Wednesday, February 14th, 2007 | movies & tv
Some posts ago, I wrote about Alternate Reality Games, a new genre of games that is crossing the boundaries between fiction and reality. There is another medium that does the very same thing: Fake documentaries, or short: mockumentaries.
Mockumentaries tell a fictitious account – the story of a person, an event, a place – in the style of a documentary that suggest the viewer the account could be true. Mockumentaries look like real documentaries and often feature talking heads (for example experts or witnesses) being interviewed by a reporter as well as fake or recontextualized footage. They are either made for comedic purposes (hoaxes or satire), or to achieve a dramatic effect by making a fictitious story feel more “real” than it really is.
When Aliens Attack
The most famous mockumentary is undoubtedly Orson Welles’s radio drama War of the Worlds, which tells the story of a Mars invasion through expert interviews and reports on location (including screaming and dying reporters). Upon first broadcast in 1938, War of the Worlds triggered a nation-wide panic in the US and is until today often cited as example for the power of mass media.
One of the first film mockumentary was the hilarious 1957 BBC news report (and April hoax) The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. In a short segment of 3 minutes, the news anchor seriously comments on how an exceptionally mild winter has made it possible to harvest high quality pasta from spaghetti trees in Ticino, Switzerland. The footage shows a Swiss family collecting spaghetti from its own small plantation. The segment can still be viewed on the BBC website (low video quality, but very watchable). [watch The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest - Real Video].
A modern and dramatic example for a mockumentary is The Blair Witch Project, which most of you will know. It tells the story of three film students attempting to investigate the New Jersey legend of the Blair Witch – and getting lost in the woods. The Blair Witch Project was groundbreaking in its viral distribution through the internet in 1999, which suggested that the footage was real. With a budget of 25.000 US$ and a box office result of $ 248 million US$ it remains the most profitable film to date.
Other mockumentaries I can fully recommend are:
- The Office: A humorous BBC mockumentary series about a paper manufacturer in the UK (and the world’s most terrible boss)
- Interview with the Assassin: A dramatic mockumentary about a reporter whose neighbor confesses to the Kennedy assassination
- The Confederate States of America: An report set in an alternate history-USA in which the US Civil War was won by the South
- Zelig: A Woody Allan mockumentary about Leonard Zelig, “the human chameleon”
Great Fake Reporting
With Michael Moore’s Bowling for Colombine, the advent of reality TV and the increased distribution of movies through the internet, documentaries have become more accessible to wider audiences than ten years ago. Mockumentaries are the documentaries’ ironic cousins and show that you don’t need a big budget to make a great comedy or thriller. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.
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