It seems like every third independent movie of the last decade has been a mockumentary, but that's probably because it's such an easy genre to execute. All it takes is a handheld camera, a Chyron generator, and some friends who've taken an improv class. Which makes Kevin Willmott's CSA: The Confederate States Of America all the more impressive. His mockumentary has been painstakingly researched and thought through, in the spirit of a classy History Channel special. It's an elaborate "what if" exercise, retelling the last 140 years of American history in an alternate universe where the South wins the Civil War and slavery remains legal. To make the fake seem real, Willmott aims the documentary toward people already living in that world. It's a tricky gambit, but necessary to establish the point that history is written by the winners.
For the most part, Willmott succeeds thrillingly. Some of his "historians" sound too much like the actors they are, and it's unlikely that a real documentary would treat historical facts as stunning plot twists, but after a while, CSA's gimmicky style becomes almost invisible, and the premise becomes increasingly fascinating. The South wins the Civil War, but then what? Free blacks and sympathetic artists flee to Canada, which over the next century becomes a bastion for free expression—and the home of rock 'n' roll. America bombs Japan on December 7th, 1941, and becomes a Nazi ally. (Though the CSA opposes the extermination of the Jews, because "why waste human livestock?") John F. Kennedy runs for president as an abolitionist Republican. Another candidate is disgraced when it's alleged that he's the thrice-removed product of a dalliance between master and slave, which prompts him to proclaim, "My great-granddaddy did not have sexual relations with that woman!"
CSA periodically pauses for commercial breaks, which tip off the current state of the union via pitches for Niggerhair cigarettes, Coon Chicken Inn restaurants, and a Cops-like reality show about the hunt for fugitive slaves. But while CSA's ending is never in doubt, the details of the alternate America's decline are riveting and even poignant. Willmott begins the story with the sad fate of Abraham Lincoln, a disgraced figure seen in a 1905 film interview lamenting that he didn't take the immorality of slavery more seriously. Later, Willmott shows how turbulent periods of social change in the CSA hit dead ends, stamped out by authoritarian power plays and the irresistible pull of race-baiting. Leagues deeper than a one-joke goof, CSA becomes a film about how frightfully easy it is for the soul of a corrupted nation to stay corrupt, as each generation sacrifices its ideals for the convenience of tradition.