Like it or not, faux-documentaries, or mockumentaries, are here to stay. TV and film have become inundated with them over the last ten years or so, but they go back incredibly far. They’ve become so prevalent now that we’ve grown to expect things are fake or staged almost from the word go. However, before this became commonplace, people used to believe what was being presented was true, no matter how fantastical. We’ve all seen The Blair Witch Project, but it certainly wasn’t the beginning of the craze. Here are just six examples of the most effective faux-documentaries of all time.
WAR OF THE WORLDS – (Radio Broadcast, 1938)
Presented as part of the radio anthology series, Mercury Theatre of the Air, Orson Welles directed and narrated an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ seminal alien invasion novel as a special Halloween treat. The first two-thirds of it were presented as news bulletins describing in detail the attack by Martian tripods against Earth. There were also no commercial breaks during the entirety of the 60 minute broadcast, leading many listeners to believe it was the truth and that the planet was under attack. The show ended with Welles himself letting everyone know that the whole affair was their version of “putting a sheet over our heads and yelling BOO” at the audience, but there were a lot of unhappy citizens and Welles and the entire Mercury Theatre team were taken to task by newspapers and public figures. Too bad they didn’t have CNN back then or, you know, the ability to look outside. Years later, Welles would return to the mockumentary with the incredibly odd film F for Fake.
THE WAR GAME – (Television Drama, 1965)
Produced for BBC television’s The Wednesday Play series by writer-director-producer Peter Watkins, The War Game is a fictionalized “what-if” faux-documentary about what would happen should Britain fall under nuclear attack. Shot in gritty black & white using typical verite camera techniques, the film used real evidence from bombings in Germany and Japan to enact the horrors of war and to speculate what would likely happen in the event of World War III. It even featured staged interviews with “the public” about what they thought might happen and an immensely believable narrator speaking firmly and coldly about this all as an eventuality. It is harrowing to watch, especially the row of dead, charred bodies and children getting their eyes burned by the flash of the nuclear explosion. The film was thought to be so graphic that it wasn’t allowed to be shown on BBC television. Watkins later released it in theaters and was subsequently nominated for, and then actually won, the 1966 Academy Award for best documentary feature, despite it being totally fictitious. It was not shown in full on British TV until 1985, twenty years after its creation.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST – (Feature Film, 1980)
In the late 70s, there was a strange subgenre of exploitation cinema focusing on wild jungle cannibals. Italian director Ruggero Deodato had made a film in 1979 entitled The Last Cannibal, which was such a big hit in Europe that a German company came to him asking for another one. Instead of just another straight cannibal flick, Deodato decided to shake things up. His new film, Cannibal Holocaust, would be an early example of the found-footage oeuvre, as a documentary crew travel into the Amazon Basin to film native rituals. The crew doesn’t treat the natives well at all, and, eventually, they are set upon by the angry indigenous people and get killed and eaten. The film shows the actual killing and slaughtering of a number of real animals, including pigs, turtles, monkeys, and snakes, in pretty sickening fashion, and it was because of this that many began to believe the depictions of human death were equally real. When the film premiered in Italy in 1980, it was immediately seized and Deodato was arrested for obscenity and creating a snuff film. He had to actually offer proof that the actors in the film were still alive and hadn’t actually been murdered and devoured in the course of filmmaking. The film was banned in several countries, though not in the U.S., of course, and remains one of the most controversial and grotesque exploitation films ever made. You can thank Deodato for the barrage of similar found-footage horror movies we can’t seem to escape these days.
THIS IS SPINAL TAP – (Feature Film, 1984)
Most of these examples are of the horror variety, because generally people are easier to fool if they’re terrified, but Rob Reiner’s 1984 rock mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, is an example of a comedy getting the same results. A precursor to Christopher Guest’s string of similar films, and in turn a pre-precursor to TV shows like The Office and Parks & Recreation, the film follows Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as an inept heavy metal band from the UK as they try to make a splash in the USA. The three stars wrote and performed all the music and are credited along with Reiner as co-writers, as much of the dialogue was ad-libbed, a Guest staple. One of the most quotable films of all time, This is Spinal Tap is also a pitch-perfect, biting satire of rock stardom, throwaway pop music, and the music industry in general. Despite the fact that the band were made up of recognizable actors, and that Reiner was playing a character named Marty DiBergi, many people at the time believed Spinal Tap to be an actual band and that the film was hysterical because a real band like this existed. Reiner was even approached on several occasions by fans of the film saying they enjoyed the movie but wondered why Reiner hadn’t chosen a more well-known band to follow. The band’s popularity was such that, on top of the official soundtrack album, they recorded a follow-up album in character, Break Like the Wind.
MAN BITES DOG – (Feature Film, 1992)
Four young Belgian film students decided to make a movie about a serial killer. As they had very little money, and in fact had to shut down the movie on several occasions until more funding could be found, they chose to do it in the cheapest way possible: a faux-documentary. Benoit Poelvoorde plays a charismatic serial killer named Ben who shows the documentary crew every aspect of his brutal and disturbing crimes as the crew eventually are forced to get involved and aid him. The film is a very black comedy, and much of the humor comes from the graphically violent images and the fact that a number of soundmen are killed during the film, a possible reference to Spinal Tap’s string of unlucky drummers. Director Remy Belvaux, camera man Andre Bonzel, and Poelvoorde all wrote the film and appear in it using their real first names and use Poelvoorde’s real family for a few sequences. The problem is they didn’t tell his mother and grandparents that the film was a fake and so when it came time to shoot the scene where they visit Ben in jail, his mother had no idea it was all a ruse and her reaction upon seeing her son in prison for heinous murder is entirely genuine. Rule 1 of filmmaking: Don’t let your mom thnk you’re a serial killer. The film is rated NC-17 in the United States for the graphic violence and for a particularly disturbing rape scene.
GHOSTWATCH – (Television Special, 1992)
On Halloween 1992, BBC1 aired a “special presentation” entitled Ghostwatch, which was a show discussing the possible existence of paranormal activity and specifically to investigate whether there might actually be a poltergeist haunting a specific house in Northolt, Greater London. As the 90-minute special went on, strange occurrences really did start happening at the house and the host and experts back in the studio debated the validity of the family’s claim that a ghost they called “Pipes” really did inhabit their home. By the end of the special, the ghost had made its way to the studio and began disrupting the broadcast. Despite a “written by” credit at the beginning, a full cast list at the end, and the fact that it was shown in a traditional drama timeslot, a great many viewers thought they actually were watching true, live television and that they were seeing real paranormal phenomena. A number of factors contributed to this, including the use of well-known British television presenters and personalities playing themselves as the hosts, the use of the actual BBC number for the scripted viewer call-ins, and the overall realism with which everything was played. It’s truly remarkable just how boring (in a good way) the show is at the beginning. It seems 100% legitimate, and nothing about it seems staged. Throughout the special, savvy viewers noticed images of the ghost in question that were never discussed, making them believe they really were seeing something. After the broadcast, the BBC received numerous complaints about the disturbing and graphic nature of the program and how the use of trusted children’s TV presenter Sarah Greene led parents to allow their children to watch thinking it completely safe, only to have Greene get sucked into hell at the end. People really did believe she’d been killed. I guess people should have remembered Orson Welles’ Halloween trick. The film has grown a huge cult following despite having never been allowed to be retransmitted on British television.
Seek these things out, most are available on the internet somewhere, and see how effective you think they are. They’re certainly more believable than most reality TV.
-Kanderson might be real, but might also be scripted. Follow him on TWITTER to find out for sure.