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But the history of the mock documentary goes back much farther than the early Seventies. There is, of course, a long line of documentarists whose work contains some staged or fictive material. Can we call their films mock documentaries? Robert Flaherty's reputation still suffers as a result of his somewhat heavy hand in shaping the events depicted in Nanook of the North (1922), a film that purported to depict how Eskimos really lived ... not how Eskimos really lived when a camera was in their midst. But even Flaherty was not working without precedent. Erik Barnouw, in his seminal work on the history of documentary, notes that, as far back as 1898, "...documentary film was infected with increasing fakery." He mentions in particular a filmed battle of the Spanish- American War fought with cardboard ships and cigar smoke, and a Boer War skirmish that took place on a golf course.
Such instances of fakery are not too distantly related to the notion of the mock documentary, though obviously they have different purposes. The fakery in the early films was, according to Barnouw, there to provide excitement and authenticity; staged scenes were included to illustrate the actions depicted in the actuality footage and to enhance their credibility. The idea was that, if audiences could see even a re-creation of a historic event, they would more readily believe it actually happened. The idea behind the mock documentary is similar: if the audience sees something presented in documentary mode, they will be more apt to believe it. But the ultimate goal of the mock documentary is not to enhance believability but to question it. While numerous turn-of-the-century actuality films of wars and natural disasters were partially faked in order to make them seem more real, mock documentaries are made to look as real as possible in part to fake out the audience, and in part to challenge them to question what they see.
In other words, documentarists, for as long as such a word has existed, have taken liberties with the form of documentary: they have embellished the truth to make the truth more believable, "real," convincing, vivid, memorable, or otherwise more suitable for filming. As Barnouw states, the creative embellishment of actual events "was not so much `deceit' as enterprise." A history of the manipulation of "truth" in documentary film is, essentially, a history of documentary itself. Barnouw goes on to make a rather bold claim: "The public was accustomed to news pictures having an uncertain and remote link to events. The relationship was scarcely thought about." While this statement may be hard to take at face value, it holds a grain of truth. In its nascency, cinema and its viewers were still feeling each other out to understand what they could expect from each other. Having never seen battle footage before, not all viewers may have stopped to think about whether it was 100 percent genuine.
Directors of mock documentaries, on the other hand, start with a fictional event or person, and then embellish that fiction to make it seem more believable, "real," or convincing. Furthermore, these films often have as one of their specific goals the satire of the documentary form, a goal which, though present in any number of traditional documentaries, is by no means a hallmark of the form. And here we have a curious parallel: One could make a case that Barnouw's claim that the relationship between images and truth went unquestioned is still in effect today, though for vastly different reasons. Bombarded as we are with televised and filmed images of anything and everything, we have seen the lines between truth and fiction blurred, perhaps irreparably. (Witness the promotion strategy of the MTV series The Real World, or CNN's action-movie-like coverage of the Persian Gulf War.) Mock documentaries toy with viewers' abilities to separate truth and fiction by presenting them with a film that may be either truth or fiction—the viewer must decide (though, as we will see, many films do contain numerous hints), and if he or she is not informed enough to make that decision, he or she then becomes an object of satire, too.
So while the numerous partially staged documentaries that pepper film history bear some resemblance to modern mock documentaries, the two are not explicitly related. It is the difference between an embellished historical account and a cleverly concealed lie. If the truth really is stranger than fiction, directors of mock documentaries have their work cut out for them.

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

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