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The Treachery of Images
by Ethan de Seife / University of Wisconsin

No Lies, dir: Mitchell Block, 1973, US.
The Falls, dir: Peter Greenaway, 1980, GB.
This Is Spinal Tap, dir: Rob Reiner, 1984, US.
Man Bites Dog (C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous), dir: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, 1991, BEL.
Fear of a Black Hat, dir: Rusty Cundieff, 1994, US.
Waiting for Guffman, dir: Christopher Guest, 1996, US.
Forgotten Silver, dir: Peter Jackson, 1996, NZ.

Salome, dir: Colin McKenzie, c. 1928, NZ.
Man with a Movie Camera, dir: Dziga Vertov, 1929, RUS.
Citizen Kane, dir: Orson Welles, 1941, US.
Why We Fight, dir: Frank Capra, 1942-1944, US.
Night of the Hunter, dir: Charles Laughton, 1955, US.
Chronicle of a Summer, dir: Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1961, FR.
The Last of Sheila, dir: Herbert Ross, 1973, US.
Faces of Death, dir: Conan la Ciliare, 1978, US.
Interiors, dir: Woody Allen, 1978, US.
The Last Waltz, dir: Martin Scorsese, 1978, US.
Airplane!, dir: Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, 1980, US.
Reds, dir: Warren Beatty, 1981, US.
Eddie and the Cruisers, dir: Martin Davison, 1983, US.
Meet the Feebles, dir: Peter Jackson, 1989, NZ.
Dead Alive, dir: Peter Jackson, 1993, NZ.
Heavenly Creatures, dir: Peter Jackson, 1994, US.
Hard Core Logo, dir: Bruce McDonald, 1996, CAN.

In an article from Magill's Cinema Annual 1984, Rob Edelman, writing about Woody Allen's Zelig (1983), says, "With Zelig, Allen has come up with a totally new form of cinema, a fictional documentary that plays like an extended newsreel." Edelman goes on to say how, in particular, the appearance of historical and present-day "real life" celebrities lend believability to the film. Then, he takes it a step further:
"Maybe with Zelig, Allen has stretched the medium of cinema as far as he can. He has gone from pure comedy to comedy with a plot and characters with points of view. He has experimented with straight drama. So what is next? A fictional documentary."
While I agree with Edelman that Zelig is in many ways a groundbreaking film, I find his opinion useful but flawed. Edelman implies that the fictional documentary — or "mock documentary" — is perhaps the highest form of cinema art, presumably for its ability to convincingly blend fact and fiction. While I think a case could be made for this position, Edelman passes over the several steps that exist between "straight drama" and fictional documentary, if indeed there is a clear progression. (Such a progression seems to be purely the creation of Edelman himself.) It is easy to be impressed by the ingenuity with which Allen blends new and archival footage, and also by the skill with which he imitates the tried-and-true newsreel format. Zelig is probably Allen's most technically accomplished film and one of his most insightful, but it certainly did not invent the genre of the mock documentary.
Three years before Zelig was released, Peter Greenaway made a staggeringly complex, heavily self-referential, and extremely funny mock documentary called The Falls (1980), which was supposedly a filmed biographical account of 92 of the 19 million survivors of something called the Violent Unknown Event. Greenaway's film, the conception and execution of which is almost unfathomable for its remarkable density, was the co-winner of the British Film Institute's award for Best Film in 1980. Though it remains relatively unknown and difficult to see despite Greenaway's subsequent success, the film received a good amount of coverage and was definitely known to those in the filmmaking industry. As such, it could be the inspiration for the spate of mock documentaries in the early 1980s and early to mid-1990s.
But Greenaway, too, had predecessors. It is certainly conceivable that Greenaway, a prolific maker of short films, had seen, before 1980, Mitchell Block's 1973 short No Lies. No Lies is one of the earliest mock documentaries, and also perhaps the most convincing. Its premise is that a male film student turns the camera on a friend as she gets ready to go out for the evening. The film is banal until the woman reveals that she has been raped recently. The filmmaker presses her to answer more and more questions about the event, thereby instigating the action of the film. She becomes visibly upset, not only at the rape, but at the camera's presence. Thanks largely to an incredibly naturalistic performance by Shelby Leverington as the woman and to the hand-held "vérité" camera, No Lies is completely convincing as a documentary ... until the credits roll. (Credits play an important part in establishing and/or destroying the illusion created by mock documentaries, and I will discuss this subject presently.) It is then that we learn that the people on screen were actors, and that this was a fiction film, not a documentary.

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Copyright © Ethan de Seife, author of Cultographies: This is Spinal Tap. Reprinted with permission.

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