A mockumentary (a portmanteau of the words mock and documentary), is a type of film or television show in which fictitious events are presented in documentary format. These productions are often used to analyze or comment on current events and issues by using a fictitious setting, or to parody the documentary form itself.
For all its iterations, though, the current popularity of the mockumentary has very little to do with artistry. The truth is that the rise of the form is sign of our economically polarizing times in Hollywood. As the industry becomes more top heavy, the mockumentary is becoming the best -- and maybe only -- way for indie filmmakers to compete. Or, more accurately, to opt out of competing. How else can a tiny budget stack up against slick, $100 million films, replete as they are with gigantic crews, famous casts, and computer imaging?
The increasing popularity of the mock-documentaries (with American television programmes ER, The Practice and even The Simpsons all featuring episodes using the form) offers a complex challenge to the distinctive status of documentary itself. The documentary genre has long enjoyed a privileged position within screen forms because of its claim to be able to accurately capture and represent reality. By demonstrating how easily and successfully documentary forms can be faked, mock-documentary effectively both subverts this special status and suggests a new relationship between audiences and the genre.
Though it had been used by humorists and filmmakers for many years, mockumentary comports nicely with the hyper-sardonic wit of the Internet era. There are countless online faux-documentary comedy bits at Funny or Die and other Web sites.The format remains funny because it seems just real enough. When they're looking right into the camera, the characters seem to be talking to us, the audience, their confidants -- which is flattering in a way. It's like irony frosting on an irony cake.
But the mockumentary has its challenges, too. The biggest hurdle is the suspension of disbelief. The irony of a "normal" fiction film is that we accept its tricks and conventions without hesitation (assuming it's well made). Whereas when a film declares upfront that it is "real," it has to keep earning our trust over and over again. The lens of a mockumentary is easier to create, but harder to maintain. For instance, once people start getting killed, or aliens start invading, the obvious question these movies beg is, "Why the hell would someone keep filming?" The stock solution is the conceit of the "film geek who's obsessed with capturing everything." That's getting old (unfortunately, I think Chronicle follows this path).
From a filmmaking perspective, the popularity of the mockumentary makes a whole lot of sense. For both studios and independent producers, these films cost way less money, all you need is some cheap cameras and some no-name actors. Creatively, it's very liberating for directors. After all, it's required that the technical elements be a few steps behind, that there are a few "pretty mistakes" thrown in -- you know, that it looks a bit like crap. Likewise, it's an actor's dream: freed from the challenge of forcing naturalism into the demands of plot, actors are able to relax, to languish in the quirks and habits of character.
Mockumentary is a key discourse within contemporary culture, a 'call to play' that centres on the appropriation of nonfiction codes and conventions. It has been used by filmmakers and television producers to reenergise genres from horror (The Blair Witch Project), to science fiction (Cloverfield), political drama (Death of a President) and more recently sitcom (The Office). Mockumentary is now an established part of the spectrum of television styles, with both deep roots in television history and a key part of innovations in the sitcom genre since the 1990s. As television producers have exploited the possibilities for mockumentary programming within the densely layered, intertextual environment of televisual space, they have created richly layered experiences for audiences.
The mockumentary format often explores mundane character and situations, critiquing the limits of human empathy and imagination. The mockumentary also comments on the relationship between the subject and the media itself, such as in the relationship between filmmakers and serial killer in C'est arrivé près de chez vous (Remy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992). The subgenre can also resist the marketing conceits of Hollywood aesthetics and production.
The fake documentary that firmly yoked (and hilariously ripped apart) the you-are-there immediacy of cinéma-vérité and the archeological work of the archival documentary was This Is Spinal Tap (1984), directed by Rob Reiner and featuring the power chord lineup of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (about whom more later). Mimicking the conventional tools of both trades (hand-held traveling shots, available lighting, off-the-cuff interviews, and the fabrication of dated screen grains, notably kinescopes from the prevideotape television era), the film tapped into the deep memory of The Ed Sullivan Show, Shindig (19641966), Don't Look Back (1967), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Let It Be (1970) to fashion what documentarian Marty DiBergi (Reiner) dubbed a "rockumentary, if you will," a phrase that inspired the neologism that stuck: "mockumentary."
Spurred on by the establishment of the Vanderbilt Television Archives in 1968, the donation of the Universal Newsreel collection to the National Archives in 1972, and the belated preservation efforts of the major networks and film studios, a mammoth and readily retrievable cache of stock footage supplied the raw material for the patchwork genre known as the archival or compilation film, the preferred delivery system for motion-picture-mediated history lessons. The result has been a population explosion in celluloid and video-dependent texts.
And real begets fake. The proliferation of archival documentaries spawned in turn a teeming school of pilot-fish imitators, parodists, and deconstructionists, both popular (Ernie Kovacs) and avant-garde (Shirley Clarke). Most strived to mimic not just the tone and content but also the technique and technology of the original, a mimetic impulse that fulfilled its Platonic dream with the seamless matching and digital precision of Computer Generated Imagery.
The mockumentary refers to a rapidly growing subgenre of the documentary. This form draws on recognisable documentary conventions to serve story-telling purposes. Examples range from the newsreel in Citizen Kane to Christopher Guest's improvisational offerings of This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, to the television show The Office, whose format has since been imported to the United States, France, Germany, and Canada.