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the mock documentary owes its existence to a single Belgian painter
who startled the art world in 1929 with La Trahison des Images.
This is, of course, René Magritte's famed oil painting
of a pipe, beneath which are painted in pretty cursive the words,
"Ceci n'est pas une pipe" "this is not
The painting is a challenge,
not just to anyone who sees it but to the artistic establishment
as a whole. Magritte presents the viewer with a choice: Do you
believe your eyes, or do you believe what I'm telling you to
believe? By placing the object and its written description in
diametrical opposition, Magritte deliberately leaves the viewer
in artistic limbo. A successful mock documentary can have the
same effect on a viewer, leaving her to wonder, "Could that
actually have happened?" or, perhaps even, "Was that
for real?" The answer to the latter question, depending
on how one looks at it, is either Yes or No: Yes, that was a
real film you just saw; No, that was not an actual occurrence
depicted within it. Like Magritte's painting, there is no sure
answer. Is it a pipe? Or is it not a pipe?
Of course, one one level,
Magritte is being totally honest with the viewers of his painting.
What they are seeing is not a pipe per se, but a representation
of a pipe. So, no, it's not a pipe. It's a painting of a pipe.
That hidden degree of honesty that Magritte proffers to the viewer
is not unlike the hidden kernel of truth, exhibited as a grounding
in the actual world, that is present in most mock documentaries.
Though, obviously, a painting
is not a movie and a movie is not a painting, La Trahison des
Images is an important predecessor to mock documentary. The pipe
in Magritte's painting cannot conceivably be of anything but
a pipe, just as the mediocre heavy metal band in This Is Spinal
Tap (1984) cannot conceivably be anything other than a mediocre
heavy metal band. The meaning of each of the pieces, however,
lies in the interplay between what one sees and how one sees
it. The title of the painting"The Treachery of Images"succinctly
applies to the operating principle of the mock documentary, as
well. Such films do not simply project an alternate "world"
for their spectators to observethat is the domain of traditional
narrative cinema, to which the mock documentary obviously owes
a great deal. Mock documentaries use the language of documentary
to subvert the ways in which documentaries are made and viewed.
They take the tools documentary uses to produce "truth"
(or a semblance thereof) and use them instead to produce fictions.
They use familiar conventions to trick us.
Mock documentaries raise several
questions which I will address. How do directors of mock documentaries
render their fictions believable? How do they use the language
of documentary to subvert documentary form? How important is
it that we buy into the film's central conceit; i.e., will the
films "work" even if we do not believe in their authenticity
as documentaries? How do mock documentary films differentiate
themselves from actual documentaries, and how do they tip their
hands to let the viewers in on the joke? Why are most mock documentaries
played for comedy? And is it possible to produce a definition
of the mock documentary?