'Mockumentaries' make the outlandish seem true

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

18 January 2008


In the new movie “Cloverfield” a towering monster runs amok in New York City, knocking over buildings and collapsing bridges.

No, it’s not a very original idea. But “Cloverfield” sells an old premise by telling the entire story through the footage shot on a video cam by a 20-something partygoer who witnesses these cataclysmic events.

cover art


Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller

US theatrical: 18 Jan 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 1 Feb 2008 (General release)

Review [20.Apr.2008]
Review [18.Jan.2008]

“The idea of a Godzilla-like creature trashing New York is pretty absurd,” observes Anthony Timpone, editor of Fangoria, a magazine devoted to horror, fantasy and science fiction.

“But by telling the tale through `found footage,’ the filmmakers provide the sort of immediacy that might overcome the viewers’ objections. They’ve even cast the film with talented unknowns. ... If it was Tom Cruise running around trying to evade the monster, it would take you out of the movie. But having unknown actors helps sell you on the story’s authenticity.”

No matter how convincingly made, “Cloverfield” is unlikely to persuade anyone that it’s based on real events.

Yet just a few years back a little movie called “The Blair Witch Project” did just that. The film so effectively employed “found footage” - purportedly left behind by members of a documentary crew who vanished in the Maryland woods - that thousands of gullible moviegoers became convinced it was the real deal.

Called fake documentaries, mockumentaries or faux reality, movies that mimic documentary forms can range from the hilarious to the dead serious.

Often, as in the comedies of filmmaker Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show”), they have satiric intentions and slyly ridicule political and cultural norms and human foibles.

Sometimes the format is used to make the scares scarier, as with “Cloverfield” or George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” (scheduled to open Feb. 15), in which footage shot by students making a zombie movie reveals that they’ve captured real zombies on film.

At other times, as with director Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” the mockumentary format brings added realism to dramatic current events.

In that film the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by American soldiers is told entirely through the evidence left by a GI’s video, surveillance cameras, Web sites, news footage and a documentary film. It’s fake, but it looks real.

As we’ve seen with “Blair Witch,” these movies can be quite convincing.

Which raises an interesting question: Are we sophisticated enough to recognize when the images we see in theaters and on TV and the Internet have been faked? Are we smart to the scam?

“I don’t think there is an easy answer to these questions,” said Craig Hight, a New Zealand educator and co-author of the book “Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality.”

“Audiences are familiar with mockumentaries after watching everything from `This Is Spinal Tap’ to `Blair Witch’ to TV’s `The Office’ to `Borat.’ So they are `sophisticated’ to the extent of their knowledge of the form.”

People watch reality TV shows like “Survivor,” well aware that authentic images can be manipulated and rearranged, Hight said, and almost everyone recognizes that photographs and video footage can be digitally altered so convincingly that only analysts with sophisticated computer programs can detect the changes.

“Despite all of these developments, I think we still have a common-sense belief in photographic images,” Hight said. “We go to the television set to see what really happened, to hear the emotion, to live something of the experience. We still seek those forms of media that we can assume are more `authentic’ or `raw.’ I think that’s a key part of the attraction of sites like YouTube, with so much amateur content.”

In fact, the Internet is replete with sites offering bits of fuzzy footage recorded by just plain folks on their cell phone cameras. We assume that what we see really happened, whether it’s footage of skateboarders doing incredible stunts or of sidewalk fistfights.

But there’s nothing to stop a tech-savvy provocateur from giving us staged or digitally manipulated footage and making it seem real by mimicking the look and feel of something recorded on a cell phone.

It’s all part of a long tradition of selling fantastic fiction by making it seem real. Bram Stoker’s original vampire yarn “Dracula,” for example, was written as a series of diary entries, an approach that made the story seem plausible. Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938 so perfectly mimicked a night of standard radio fare that when it was interrupted by fake news reports of a Martian invasion, mass hysteria followed.

“We’re pushovers for this stuff,” said Chris Gore, movie critic and operator of the pop culture site filmthreat.com.

“You could argue that there are no original stories left, but there are original ways of telling those stories. A film told in fake documentary style approaches the material in an entirely new way. And we’re eager - maybe too eager - to buy into the illusion.”

An exhibition opening next month at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington examines this very issue. The show, “The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image,” explores (according to the exhibit’s program) “the ever-increasing impact of the cinematic on our perceptions and the ways in which the very boundaries between ` real life’ and make-believe have become at least blurred, if not indecipherable.”

Kristen Hileman, co-curator of the exhibit, said the show examines “how contemporary artists use a documentary aesthetic to create a convincing illusion of real life, or to present alternate views of reality.”

One installation, created by a young woman who grew up in the Republic of the Congo, contrasts propaganda footage celebrating that country’s dictator with images of the artist participating in a march to honor his reign.

“Only her movements are so mechanical and puppet-like that it forces you to examine how politicians and the media can create a spectacle that doesn’t at all represent what people are truly experiencing,” Hileman said.

Another piece in the show uses a computer program to turn footage of the reading of the verdict of the O.J. Simpson trial into a cartoon. The change in medium, from news footage to animation, completely changes the viewer’s reading of the scene and forces us to consider how images can be manipulated.

“You come away thinking that we really need to be savvy about what we’re looking at,” Hileman said.

Younger audiences tend to be wiser to visual trickery than their parents, Hight suggests.

“What’s somewhat shocking and disturbing for older audiences has become just a fact of life that young people deal with every day,” he said. “After all, we’ve got `The Daily Show’ giving us a constant lesson in deconstructing the news. It’s a new kind of literacy which is becoming more mainstream, and it’s created a more challenging environment for filmmakers to operate within.”

Hileman said she endorses “a healthy cynical attitude” about the images we’re fed through the media.

“That attitude is a manifestation of a culture becoming more self-aware about image use and the technological tools that can manipulate reality.

“But at the same time, one of the big attractions of art is that people appreciate being fooled. We love the illusion, and part of the pleasure of being sucked in is knowing that the reality we’re being immersed in isn’t real.

“The cinematic experience, after all, will always be about suspending our disbelief.”



“Cannibal Holocaust” (1980): In this gruesome exploitation film, documentary footage left behind by a film crew in the South American jungle reveals a bloody encounter with an Indian tribe.

“This Is Spinal Tap” (1984): A has-been Brit heavy metal band tours America in this hilarious faux documentary from Rob Reiner. Among the leads is Christopher Guest (see below).

“84 Charlie Mopic” (1989): An American patrol in search of the Viet Cong is shown in the footage of an Army cameraman sent along to record their mission. Regarded by many as the most authentic Vietnam combat movie ever.

The films of Christopher Guest: After starring in “Spinal Tap,” Guest adopted the mockumentary as his signature directing style. The result: largely improvised comedies like 1996’s “Waiting for Guffman” (about a small-town historic pageant), 2000’s “Best in Show” (the national dog show), 2003’s “A Mighty Wind” (folk singers) and 2006’s “For Your Consideration” (Oscar mania).

“The Blair Witch Project” (1999): Made on the cheap, this atmospheric horror film felt so “authentic” many moviegoers assumed it was the real thing. One of the most lucrative movies ever released.

“The Office” (2005- ): This popular workplace TV comedy employs documentary-style talking-head interviews in which characters speak directly to the camera.

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