This list was originally published on October 25, 2013, tied to the release of Bad Grandpa.
Is Bad Grandpa a documentary? That’s not easy to determine. There is definitely a lot of reality and real people involved in the new movie from Johnny Knoxville and the makers of Jackass (the films of which I’d say are without a doubt docs), but there’s also more fictional plot and character than truth. The documentary material is confined to a few shocked expressions in Candid Camera-type scenarios with the occasional longer moment involving genuine people.
For me, the conclusion lies in what the film means to show us. If it’s a statement about truth, then it’s a documentary. If it’s just an excuse for laughs with little insight into anything real or arguable, then it’s not. Bad Grandpa is mostly a fiction with some nonfiction people roped in, not unlike Forrest Gump only with newly shot rather than archival material.
To contrast it with more qualified examples, as in those with predominantly real situations, I decided to highlight some genuine documentaries centered around fictional characters devised to illustrate, provoke or prank the real world and real people.
Nanook of the North (1922)
Was Robert Flaherty the original prankster as well as the original documentarian? Not quite, as “Nanook” isn’t a character designed to fool anyone, even if the audience is supposed to accept him as being a real person. Aside from the name, though, he was a real person and he performed authentic (albeit some of them outdated) practices of his Inuit people. Some of it was staged and the woman who played his wife was not really his wife, but otherwise the film shows us a kind of ethnographic truth. Nanook’s real name: Allakariallak.
The Forbidden Quest (1993)
Heading to the polar opposite of Nanook’s Arctic, this hybrid film from Peter Delpeut is compiled mostly from actual Antarctic expedition footage found in the Netherlands Film Museum. Those archives, dated between 1905 and the 1930s, are intercut with an interview intended to look like it was filmed around 1931. But J.C. Sullivan, the explorer telling his story, was portrayed 60 years later by actor Joseph O’Conor (who you may know best as the narrator of The Dark Crystal). Not only was it not the real Sullivan on screen, but there never was a real Sullivan.
This Ain’t California (2012)
Another historical work that combines actual archive footage with newly shot material made to appear vintage, this new movie had me fooled earlier this year when I fell in love with it. Yet the fact that its central figure, a skateboarding hero called “Panik,” never existed doesn’t take away from what the film is telling and showing us, which is a nostalgic truth about a counterculture scene in East Germany in the 1980s.
I’m Still Here (2010)
Many stopped considering this a documentary altogether after Joaquin Phoenix revealed that his new persona as rapper “JP” was a ruse. But just because it turned out to be a fictional version of himself that he was playing, the world around him is still plenty real and he and director Casey Affleck are still making statements about the entertainment industry through their fakery.
Who wants to argue that this isn’t a doc? I’ve been defending it for three years now, and I even think it’s now one of the most important docs of the century. Instead of the TV series spin-off diluting its significance, I believe it’s adding to it. The fictional character here is Megan, the fake online love interest of Nev Schulman. At this point it’s not much of a spoiler to point out that she’s the invention of a middle-aged woman with a wild imagination and a lot of social networking organization skills. Even if the filmmakers and Nev were sure Megan wasn’t real before embarking on their trip, it’s still definitely a true story with many truthful circumstances, whether or not some are reenacted or staged in the first half, and a very genuine form of deception that apparently isn’t that rare.
Medium Cool (1969)
Probably the least definable as documentary on this list, Haskell Wexler’s masterpiece is firstly a drama with a fictional plot about a fictional newsman and a fictional woman and her fictional son. But it’s also notable for being shot during and amidst the 1968 DNC protests and featuring nonfiction record of those historical events. More qualified to be on this list is the CBS news footage I’ve seen of the events where you can see actress Verna Bloom running through the crowd.
The Three Caballeros (1944)
I’ll challenge anyone to a debate about this animation/live-action mix starring Donald Duck, as well. Disney made many documentaries featuring Donald and other characters throughout the 1940s, mostly propaganda associated with the war. But they were mainly shorts, while this was an educational feature intended to teach Americans about our South American neighbors. Of course, this and the earlier Saludos Amigos, which has less nonfiction material, were also related to WWII. They were made as part of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy to showcase and maintain our allies in our own hemisphere. Some of The Three Cabelleros is false, exaggerated and stereotypical, but it means well in a documentary sense.
Otter 501 (2012)
A lot of nature films could be on this list for the way they anthropomorphize animals. Think of “Oscar” in Disney’s Chimpanzee for a recent example. But Bob Talbot’s film, also out last year, does something different in its narrativizing of nature: he puts a fictional woman into the story of a stranded, orphaned otter. The fictional plot may overpower the nonfiction footage, but the motives here again are to present the real natural wildlife and advocate for the protection of the animals.
The Age of Stupid (2009)
A historical film from the perspective of the future, Franny Armstrong’s clever take on the global warming issue stars Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist in the year 2055 telling us about how the world went to hell. It’s a bit like Twelve Monkeys minus the time travel. Well, it’s kind of like time travel in concept, if we think about receiving the film from half a century ahead in order to learn how to save ourselves. That is, after all, kind of the point.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Here’s the best-known example today of a doc starring a fictional character, and I probably don’t have to say much about it. Sacha Baron Cohen found a way to mock and reveal some of the worst parts of America and Americans by navigating the country in disguise. The main difference between his shtick and Johnny Knoxville’s is the presence of cameras, which you’d think would lead to less candid and honest moments. Some people still just call this and his less-popular follow-up, Bruno (which I never saw), mockumentaries or pseudo-documentaries. I say they’re pseudo-mockumentaries. But really they’re just docs with made-up guides, hardly any different than what narrators are for more conventional docs.
Unlike most docs on this list, here the fictional character is set up as such from the start, not even holding off the revelation for the final act or beyond the film’s walls. In that way, director Vikram Gandhi is making an experiment film by choosing to disguise himself as and create a false Indian guru (“Kumare”) in order to challenge real people’s idea of spirituality. Understandably, many of those people are pissed off in the end, and that makes the enjoyment of the film rather awkward and complicated.
The Ambassador (2011)
Besides Gandhi’s film, the work of Mads Brugger is probably the closest we have to something close to what Sacha Baron Cohen has done famously. In his earlier documentary, The Red Chapel, he was basically himself in a ploy to get into North Korea and expose what it’s like there. That was more like a fake film inside a real film, as he and his two partners in the international gag were mostly themselves for most of the time. Here, though, he takes on a new identity, a fake ambassador named Mr. Cotzden, to go undercover in the Central African Republic and expose corruption tied to the blood diamond trade.
Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (2011)
There have been concert films before this one involving fictional personas of real music stars. If you think of I’m Not Here as pointing out Bob Dylan had different fronts or incarnations in his career, Don’t Look Back might count. The later D.A. Pennebaker doc Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars counts even more. And there are others up through Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert. But the Glee film is a different animal. It depicts a real concert with real concertgoers watching performances by characters, not personas. Hannah Montana was something more similar to this, having also been a TV show character, but in the context of that film and that concert it was an alter-ego of Miley Cyrus.
Metallica Through the Never (2013)
Sort of the inverse or antithesis of the Glee movie is a concert film in which the performer (Metallica) is the real part and the people off stage are fictional. At least some of them, anyway. The film has a main character named Trip (Dane DeHaan), a stagehand who has to run an errand while the band is playing. Due to the fictional plot here should we also label Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs a documentary rather than a sex drama interspersed with actual concert scenes? No, because there the fictional plot is the focus and the draw, while this is at the core still a concert film.
One Direction: This Is Us (2013)
Two concert films this year with fictional characters? Is this saying something about the music industry of today? Not exactly (but another 2013 music doc called The Great Hip-Hop Hoax has semi-fictional characters and does). One is a long-existent metal group and the other is a boy band full of seemingly honest guys. In this film it’s a few off-stage shenanigans in the form of hidden-camera pranks that qualify it to the list. Some of the guys even dress up like old people, and do it for better effect than Johnny Knoxville does in Bad Grandpa, in fact. But the best is when Niall Horan disguises himself as a bearded security guard who likes telling the fans how much he thinks 1D sucks. That’s how you get some great real reactions out of people.