Have you ever been fooled by a fake documentary? I’m not talking about Catfish and This Ain’t California, both of which are genuine documentaries whether you like it or not. I’m talking about fiction films employing documentary techniques — as opposed to nonfiction films employing fictional elements (see my list of docs with fictional characters).
Most mockumentaries are upfront or obvious in their fake-ness, and a lot of them are comedies, hence the “mock” part of the genre label. In the last couple decades, though, there have been a number of serious faux docs and found-footage horror films added to the mix.
For April Fool’s Day, I thought it would be fun to list the best of these kinds of films with recognition of their relationship to and parody of the documentary form. Like all great parody, these works should be studied by documentary makers and fans, because they tell us a lot about the tropes and cliches and ethics of real nonfiction cinema.
1. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The most famous mockumentary is also the best, not just because it’s the funniest but because its comedy calls attention to so many conventions of the music doc by way of exaggeration. And a lot of that exaggeration isn’t even that much of a stretch. When The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years showed up four years later, it sort of diluted the silliness — but not necessarily the humor — of Rob Reiner’s classic. The fact that Anvil! The Story of Anvil was so often compared to This is Spinal Tap is also key in the latter’s ability to get the absurdity of the music business and profession right. Additionally, the movie has to be recognized for being so close to reality that it spawned Spinal Tap as an actual live act and band of recording artists. Also, its influence is tremendous, especially for spawning costar Christopher Guest’s own mockumentary efforts as a director.
2. Land Without Bread (1933)
Many accept this Luis Bunuel short as an actual documentary, but it’s one of the few such works up for discussion that I let fall more on the fake side (presently, anyway, I do tend to change my mind). Yes, there is a truth at the center of the film’s look at poverty in the Las Hurdes region of Spain, but it’s so exaggerated, and Bunuel is so focused on parodying similar documentaries that the intentions classify it as something above that truth. It’s more a film about documentary than about the real people it shows us.
3. Zelig (1983)
From his first true directorial effort, Take the Money and Run, Woody Allen has done a lot with documentary form in his comedies and dramas, to the point that I’m surprised he hasn’t ever made an actual documentary. Zelig is the most interesting and impressive and also the most consistent in going all the way with documentary aesthetics. And those aesthetics are incredible, the way he parodied the archival compilation film with newly shot footage that really looks ancient.
4. A Necessary Death (2008)
Before he broke out with the found-footage horror film The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm made this other faux doc about the making of a doc. It’s totally serious and totally stirring, as it plays with the ethics of nonfiction cinema by dealing with a crew who sets out to follow a suicidal subject all the way to their planned self-inflicted death. This was, of course, after the release of the controversial suicide-focused doc The Bridge, though that one didn’t involve the chance for interference in those deaths. But since A Necessary Death, which I’m still angry didn’t get more attention, we have seen How to Die in Oregon, which follows subjects in the days before they take their own lives through assisted suicide.
5. How to Sleep (1935)
Robert Benchley was the true king of faux documentary, with his parodies of lectures on film and educational shorts going back to the beginning of sound cinema. How to Sleep wasn’t quite the first of its kind, but it’s the earliest of the lampooning of educational film that I’m aware is available, and it’s also the one that was intently made as such a parody. It won the Academy Award for Best Comedy Short and led to a dozen more fake instructional shorts of the same sort, of varying quality.
6. Best in Show (2000)
The best of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries as a director lampoons a lot of things about docs, and it did so before the modern explosion of popular nonfiction cinema. The subject matter pokes fun of the easiest sort of doc, focused on a subculture and event and which would be aimed at the fans of that sort of thing — here, specifically dog shows. It’s most interesting element, though, is how Guest presents such eccentric characters. We’re not really supposed to laugh at real people in documentaries, no matter how weird or uneducated we think they are, but with Guest’s mock docs we’re allowed to laugh at those kinds of subjects.
7. Trollhunter (2010)
One thing I want to note about this film, above its generally wonderful traits as a movie of any sort, is that it shows how much more interesting faux docs can be the better and more economic computer effects become. You can make a faux doc about anything now and still make the film look like it was shot on the fly with less-than-perfect camera equipment.
8. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Just when I thought the mockumentary genre was wearing its welcome thanks to the flood of found-footage films and doc-style sitcoms, Jemaine Clement and Taiki Waititi bring us the funniest entry into the genre in more than a decade. And with a subject — vampires — that also seemed done to death, seriously and comedically. It’s not really parodying much about the documentary mode or its form, almost more closely relevant to reality series like The Real World. It’s just a smart and funny movie that happens to use documentary style to best present its primarily expositional humor.
9. The Office (2001–2003)
Mockumentary series have to be acknowledged, and Ricky Gervais’s original UK version of The Office is not just the most influential but is also the most appreciated for being relatively limited. By the time the US version got to making the jokes about how it’s taking way too long to make that documentary about a paper company and its employees, that self-mockery wasn’t very welcome. It was too late. We’ll see if Gervais continues to wear even this incarnation thin, though, as he’s currently making a feature mockumentary about his The Office character, David Brent.
10. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
And the original breakout found-footage film deserves the final spot on here. It’s still effective (though maybe not in the fooling people sense), still scary and still an interesting take on nonfiction cinema. Like most of the selections on this list, this one wound up having a real doc counterpart. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man indicates that The Blair Witch Project would be viewed as more of a faux doc and not just an early found-footage film if it featured narration. I’m not saying that would be a good thing, though. In fact, it would take away from the scariness of the story and how it’s shot.
Bonus: Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
I’ve added a bonus entry, because why not pay homage to This Is Spinal Tap by going all the way to 11? For decades, we’ve been treated to parodies and satires of reality television, from the sensationalistic news of Network and violent game show of Death Race 2000 through the Hunger Games franchise that owes much to everything since. One of those precursors is this movie, which plays like a marathon of episodes for a deadly TV series. Hopefully, by going there in parody we’ll never get the real thing, a reality show where contestants have to murder their opponents to win the big money prize.