Dozens and dozens of documentaries hit theaters every year, and few are ever subjected to any kind of serious scrutiny about their authenticity. (If it calls itself real, it must be, right?) Every once in a while, however, a supposedly non-fiction film weathers charges of fraudulence—and not in the Herzogian oh-we-re-staged-a-conversation-or-two kind of way, but in the James Frey or Stephen Glass we-just-made-this-shit-up kind of way. Below, we’ve singled out six recent films that presented themselves, at least initially, as bona fide documentaries, but eventually had their veracity challenged. We’ve also revealed—or just taken a good guess—whether each is fact or disguised fiction.
1. Catfish (2010)
There’s definitely something fishy going on in Catfish, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s twisty Sundance documentary about the perils of Internet dating. Directors Joost and Schulman chronicle the budding online romance between Manhattan photographer Nev (Schulman’s brother) and Michigan artist Megan. When certain inconsistencies arise in Megan’s story, Nev and the two filmmakers decide to play amateur detective. Relativity sold the film as a shocking thriller, prompting charges of false advertising, but Catfish’s biggest detractors insist the hoodwink goes deeper than a misleading trailer. Why, one might reasonably ask, would anyone start making a movie about something as mundane as a Facebook relationship? Surely they couldn’t have possibly guessed that the normal courtship they were documenting would end in such an abnormal way? Joost and Schulman insist to this day that their film is legit, but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Either way, Catfish proved successful enough to spawn an MTV reality spinoff, which has provoked its own share of skeptical responses.
Doc or crock? Doc, though there’s surely more to the story than what the filmmakers show us. Maybe they recreated the early scenes of blossoming romance once things started getting interesting, or realized what was up from the start and simply played dumb for the sake of the movie. [A.A. Dowd]
2. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Banksy must have had the biggest laugh of his life when Exit Through The Gift Shop was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. And while the street artist still maintains—sort of—that it actually is a documentary, anyone with a mild understanding of his sense of humor should seriously doubt that. The film documents a budding street artist named Thierry Guetta, who’s interested in filming Banksy and other street artists, but who—by essentially making shitty, more commercial versions of Banksy and Andy Warhol works—ends up more famous than Banksy himself. Guetta’s silliness is one giveaway, as are some interviews Banksy gave in the wake of the film’s release, including one in which he claims that Guetta’s art sells for double what his does. But look closely: The character of Mr. Brainwash is just another Banksy comment on the world of art and artifice, but he’s not going to beat you over the head with it.
Doc or crock? Crock, though many remain convinced of its veracity. [Josh Modell]
3. Unknown White Male (2005)
Sometimes a great story just lands in your lap. Anyway, that’s what Rupert Murray would have us believe. Sometime around 2004, the British director began capturing on video the bizarre experiences of Doug Bruce, an old friend who claims to have emerged from a New York subway train one afternoon with no intact memories; everything from his name to his family to his entire collection of experiences had mysteriously vanished from his mind. Unknown White Male, the subsequent film about his recovery process, garnered acclaim when it premiered at Sundance. It also quickly became the subject of heavy skepticism, with critics pointing to both the ultra-rare nature of Doug’s form of amnesia—his is basically the most dramatic long-lasting memory loss on record—and the lack of any discernible cause of his condition. Furthermore, Murray is suspiciously there from almost the very start of Bruce’s ordeal, filming events one might reasonably assume he’d just heard about. Everyone involved vehemently denies that the film is a hoax, though naturally they would. Alternative explanation: Bruce, whom no one appears to have followed up with in the years since the film’s release, just faked the whole thing.
Doc or crock? Probable crock. Much as we’d like to give Bruce the benefit of the doubt, there are just too many holes in his story. Sometimes if something seems stranger than fiction, it might just be fiction. [A.A. Dowd]
4. American Teen (2008)
Nanette Burstein (On The Ropes, The Kid Stays In The Picture) tails five Indiana high-school seniors as they experience personal and academic turbulence on the cusp of adulthood. The film intentionally assigns The Breakfast Club-like roles to each kid—the jock, the geek, the rebel, the queen bee, and the heartthrob—and follows the narrative arc of each of its subjects’ lives. It captures every “big moment” like a fly on the wall—which turned out to be the problem. Burstein and her film were criticized in venues as diverse as Ain’t It Cool News and Los Angeles Times for what was seen as manipulative, deceptive filmmaking. The IMDB message board for the film is filled with alleged students from the school, accusing the filmmakers of everything from pre-planned scenes to re-staging events that had already occurred. Reenactments aren’t a fundamental no-no of documentary cinema—just ask Errol Morris—but Burstein avows that not a single frame of shot footage is anything but purely authentic.
Doc or crock? Doc, just barely. For all its heightened drama and Real World-style editing, the movie doesn’t seem to have made anything up, per se. And teens have been inventing emotional arcs for themselves long before Burstein’s cameras showed up. [Alex McCown]
5. I’m Still Here (2010)
We wanted to believe that Joaquin Phoenix had gone off the deep end in 2009—that he was sick of Hollywood and was going to try his hand at a hip-hop career. When disastrous-seeming things happened, including an infamous Letterman appearance, no one was quite ready to declare the whole thing a hoax. Phoenix and his director/brother-in-law Casey Affleck kept up the ruse that I’m Still Here was indeed a document of an actor’s downfall into hookers, drugs, and self-parody. The early reviews—in spite of the listing of a “cast” at the end—wouldn’t come out and make a judgment, though Affleck eventually did, shortly after the movie hit theaters. The director told Roger Ebert at the time: “The reason it was made without comment and with Joaquin in character when in public was because the media plays a role in the film and the media would not have played their role as well as they did had it been acknowledged that Joaquin was only performing.” He’s right, and he played us perfectly. Too bad the quite-enjoyable end result didn’t make much of a splash.
Doc or crock? Crock, fully acknowledged by its creators. [Josh Modell]
Discovery Channel’s perennial Shark Week extravaganza is arguably America’s most widely celebrated secular holiday. Despite the statistical improbability of being killed by a shark, the sight of a dorsal fin cutting through the water is enough to send many folks far, far from the ocean (or really any freshwater bodies that great whites somehow implausibly made their way into). Still, after a few years of regular Shark Week programming, the shock value started to slip. In 2013, the Discovery Channel ran a “documentary” called Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. A bunch of “experts” who presumably moonlight on Ancient Aliens explained why this massive dinosaur nightmare fish could possibly maybe be still alive and hungry for humans somewhere in the ocean. What they didn’t bother to explain so well was that the special was a work of complete fiction. Besides a weird disclaimer flashed across the screen at the speed of a Cialis commercial, Discovery didn’t give much of a hint to its overly credulous audience that it had gotten into the drama game. While the network eventually apologized for any confusion, Megalodon still ranks as the top-rated Shark Week program of all time. Lesson learned.
Doc or crock? Total crock—or is it? (Cue Jaws theme.) [Drew Toal]