Here at SBS Documentary Online, we take non-fiction films seriously. Which is why we get such a kick out of filmmakers who make fake ones and the fake ones they make. And we don’t mean “mockumentary,” a term which can be traced back to 1950s Britain but really gained traction when director Rob Reiner used it in interviews to describe his massively influential 1980s comedy, This is Spinal Tap.
The fake documentaries in this list are the more innovative and formal exercises in simulating the non-fiction form, each of which retains influence and value today.
10. Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (USA, 1927)
Arguably the film that created this rarefied genre, Chang was filmed on location in Thailand (then called Siam) by filmmaking partners Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. They refer to it as a “melodrama with man, the jungle and wild animals as its cast,” but they clearly envisioned the film as a fly-on-the wall depiction of Lao tribesman Kru and his exotic surroundings—even though they’re clearly orchestrating the events they film. Five years later, of course, Schoedsack and Cooper made the classic King Kong.
See also: additional nature documentaries from the period, including Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926), as well as the first Schoedsack-Cooper collaboration, Grass (1925).
9. Forgotten Silver (New Zealand, 1995)
And speaking of King Kong, one of Peter Jackson’s early films, released years before he remade the hallowed classic, remains amongst his best. Forgotten Silver tells of the previously unheralded New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie, whose work, discovered in a shed by Jackson, proves conclusively that McKenzie invented the tracking shot, the close-up and even the biblical epic. With Jackson handling the recreation of “old” movie footage and Costa Botes—an accomplished filmmaker in his own right whose The Last Dogs of Winter just played the Sydney Film Festival—handling the fraudulent interviews with Sam Neill, historian Leonard Maltin and even then-Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, Forgotten Silver was so convincing in its recreation of a lost body of work that it provoked an unintentional response. In the clip below, Botes refers to the hostility the filmmakers received when audiences realised McKenzie doesn’t exist.
See also: Czech auteur Petr Zelenka’s fake band spoof Manga: Happy End (1997).
8. Best in Show (USA, 2000)
The man who kick-started the current mockumentary proliferation with This is Spinal Tap in 1984, writer-comedian-musician Christopher Guest returned to the form in 1997 with the cult comedy Waiting for Guffman. And whilst he subsequently made the definitively elaborate A Mighty Wind in 2003, perhaps his most fully rounded societal satire remains this gentle spoof of dogs and their owners, Best in Show. Almost all of Guest’s unofficial stock company is present, with each getting a satisfactory share of the good lines. Should one ever come across the notoriously prickly Guest on the street, remember that “mockumentary” is a term he apparently despises.
See also: that profoundly weird 2010 put-on I’m Still Here, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, and, of course, Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap.
7. The Tunnel (Australia, 2011)
Carlo Ledesma’s little crowd-sourced film The Tunnel transcends its Blair Witch Project inspiration (see number two, below) to emerge a profoundly disturbing film about the false bravado of journalism and the dangers of ambition. In search of a story about a reservoir in a vast abandoned space under Sydney’s Hyde Park, a journalist and her two-man crew find an unexpected surprise in the water supply. The raw acting sells this as much as the claustrophobic sets, with the script by Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey sustaining an admirable plausibility as the crew’s predicament becomes worse and they leave hope—not to mention common sense—far, far behind.
See also: Joel Anderson’s equally affecting 2008 Australian supernatural thriller Lake Mungo.
6. Land without Bread (Spain, 1933)
An early parody of the still-young non-fiction form, Luis Buñuel’s sole “documentary” is in reality—or, what passes for reality in the Buñuelian universe—a scathing and Surrealist condemnation of sanctimony that grafts a lofty narration on to a travelogue about human misery in a remote and mountainous area of Spain. Buñuel used to tell the story, apocryphal or not, of the sum of money that he was given by a lottery-winning admirer to make the film, “with 4000 I bought a Fiat.” Land without Bread is only 27 minutes long, but its influence has cast a long and deep shadow in the annals of film history.
See also: directors Jorn Hintzner and Jakob Hüfner’s German social issue comedy Measures to Better the World (2005).
5. David Holzman’s Diary (USA, 1967)
The film that influenced a generation of young moviemakers, David Holzman’s Diary is the entirely fraudulent personal diary of the eponymous youth, a movie-obsessed New Yorker who learns about himself more from filming what he does than actually thinking about it. The film was produced by Michael Wadleigh, who shortly thereafter directed Woodstock; stars L.M. “Kit” Carson, who later wrote Paris, Texas for Wim Wenders and the horror sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2; and was written and directed by Jim McBride, whose subsequent films include the modern noir The Big Easy, the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! and episodes of Six Feet Under. Together, McBride and Carson wrote that oddly revered 1983 remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless with Richard Gere.
See also: the technically astonishing and thoroughly delightful 1999 historical memoir Hans Warns: My 20th Century by German director Gordian Maugg.
4. Dadetown (USA, 1995)
Almost certainly the rarest and thus least-known film on this list, director Russ Hexter’s Dadetown is about the eponymous New York State hamlet and the ripple effects of changes brought on by economic change. The film caused quite a stir when it was presented in the documentary section of the Vancouver International Film Festival that year, and a more complete rendition of the tragic events surrounding the film and its maker may be found here. Good luck finding a copy, however, as the film seems to be currently unavailable on any format. The longer it remains unseen, the greater its stature will become—and the film itself bears up under the scrutiny. The Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Hexter’s alma mater, currently offers the Russell Hexter Filmmaker Grant for current students in financial need.
See also: Comparing Dadetown to the work of Michael Moore reveals the manipulation at the heart of the portly polemicist’s worldview.
3. The Blair Witch Project (USA, 1999)
Amongst the earliest examples of viral marketing, the 1990’s shining example of art by accident and a bonafide cultural phenomena is, of course, a low-budget psychological horror film about three student filmmakers who are lost in the woods of Maryland as they search for the "Blair Witch." But it is also very much about the stubborn sense of entitlement and deep self absorption of that decade's youth, traits instilled via contemporary child-rearing that doom these fledgling filmmakers as surely as the most determined ax-wielding maniac.
Credit goes to the young directors Myrick and Sánchez for having the discipline to jettison all the extraneous mockumentary material and focus on the real drama of poor, dumb, bratty Heather (“this can’t happen to us,” she wails, “we’re in America!”) and her two increasingly petulant crew members, Joshua and Michael, as they flail around the forest in search of something they clearly have no idea what to do with should they ever find it.
See also: the more deliberately commercial but no less terrifying Paranormal Activity and [REC] franchises, as well as the provocative, soon-to-be-released Australian independent film Muirhouse.
2. Series 7: The Contenders (USA, 2001)
Take a handful of actors recognisable to anyone who mainlined Law and Order at the turn of the last millennium, give them a prescient, mischievous script that predicts with unerring accuracy and sadistic glee the soon-to-become ubiquitous reality TV genre and the result is Daniel Minahan’s now-familiar but still jarring Series 7: The Contenders, in which the American government selects citizens at random, arms them and sets them out to hunt one another down amongst the citizenry for the hard-fought right to keep breathing. “I saw you on TV. I love you,” an adoring child says at one point to the pregnant and fearless protagonist Brooke Smith, (the woman at the bottom of the pit in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs). This is not only a groundbreaking film, but the most unheralded guilty pleasure of the early aughts.
See also: Woody Allen’s first film, Take the Money and Run (1969), Belgian director Rémy Belvaux’s 1992 sensation Man Bites Dog, and, to stretch the conceit, Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial 2000 Japanese thriller Battle Royale.
1. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (France, 2000)
The cinema of Peter Watkins deserves a top ten all of its own: since bursting on the British scene with the fake documentary about nuclear war in England, The War Game, in 1965, Watkins has excelled at filtering social criticism through the lens of a complicit media. His 1969 film The Gladiators (aka The Peace Game) imagines world wars being fought by bands of drafted teenagers, whilst Punishment Park (1971) imagines then-US president Richard Nixon authorising detention camps for dissident youth. Clocking in at a whopping but fast-moving five hours and 45 minutes, La Commune (Paris, 1871) employs a huge cast of non-professionals to tell of the two-month control of Paris by workers and radical intellectuals. The twist is much of the film is told as if TV cameras were recording events as they unfolded, and the entire film was shot within a labyrinthine set constructed on the floor of a cavernous warehouse. Thrilling and essential, this is a visionary, intellectual exercise in politics and media.
See also: Gillo Pontecorvo’s groundbreaking 1966 drama The Battle of Algiers (a 40th anniversary screening of which will be held at the upcoming Abu Dhabi Film Festival), Kevin Wilmott’s bold C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004), Gabriel Range’s clever 2006 assassination docudrama Death of a President, director Geoff Bowie’s Canadian making-of on La Commune, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (2001) and, of course, the films of Watkins himself.
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