Reality can take on many forms, but this isn't one of them.
[Editor's Note: This video essay is part of our "Everything You Need to Know" series created exclusively for No Film School by Senior Post. To revisit the first two entries in the series, click here and here.]
All truths are not created equal, and in the case of the difficult-to-categorize films identified as mockumentaries, all truths are false. Encompassing a style long associated with the work of nonfiction—handheld camerawork, jarringly abrupt edits, fly-on-the-wall scenarios, the breaking of the fourth wall—mockumentaries are often hilarious due to the execution of the form: how could something this absurd be real?
In the third video from our "Everything You Need to Know Series," we break down the history of the genre and its far-ranging examples of challenging cinema "truthiness."
Mockumentaries can take many forms, and the genre has persisted due to the creative possibilities (and lack of rules) it offers its makers. The BBC's report on spaghetti noodles being grown from trees was presented as a real news broadcast, Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) took a "man-on-the-street" approach to the form by interacting with confused and unaware non-actors, and Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (What We Do in the Shadows) used the genre to bring a comedic element to the mundanity of vampires' daily lives.
Although frequently associated with the films of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) and the hit sitcom, The Office, the genre doesn't require its narrative to be comedic. It was at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival—and across multiplexes nationwide the following summer—where indie horror The Blair Witch Project shocked audiences for serving as legitimate documentation of three friends who disappeared in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland; the film was seen as evidence providing clues to their whereabouts and tragic fate.
How could actual footage of missing people being terrorized by something sinister off-screen be allowed to play in theaters and gross hundreds-of-millions of dollars? Easily. The footage wasn't real of course, and the mockumentary form acquired a new label: found-footage, typically applied to horror films that take on a nonfiction style of shooting to tell their story. There's a chance that Matt Reeves' Cloverfield, about a giant alien creature that wrecks havoc on New York City, was actual documentation of a true event, but we doubt it.
Mockumentaries will persist into the future, and hopefully, they will continue to confront fact with fury. Intrigued by the mockumentaries featured in the video above and want to seek each one out yourself? Find the full list below!
- 7 Days In Hell (2015) dir. Jake Szymanski
- A Hard Day’s Night (1964) dir. Richard Lester
- A Mighty Wind (2003) dir. Christopher Guest
- American Vandal (2017) dir. Dan Perrault & Tony Yacenda
- Best In Show (2000) dir. Christopher Guest
- Bob Roberts (1992) dir. Tim Robbins
- Borat (2006) dir. Larry Charles
- Casting JonBenet (2017) dir. Kitty Green
- Cloverfield (2008) dir. Matt Reeves
- District 9 (2009) dir. Neill Blomkamp
- Documentary Now! (2015-present) dir. Rhys Thomas
- Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) dir. Michael Patrick Jann
- Lonely Girl (2006-2008) created by Miles Beckett, Mesh Flinders, Greg Goodfried & Amanda Goodfried
- Man Bites Dog (1992) dir. Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel & Benoît Poelvoorde
- Nathan For You (2013-present) created by Nathan Fielder & Michael Koman
- Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) created by Greg Daniels & Michael Schur
- Popstar Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) dir. Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone
- Spaghetti Harvest in Ticino (1957) dir. Charles de Jaeger
- Summer Heights High (2007) dir. Chris Lilley
- Take The Money and Run (1969) dir. Woody Allen
- The Blair Witch Project (1999) dir. Eduardo Sánchez & Daniel Myrick
- The Eric Andre Show (2012-present) created by Eric Andre
- The Office (2005-2013) developed by Greg Daniels
- This Is Spinal Tap (1984) dir. Rob Reiner
- Tour de Pharmacy (2017) dir. Jake Szymanski
- Waiting for Guffman (1996) dir. Christopher Guest
- War of the Worlds (1938) dir. Orson Welles
- What We Do In The Shadows (2014) dir. Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement
- Zelig (1983) dir. Woody Allen