tap by Rob Reiner. The film has established itself as an example in this regard. Co-written by Christopher Guest, it is the first in a long series (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) making him one of the main contributors to the rise of parodic documentaries.
Nevertheless, this style has its limits and sometimes the film is too convincing and can generate a lot of criticism when the audience learns the parodic and fictional side of the documentary. This is what happened in 1995 with Forgotten Silver by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes. This New Zealand movie tells the story of the discovery of a director who was a pioneer, totally forgotten by all, of colour cinema. He would also have directed the first Kung-Fu film. This parodic documentary was so credible that the spectators complained when they learned that everything was finally fake.
Another limit, as important as the latest and putting at risk the whole credibility of the movie is the use of actors too famous. It was the case for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan by Larry Charles which come out in 2006 where Sacha Baron Cohen holds the main role. He was already known for its part as an eccentric rapper in Ali-G. Only the comic aspect of the movie remains, the documentary side has been totally wiped out. That did not prevent the success of the movie, which became a true commercial success and the most profitable mockumentary in history. Moreover, Sacha Baron Cohen reiterated the feat three years later with Brüno.
The mockumentary genre in 4 movies:
This is Spinal Tap (1984) by Rob Reiner
This movie is the story of a fake British hard-rock band: Spinal Tap. The band is at the peak of its talent, their groupies are crazy, and all their concerts are sold out.
It is a classic of the genre, often considered one of the most successful mockumentaries. We follow one interview after another, sequences with a hand-helded camera, always trying to be as intimate as possible. It is because of its credibility and its absurdity, peculiar to the hard-rock world, that the film is a great success.
Man Bites Dog (1992) by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde
Man Bites Dog tells the story of Ben, a mercenary, through the prism of a team of journalists wanting to film a story about his everyday life. From the very first scenes, the whole point of the film is clear to us: to denounce the sometimes inhuman and very voyeuristic cynicism of journalism. Indeed, the film begins with a scene in which Ben explains how to properly weight a body so that it remains at the bottom of a lake. It is with boundless cold-blood, very disturbing composure that he compares the amount of stone to put on a child, an elderly person with porous bones or an average adult. Without concession, to the very end, the film perfectly brings the genre of the parodic documentary to French-speaking countries.
Best in Show (2000) by Christopher Guest
The film copes with a theme that is as confusing as it is original: dog shows. Here we follow many owners, all as eccentric and all as proud as each other, participating in the prestigious Mayflower Show. Credibility is enhanced by following the participants (and the former champion) on the one hand, and the organizers and hoteliers ready to welcome the crowd on the other. Indeed, the Mayflower Show designates the most beautiful dog of the year. All breeds are invited, but only one dog can ace the competition.
The film is burlesque not only because of the subject but also because of its colorful characters: from the humble salesman in a fishing shop to the wife of a rich millionaire, from the extravagant hairdresser to the franchouillard presenter..
. all the clichés of the deep United States are present.
Intelligently directed, funny and credible at the same time, Best in Show is a perfectly directed documentary on a one of a kind subject.
Houston, we have a problem! (2017) by Ziga Virc
It’s the least known of these 4 films, but perhaps the most disturbing of all in terms of credibility. We have here a historical mockumentary on a period still full of shadows and complexity: the Cold War. Based on archive footage and official documents, the director makes us believe with brio that during this war the United States tried everything to overtake the USSR in the race for space. A precious and surprising ally makes its appearance: Tito. He decides to sell his entire space program, hiding the fact that it is defective. This will obviously not be without consequences for the United States and Yugoslavia.
This film stands out because it very skillfully mixes proven facts (for example, Tito’s official trip to Morocco) and myths to confuse us with reality so that, at the end of the film, it is difficult for us to know how to untangle the true from the false. The complexity of this film highlights the complexity of an era, the ins and outs of which we still don’t fully know.
The genre of mockumentary, although still little known, offers us an anthology of films that deserve to be seen on subjects as varied as possible: music, politics, history … By taking over the codes of documentary and by appropriating them, it also manages to denounce some vices, as seen in particular in Man bites Dog, which unscrupulously highlights the life of a mercenary, denouncing the aspect sometimes die-hard of programs such as Strip Tease. Sometimes really credible, often funny but always intelligently made, a mockumentary can be a surprise, but it always has a lot to teach us, from a storytelling point of view and from the possibilities of making a really relevant film even with a minimal budget.