Total Recall

Total Recall: Mock Docs That Rock

With Bruno hitting theaters, we present a brief history of the mockumentary.

by | July 9, 2009 | Comments

Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The British-born Cohen gained a cult following in the states with his cult hit Da Ali G Show, then went on to big-screen fame with the gut-busting, wince-inducing gonzo mock doc Borat. This week he’s back with another of his alter egos: the flamboyant Austrian fashionista Bruno. And since Bruno toys with narrative while tweaking real life, we at RT decided to do a brief history of the mockumentary (in chronological order of release).


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David Holzman’s Diary (1967)

Jim McBride’s satire on cinema verite filmmaking may not be the first mockumentary — for example, Peter Watkins’ little-seen The War Game, a fake news doc about a nuclear attack on Britain, was produced two years before. Still, Diary was a remarkable formal breakthrough, and a key work of American independent cinema. In the movie, the unemployed and possibly Vietnam-bound cinephile David (L.M. Kit Carson) attempts to chronicle virtually every aspect of his life, but his endeavor is met with disdain (and sometimes violence) from the people around him. Shot over five days on a minuscule budget, McBride’s film was a goof on the hyper-seriousness of the documentary process, and laid the groundwork for movies that blurred the line between real life and fiction. “Where most independent productions are founded on self-righteous claims of truth and honesty, McBride’s film wittily observes that Hollywood has no corner on illusionism,” wrote Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader.


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Real Life (1979)

At this point, few viewers are likely to believe that reality television isn’t manipulated in some way, be it by heavy editing, music cues, or intentional omissions. Albert Brooks’ directorial debut Real Life satirized such conventions before they became commonplace. Brooks stars as an intrusive, egocentric filmmaker who decides to film the daily doings of an average American family. However, rather than allowing for journalistic detachment, he arrogantly attempts to control his subjects’ lives in order to make a more compelling movie. Made in the wake of PBS’s pioneering reality show An American Family, Real Life deftly demonstrates that reality is hard to come by when the cameras are rolling. Larry Carroll of Countingdown.com called it “a great, underrated, lost gem of a film that accurately predicted and lampooned reality television long before it ever came to be.”


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Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

By their nature, mockumentaries make us uneasy; the dividing line between fact and fiction is part of the genre’s appeal. However, Cannibal Holocaust did more than disquiet audiences – its director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested in Italy on charges he’d made a snuff film. Cannibal Holocaust is the story of four documentarians who go missing while filming indigenous peoples in the rainforests of South America. When an anthropologist finds their footage, he learns the distressing, depraved nature of their deaths. Despite the grisly realism of the murders depicted in the film, no humans were actually killed during the making of Cannibal Holocaust (a fact that allowed Deodato to be released from jail), but a number of animals were slaughtered on camera, which led the movie to be banned in several countries. “The effect is now familiar, but back then it was incredibly shocking, as most viewers believed every word of it,” wrote Christopher Null of Filmcritic.com.

Warning: NSFW on any level.


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Zelig (1983)

Woody Allen’s strange tale of a “human chameleon” is unique in his body of work; it’s also technically stunning. Allen stars as the title character, a 1930s-era man with the ability to transform himself to fit in with the people around him. Zelig’s story is told in the form of a contemporary documentary, with “academics” and “historians” providing insight into the life and fame of the protagonist. Made 11 years before Forrest Gump, Zelig utilized bluescreen technology to integrate Allen with archive footage; he shows up alongside such noteworthy figures as Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, and Al Capone. Zelig is a “hilarious Woody Allen vehicle, a mockumentary with special effects ahead of its time,” wrote Steve Crum of Dispatch-Tribune Newspapers.


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This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is Spinal Tap marks a turning point for the mockumentary form; what was once fodder for cinematic experimenting became a genre unto itself. Rob Reiner’s hilarious faux-chronicle of the decline of a clueless metal band was so spot on in its details that many failed to realize it wasn’t actually a doc; rock legends like Steven Tyler and Eddie Van Halen barely batted an eyelash at Spinal Tap’s misfortunes, and some close to Reiner asked him why he didn’t choose to follow a better-known band. In a modern-day example of life imitating art, the primary members of Tap — Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer — actually cut records and played stadiums, and the movie became a back-of-the-bus staple for touring bands. The film’s influence on the mock-doc is easy to spot; the Tap trio has gone on to create such fake flicks as Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, while the hip hop-skewering Fear of a Black Hat mines similar satirical territory. “There had been countless documentary spoofs before This Is Spinal Tap, but this inspired put-on was the first to actually capture the texture and style of real documentary,” wrote Sean Axmaker of Seanax.com.

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Bob Roberts (1992)

As played by Tim Robins, Bob Roberts is sort of a cross between Joe McCarthy and Woody Guthrie: a demagogue disguised as a guitar-playing populist. This mock record of Roberts’ run for a Pennsylvania senate seat has moments that would seem ludicrous were they not so similar to many modern political campaigns. Roberts sings songs that lampoon progressives while extolling greed; his ingratiating affect does much to disguise his mean-spiritedness. Bob Roberts features some hilarious Bob Dylan parodies, as well as a host of well-played small roles (including John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, James Spader, and, in his debut, Jack Black). Robbins may be an avowed left-winger, but his film is less a shot at conservatives than a satire of the ways in which politics has become another form of show business, with the mass media complicit in the spin cycle. “A sort of political This Is Spinal Tap, Bob Roberts is both a stimulating social satire and, for thinking people, a depressing commentary on the devolution of the American political system,” wrote Todd McCarthy of Variety.


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Forgotten Silver (1995)

Before joining the ranks of superstar directors with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Peter Jackson (and co-director Costa Botes) made this fake tribute to Colin McKenzie, a non-existent New Zealand film pioneer and inventor. In Forgotten Silver, Jackson claims that his discovery of McKenzie’s work proves he’s the creator of modern film, with color and sound among his many cinematic innovations; in addition, Jackson “unearthed” pieces of McKenzie’s greatest achievement, an epic adaptation of the tale of Salome. The movie’s fake interviews and recreated archive footage were so effective that many viewers were stunned to learn it wasn’t real; indeed, Jackson subsequently made a 30-minute follow-up, Behind the Bull, to address Forgotten Silver‘s perplexed audience. “Quite aside from being perhaps the most elaborate prank in Jackson’s career to date (or since), Forgotten Silver is a brilliant piece of moviemaking,” wrote Rob Rob Gonsalves of efilmcritic.com.


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The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project was a word-of-mouth sensation before the term “viral marketing” entered the mainstream lexicon. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ low-budget, monster-free creepshow — purported to be found footage from three documentarians who were killed in the woods of Maryland on the trail of a legendary local apparition — was passed off as the real thing, and their guerrilla campaign was met with an alarming amount of credulity. It didn’t hurt that the film’s stars expertly improvised their way through many ominous scenarios, each time reacting with a level of increased terror that’s hard to fake. Equally effective (or stomach-churning, depending on one’s point of view) was the shaky, hand-held camerawork shot by the participants, which heightened the feeling of impending doom. “The movie’s unfinished, catch-as-catch-can look, complete with jiggly camerawork and sometimes blurred imagery, is one of the primary reasons it’s so disturbing and creepy,” wrote James Sanford of the Kalamazoo Gazette. (Click here for more on the making of the film from Myrick and Sánchez.)


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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Disarmingly clueless, heedlessly goofy, and loaded with prejudice, Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego Borat is quite a character. And by passing himself off as a TV journalist from Kazakhstan, Cohen was able to elicit some remarkably frank (and stunningly boneheaded) admissions from his subjects. Borat takes the form of a road movie, with its protagonist meeting well-known politicians and average folks across the USA while on a mission to meet (and hopefully wed) a certain Baywatch babe. Some find themselves bemused by this odd stranger, while others end up revealing a dark strain of intolerance in the American psyche. Borat is a serious work of social criticism,” wrote Joe Williams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “but it’s also the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.”


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Surf’s Up (2007)

While most mockumentaries purport to tell “real” stories, the genre is remarkably flexible. Case in point: Surf’s Up, a CGI feature that documents the trials and tribulations of a surfing penguin. Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) is a loner in Antarctica, where his obsession with riding the waves are mocked by his penguin peers. Surf’s Up follows Cody as he prepares to compete against a number of talented birds in Big Z Memorial Surf Off, named for Cody’s boyhood idol. The film parodies sports programming, talking-heads docs, and surf films like The Endless Summer; it’s remarkably sophisticated for a kids flick, but never forgets to entertain. “Many of the riffs in the mock documentary might be lost on little tykes, but the film’s feel-good message of perseverance, friendship and finding your own wave should be enjoyed by all,” wrote Kevin Crust of the Los Angeles Times.


Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Bruno.

Finally, we leave you with Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, an April Fool’s Day joke aired by the BBC in 1957 that’s considered to be one of the first mockumentaries:

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