Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Are you faux-real? 18 “documentaries” that blur the line between truth and fiction

Illustration for article titled Are you faux-real? 18 “documentaries” that blur the line between truth and fiction

1. The Last Broadcast (1998)
The Last Broadcast’s greatest strength is its central gimmick: before Blair Witch Project exploded on the scene and made cheap, videotaped horror films into a cliché, Broadcast used grainy footage and cheap visual effects to tell its story about an ill-fated public-access TV show’s foray into the New Jersey woods. Broadcast never admits its fictional basis, and it’s easy to imagine someone stumbling across it some late night and falling for the gag; on the surface, it’s believable enough, built out of interviews, old footage, and the sonorous narration of supposed documentarian David Leigh. Only two things spoil the game: one is intentional, as the film breaks into third person for its finale, but the real tell is the generally poor acting and even worse script. It’s a clever idea that manages a few unsettling moments, but for the most part, Broadcast feels like a dry run for the far superior Blair Witch. It’s proof positive of just how difficult it can be to pretend to be real.

2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Indie-film marketing was changed forever—for better or worse—by the Internet campaign waged on behalf of The Blair Witch Project. Ads, videos, links, and planted urban legends were designed to create the impression that the film might actually be what it claimed: footage shot by a group of amateur filmmakers who got lost in the woods while searching for a supernatural phenomenon. Investors reacted positively to the Blair Witch team’s pitch videos, which presented the premise as straight-up fact; why wouldn’t the moviegoing public do the same? Few people were fooled in the theater, but there’s no doubt that the thoroughness of the pseudo-documentary illusion is key to the movie’s success and lasting impact. As a cultural touchstone, it was parodied and imitated in equal measure. But the purity of its methodology—as the first genre movie to fully embrace an emerging DIY and new-media aesthetic—meant that it was destined to be inspirational for a generation. A decade later, the makers of Cloverfield adopted the approach wholesale, producing the Godzilla movie that Blair Witch directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez might have created in 1999 if they’d had $30 million instead of $25,000.

3. Paper Heart (2009)
Charlyne Yi and co. made a conscious effort to keep the details of Paper Heart—a documentary about love—under wraps before its Sundance première this year. The effect was twofold: media speculated about whether Michael Cera’s involvement meant the film was heralding an Arrested Development movie, and it shielded first-time viewers from the storytelling techniques, which mixed interviews of real-life couples and experts with the story of Yi and Cera’s courtship. While the studio is billing the two as a real-life couple, Yi has insisted in interviews that those segments are staged and improvised. (No debate about the fact that the film casts actor Jake Johnson in the role of the director; he’s the only person not playing himself.) The purpose of the ambiguity is unclear, but Paper Heart is a compelling (albeit often sickly-sweet and sometimes gratingly precious) story nonetheless.

4. The Buried Secret Of M. Night Shyamalan (2004)
In the promotional run up to what was supposed to be the latest addition to the theoretically unstoppable M. Night Shyamalan juggernaut (The Village turned out to be the beginning of the end), SyFy eagerly hyped a three-hour, supposedly unauthorized documentary that would reveal big things about America’s latest Spielberg. Hours before it was set to air, carefully planted rumors that the documentary was a staged hoax began to leak. Watching it as an unintentionally revealing act of hubris, it’s pretty fascinating. Though Shyamalan is the ostensible subject, he’s mostly kept offscreen; the real star is overqualified documentarian Nathaniel Kahn. Coming off the successful release of his fantastic My Architect—a lengthy, self-indulgent, riveting profile of his architect father Louis—Kahn exploits all of his persona’s weaknesses from that film, coming off as intentionally dithering and utterly humorless. The end result: a three-hour mockery of a filmmaker whom 99 percent of the viewing audience had never heard of. The central joke itself is kinda wan—M. Night really does see ghosts, and he’s scared of water!—but as a sheer novelty project, it’s inarguably one of a kind.

5. 20 Dates (1998)
In 20 Dates, manic jackass/aspiring filmmaker Myles Berkowitz decided to combine his quest for love with his dire need for professional validation by making a documentary that would follow him through 20 oft-disastrous dates with women apparently turned on by his combination of neediness and cynical calculation. The twist is that Berkowitz ostensibly found that special someone (oh, the poor, poor woman) well before he reached the 20-date mark. The film plays it relatively straight in the early going, but by the time 20 Dates producer Elie Samaha is “encouraging” Berkowitz to go out with Wayne’s World starlet Tia Carrere (Samaha’s real-life wife) to sex up the project and increase its commercial prospects, it’s evident that Berkowitz’s grating ploy to simultaneously kick-start his love life and his non-starting film career is far from the genuine article, in every conceivable sense.


6-7. Borat (2006)/Brüno (2009)
Unlike many faux-documentarians, Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t really trying to fool his audience: They know that Borat and Brüno (both characters created on his Da Ali G Show and spun off into their own films) aren’t “real.” But the situations Cohen puts himself in are often very real—it’s a wonder he hasn’t been assaulted more often by rednecks. Most of his targets aren’t aware that they’re part of the joke—they think they’re part of an actual documentary. But Cohen also doesn’t make any onscreen distinction between those who are in on the joke and those who aren’t: A hooker played by stand-up comedian Luenell, for example, is one that rides the line in Borat. Sasha Baron Cohen has basically invented a new type of film: part documentary, part fiction, part reality, all brazen provocation.

8. Frat House (1998)
Long before The Hangover, director Todd Phillips made his name with an altogether different portrait of men behaving badly in Frat House, which purports to be an accurate depiction of the hazing rituals endured by a pledge class at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College. In the film, Phillips and co-director Andrew Gurland submit themselves to everything from doing push-ups in their would-be brothers’ puke to being locked in a dog cage and pelted with beer and cigarette ashes, all in order to capture what pledges really go through. There was only one problem: Most of the students involved later claimed that many of those outlandish “rituals” were, in fact, the filmmakers’ idea. While Phillips and Gurland have vehemently denied those allegations, blaming the controversy on “wealthy white kids that have lawyers and parents in the corporate structures” and are out to cover their own asses, the mere whiff of exaggeration was enough for HBO to ban the film entirely, so that it now languishes on bootleg video.

9. Forgotten Silver (1995)
In October 1995, New Zealand TV treated its viewers to an incredible piece of history, unveiling the long-forgotten Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who single-handedly put the New Zealand film industry at the forefront of cinema innovation during the silent era. McKenzie’s work included the first tracking shot, the first sound feature (which flopped due to the dialogue being entirely in Chinese), and a new film stock made from eggs. McKenzie’s career culminated in a wildly ambitious adaptation of Salome now lost to the ages; it survived only via the remains of a gigantic set now decaying in the New Zealand jungle. Forgotten Silver’s documentarians proudly displayed the just-discovered set as their movie’s jewel in the crown, buttressed by commentary about his genius by authorities like critic Leonard Maltin, actor Sam Neill, and producer Harvey Weinstein. Naturally, Forgotten Silver caused a huge swelling of national pride among New Zealanders. That was short-lived, since it soon came out that the whole thing was a hoax, cooked up by the movie’s co-directors, Costa Botes and future Lord Of The Rings mythologizer Peter Jackson. Though it seems an obvious mockumentary (and a very funny one), Forgotten Silver was an effective hoax because it was so careful to build up its details, presenting what later seemed obviously ridiculous in perfect deadpan. And it got so many supposedly unimpeachable sources to play along—a writer from the magazine The Listener even penned a pre-broadcast article talking up McKenzie’s supposed “extraordinary life.” It also benefited from early use of Jackson’s digital-effects wizardry, which in ’95 was relatively new. But perhaps unintentionally, it also played right into the inferiority complex common to people in small nations (or smaller U.S. states, for that matter), who loved the idea that one of their own had been a step ahead of Hollywood his whole life. And as any good con artist would note, it’s much easier when the mark convinces himself of the lie. One reviewer noted afterward, “I wanted to believe this marvelous story of ingenuity, courage, and tragedy so much that I pushed such churlish ideas away.”

[pagebreak]10. F For Fake (1974)
While F For Fake, Orson Welles’ last completed film as a director, is ostensibly about professional art forger Elmyr de Hory, the premise really serves as an excuse for Welles to playfully elucidate his thoughts on painting, the media, and the potential for fakery in film itself. Welles jumps from de Hory to Clifford Irving—a biographer of de Hory’s who himself was responsible for a phony biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes—to Welles’ own history, including his infamous 1938 War Of The Worlds radio broadcast that fooled thousands of Americans into thinking Martians had landed on the White House lawn. But Welles saves his best trick for the end: a taller-than-tall tale about a beautiful young woman, Pablo Picasso, and a set of 22 nude portraits. Through clever edits (including some hilarious photos of Picasso that stand in for the real thing) and suggestion, Welles finds a perfect capstone to his debate on the importance of truth in art. It’s even more perfect that the whole thing is a lie; Welles promised to tell the truth “for the next hour” at the start of the film, and as he cheerfully reveals before the final credits, that hour ended 17 minutes ago.

11. Cocksucker Blues (1972)
From the beginning of their career, The Rolling Stones cultivated a bad-boy image meant to separate them from other, seemingly not-as-badass bands. It was a classic case of image becoming reality: Because the Stones looked like grubby, drug-addicted sex freaks, they evolved into grubby, drug-addicted sex freaks by the end of the ’60s. But even the Stones weren’t sure about releasing Robert Frank’s infamous documentary of their 1972 U.S. tour, Cocksucker Blues, which intermingled footage of Mick Jagger inhaling mounds of actual cocaine with a notorious (and staged) orgy scene involving naked groupies and some very enthusiastic roadies aboard a plane. The Stones were so aghast over Frank’s grimy, cinéma vérité account of their awesomely disgusting behavior that they filed a court order preventing the film from being shown unless the director is present.

12. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Crime-scene re-enactments are commonly associated with cheesy reality shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted, but they were an important part of Errol Morris’ landmark documentary The Thin Blue Line. In order to better illustrate the facts of a 12-year-old murder case involving the falsely convicted Randall Dale Adams, Morris included stylishly filmed re-enactment footage of the crime amid the usual talking-head interview clips. The re-enactments were controversial because they weren’t “real” footage, but they unquestionably helped to make The Thin Blue Line more immediate and popular, which certainly aided in Adams’ exoneration.

13. American Cannibal: The Road To Reality (2006)
In American Cannibal, filmmakers Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro follow two young TV writers—Dave Roberts and Gil Ripley—as they shop a handful of projects around Hollywood before embarking on a disastrous attempt to mount a Blair Witch-style reality series about contestants stalked by fake man-eaters. Large portions of American Cannibal consist of blatantly contrived situations, and many of Roberts and Ripley’s conversations sound rehearsed. And yet the reactions to the contrivances are largely real, and Grebin and Nigro’s portrait of showbiz venality is “true,” even when it’s being manipulated in overt and covert ways. In a way, it’s wholly appropriate that Grebin and Nigro’s methodology is as ethically dicey as the world they’re documenting.

14-15. Mondo Cane (1962) / Faces Of Death (1978)
Italian shock-doc Mondo Cane was a sensation in the ’60s, spawning a string of sequels and establishing a template followed by multiple “Holy crap, you won’t believe what we’ve got footage of!” film series, including the video-store favorite Faces Of Death. The premise? Intrepid ethnographers travel the world gathering film and video of other cultures’ strange rituals—some sexy, some gross. The caveat? Some of these rituals—just like some of the “real violence” in Faces Of Death—have been staged for the camera. Figuring out what’s real and what isn’t has been a parlor game for shameless thrill-seekers for decades.

16. Nanook Of The North (1922)
When motion pictures were first introduced to the public, some of the most popular films were “actualities”—short scenes of daily life. Feature-length documentaries didn’t really come into vogue until Robert J. Flaherty spent a year in Canada recording the primitive lives of the Inuits for his hit film Nanook Of The North. Or, more accurately, Flaherty recreated what used to be the primitive lives of the Inuits. Flaherty asked his subjects to ditch their guns and use spears, and he constructed relationships and environments more conducive to good storytelling than to “the actual Arctic.” Nanook Of The North remains an amazing film, simultaneously lovely and haunting. But it’s not much more a “documentary” than any movie shot on location.

17. White Wilderness (1958)
In the late ’40s, Walt Disney Studios initiated a series of nature documentaries dubbed “True Life Adventures,” designed to educate people without eschewing the entertainment value for which Disney productions were known. But entertainment often took precedence. The 1957 film Perri, for example, follows the life of a squirrel, as mapped out in advance by Bambi author Felix Salten. And while the infamous Canadian travelogue White Wilderness features stunning close-ups of whales, caribou, and crashing ice floes, all anyone remembers about the film now is the scene where a pack of lemmings plunge to their deaths off a cliff—after reportedly being launched by a catapult-like contraption placed just off-frame. It’s a dramatic scene, but the cheats the filmmakers sunk to have long since obscured any truth White Wilderness might have captured about odd animal behavior.

18. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Pity poor Ruggero Deodato. The genteel Italian director, with his background in the neo-realist movement, only wanted to make a savvy commentary on the media’s exploitation of violence, and make his mentor Roberto Rossellini proud. The next thing he knows, his masterpiece, Cannibal Holocaust, is getting banned all over the globe, and he’s being hauled before a magistrate in his native Italy to prove that he didn’t make a snuff film in which anthropologists are slaughtered and eaten by Amazonian tribesmen. Deodato never claimed that his movie was a documentary; it’s just that his realist techniques and vérité style made it all look so damn lifelike. A Milan judge didn’t agree, and Deodato’s decision to have all his actors stay out of the public eye (to further the film’s “recovered documentary footage” conceit) suddenly didn’t seem so clever. The director, in one of the oddest wrinkles in movie history, ended up facing murder charges. He not only had to hunt down his actors and bring them back into the public eye, he wound up voiding their contracts and spilling his special-effects secrets just to avoid prison. Though the film’s gore has been superseded by later movie developments, it’s still banned in many countries (partly due to the footage of real animals being killed), and it taught Deodato a lesson: Don’t make your satire too effective.