Monday, 16 October 2017

Close analysis of Tilda Swinton’s performance in The Deep End (2001)

In this essay, I would like to focus on a close analysis of Tilda Swinton’s performance in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s The Deep End (2001). I will be honing in on Swinton’s use of ‘Flat Affect’, specifically in relation to the mis-en-scene of one scene. The mis-en-scene can be defined as the “film’s visual specifities”(Dix 2008: 11), including – but not exclusive to – setting, props, costume, lighting and acting. Andrew Dix describes these ‘pro-filmic’ elements as the “contents of a film’s visual field that are considered to exist prior to and independent of the camera’s activity”(2008:12). Another facet of The Deep End is the subversion of ‘Film Noir’ tropes of the film, for example Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic) is the inscrutable object of desire whilst Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) becomes the composed protagonist, disposing of Darby Reese’s (Josh Lucas) body with the same expression used when folding clean, white laundry (Matthews 2001: 43). This “expression” or lack there of, is known as flat affect.

Affect is that which makes us aware we are subject to others, a state of mind relating to emotion, but not emotion itself, which is the display of a feeling. Flat affect is a form of under-performativity, a delivery that is expected but not delivered. Tilda Swinton is well known for her use of flat affect – she has a performance style that embodies blunted emotion, which leads her to frequently be cast in roles that exploit her use of interiority, her ability to convey something beneath the surface. However, Swinton often states in interviews that she is not utilising a special technique in her acting skills, “I’ve never been conscious of taking an alternative stance. My position is not alternative to me”(Swinton 1990: 222). Moreover she doesn’t feel she is an actress, as stated in an interview with Variety magazine, “I don’t know what it would take for me to feel like one… I understand it’s a strange thing to say because I do keep saying ‘Yes, I’ll dress up and be in your film.’ But when I hear proper actors talking about their lives and how they approach their work, I feel like I’m up another tree”(Riley 2014: 1).

The scene to be closely analysed shows Margaret entering the house, watching her son’s play in the lake, lying in bed awake at night, then carrying out domestic duties the next day whilst speaking on the telephone. This sequence comes after Margaret has disposed of Reese’s body, the lover of her son Beau (Jonathan Tucker). When Margaret found the body, she assumed that Beau had killed Reese, when in fact he had fallen onto an anchor by accident. Spera, a ghost from the criminal underworld, demands $50,000 from Margaret in return for withholding an incriminating video of Beau and Reese having sex, from the police.
Swinton wrongly believes her son killed Reese and is desperate to protect him from Spera and the police. This can be deduced from her entrance to the scene wearing dark sunglasses; keeping her knowledge secret. The use of sunglasses hides the depth of Margaret’s knowledge, as opposed to the reading glasses, which can imply intellectuality and knowledge. Mary Ann Doane writes that glasses on women are a signifier of “woman’s appropriation of the gaze”(1991: 27), which makes them a threat, so Swinton wearing sunglasses shows her appropriating the female gaze. When we first see Margaret, she is reflected upside down, in the extreme close up of the water drop from the kitchen tap. As it drops, the sound of the water hitting the sink is muted, as if underwater, implying that perhaps Margaret is out of her depth, as well as alluding to the terrifying flashbacks of Margaret having to dive into the water to take car keys from Reese’s corpse.
The extreme close-up of the water drop in shallow focus cuts as the water drops, and Margaret’s reflection with it, to a close-up of the tap still in shallow focus. This cuts to a straight on shot of Margaret with her sunglasses removed, placing groceries in paper bags on the kitchen counter. Margaret is isolated in her domestic sphere, shown through her ignored call “Hello?” as she stands in the kitchen. The camera is behind condiments, static throughout this shot, as Margaret walks across the kitchen with measured, composed steps towards the window in the front room. The scene cuts as the camera tracks her from behind a fish tank, with racking focus from the fish in the foreground, to Margaret coming to stand in front of the window, with a medium close-up from behind. Margaret stands facing away from the camera, with the natural light being blocked by her body, as she surveys her two sons playing in the lake. The freedom with which Beau and Dylan (Jordan Dorrance) play and swim contrasts with the panic at which Margaret felt when disposing of Reese’s body. The subsequent shot shows Swinton from the outside of the window, highlighting Margaret’s isolation with the knowledge with which she is burdened. Beau’s youth is emphasized by his playfulness with his younger brother, while his mother is trapped inside, behind the sterile glass window.
Swinton’s blank facial expression is characteristic of the flat affect used to hide the characters emotions, however the non-diegetic sound of emotive music allows the audience to build up a sense of sympathy for Swinton’s character. This cuts to a geography shot of the lake with the mountains on the horizon as the sun sets over the lake-house, followed by a close up of Swinton lying in bed. Swinton’s anxiety is emphasised in this scene, made apparent by the lighting, which is low key; there is a high contrast of light and dark as Swinton is lit from behind. The director could have chosen this lighting as another film Noir signifier where shadows and darkness are used to imply deceit and intrigue, but also to emphasise the emptiness of her marital bed, with shadows where her husband should be. Margaret’s interior struggle is that of having to deal with family life without her husband, shown by the lighting and mis-en-scene of this shot, making up for the flat affect shown by her facial expression.
Margaret’s inability to sleep due to her chaotic mind is shown through the shot of Swinton’s face fading slowly into the spinning washing machine, an example of a female-gendered object, representing purification. Margaret is trying to hold together a façade of composure, whilst protecting her son from a danger of which he is not aware. The close-up shot tracks from the spinning clothes to the dryer at Margaret’s foot level, as she reaches in to pull out a white shirt, another prop used to signify purification and domestic serenity. Margaret is talking on the phone to the bank, listing off a reel of numbers, as the camera cuts to a medium close up of Margaret, from the perspective of an outsider peering in through the window. She folds the white shirt and places it on a pile of white laundry, then leaves the room as the camera lingers on a ticking clock face, highlighting the Spera’s impending blackmail deadline. There is a voyeuristic nature to the camera’s positioning throughout this scene, behind the condiments in the kitchen, through the glass of the fish tank, into private spaces such as the bedroom, and through the glass window of the washroom. The intrusiveness of the camera location is counteracted by Swinton’s use of flat affect not giving anything away, and leaving the audience disappointed in terms of gaining something from Margaret’s interior.

To conclude, affect is that which makes us aware of, and subject to, others. Swinton subverts that in the scene analysed that shows how the cinematic language of the film, such as the pro-filmic elements (mis-en-scene) and the camera technique, supplements the flat affect used by Swinton. Swinton uses blunted affect and interiorises the emotional struggle the character is feeling because Margaret has to be a strong matriarchal figure, one who solves the problems of her children, looks after her husband’s father and keeps the domestic sphere spinning smoothly. Margaret becomes the sole provider for her family, shown through the groceries she brings into the kitchen. Her use of flat affect disconnects her from the family, shown through her inability to emotionally connect with them. The audience is positioned behind windows and objects, as though we are watching her without her knowing, which creates a sense of intrusion, allowing us to see passed Swinton’s flat affect and into her vulnerability. The film Noir tropes make the audience question our expected gender roles of this film, especially our expectation of Margaret, who is portrayed as the capable protagonist as opposed to a man. 


Dix, Andrew. (2008) Beginning Film Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Doane, Mary Anne. (1991) ‘Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator’ in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge pp. 17-33

Matthews, Peter (2001) ‘The Deep End’ Sight and Sound, 11. 11. London: BFI pp.43-44

Riley, Jenelle. (2014) ‘Tilda Swinton on Why She Doesn’t Consider Herself an Actor’ in Variety. Published online: Accessed: 20.11.2014

Swinton, Tilda. (1990) ‘Subverting images of the Female’ New Theatre Quarterly, 6. 23. Published online: Accessed: 29.11.2014


The Deep End (2001) dir. Scott McGehee and David Siegel, starring. Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic

Monday, 21 March 2016

Discuss the treatment of masculinity in Billy Elliot (2000) and This Is England (2006)

This essay will focus on the treatment of masculinity in the films Billy Elliot (2000), written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, and This Is England (2006), written and directed by Shane Meadows, both set during the 1980’s. The film’s both feature young male protagonists who are ‘coming of age’ in a time of political and social upheaval. The community and family of Billy (Jamie Bell) in Billy Elliot (From here on referred to as BE) are involved in the miner’s strikes of 1984-5, suffering the closure of the coal pits in a small town near Durham.  For Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) in This Is England (From here on referred to as TIE), he faces the bleak future of life without his father, who was killed in the Falkland’s war, and involvement with a group of nationalists with racist principles. This essay will look firstly at what the stereotypical traits of masculinity are, followed by how these traits are subverted by various characters in the respective films, and finally at why these traits are subverted. Masculinity, the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men, has become ingrained into society’s expectations, however when the qualities are lost or changed, men can enter a state of crisis. Billy and Shaun define their own form of masculinity, based on the environments they live in and their ambition to move forward within them.

To begin with, this essay will observe some of the stereotypical traits of masculinity in BE and TIE. Both films are set in the North of England, during a period of high unemployment partly due to the cuts carried out by Margaret Thatcher and the conservative government. Mark Schreiber writes “one of the main features of the working classes in 1980s and 1990s Britain is that the greater proportion of them than of either the middle or the upper classes is not working. Loss of work to a class which defines itself as working is traumatic”(Schreiber, 2007, p.1). Schreiber identifies the catalyst for many of the insecurities expressed by men in these films. One of the first traits of masculinity to be explored is violence. BE is set in the fictional town of Everington, County Durham, with boxing presented as a generational sport used for male bonding and the pinnacle of masculinity. It is contrasted against the ultra-feminine dance form of ballet, to which Billy is drawn.
Stood outside of the boxing hall, Billy is seen as submissive when he is pushed out of the way by a boy who passes him, setting up the audience’s expectations of his lack of aggression. Next to Billy and his friend Michael (Stuart Wells) are two plaques, a large one that clearly reads ‘Everington Boys Club, Second Floor’ and has a picture of a boy boxing on it, the other beneath much smaller, reading ‘Dance School’. The masculine here presides over the feminine in importance, shown by the size and visibility of the male and female sports signage, but then again when the ballet lesson moves into the boxing hall, up from the basement as their space was used as a soup kitchen for the striking miners, another show of emasculation as the men are unable to provide food for themselves or their family. The peaceful ballet is kept out of sights, whilst the violent boxing is in a spacious hall above ground.
When Billy is knocked out in the sparring match, his coach yells, “Billy Elliot, you’re a disgrace to them gloves, your father and this boxing hall”. This statement flags up three traits of masculinity within the film; the sport of boxing, the generational tradition and the local perception. Within the film, boxing is a male orientated pastime involving fierce combat and competitive spirit. It requires dedication and discipline, which Billy evidently finds difficult as he rejects the sport for a more effeminate and creative activity.
The generational tradition shows the pressure of Billy to conform to his family’s ideals and not to break the mould, which ties in with the local perception as public shame is to be avoided by maintaining family honour, in this case through the boxing. For Billy’s father Jackie (Gary Lewis), Billy’s lack of aptitude towards boxing “threatens patriarchal tradition”(Hill, 2004, p.104), as he tells Billy, “they were my dads gloves. You’d better take better care of them”.

The preceding narrative of TIE includes the death of Shaun’s father, leaving him vulnerable to dominant patriarchal influence. To begin with Shaun gravitates towards a predominantly male group of friends who are all older than him, searching for a place to belong. The two figures who Shaun finds particularly inspiring are Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and Combo (Stephen Graham). Woody is in some senses a patriarchal figure - he is the leader of the gang; he enforces goodwill between members of the group and buys Shaun his first Ben Sherman shirt – part of the uniform of the skinhead culture. The controlled violence of the scene where the group of boys dress up and go and destroy abandoned houses shows a bond being made through destruction, but the violence isn’t affecting or hurting anyone directly; this violence is a release rather than an aggressive act. Clare Monk writes that films that are youth-orientated “address the anxieties of young male viewers by portraying the young male underclass in terms of an appealing subculture of dissent from the demands of adulthood, women and work”(Monk, 2000, p.160). The film is set during Shaun’s school holidays, however most of the male members of his gang are a lot older and don’t seem to work. Woody, as a leader and a provider of fun, doesn’t assert his power over the group, rather promotes equality between all the members.
Because of this, Woody becomes a fraternal figure rather than a paternal one, made especially clear when Combo returns to the group and displays his alpha male personality. During his incarceration, Combo was exposed to extreme nationalist thought, within which he thinly veils a racist attitude. Shaun is attracted to his dominant personality and becomes his protégée. When the government conduct violence and initiate a war in another country, it shouldn’t be surprising that the violence permeates into our own society. War connotes violence and dominance, both masculine traits that are explored by Shane Meadows in the film. Shaun craves a masculine figure to look up to, holding his soldier father in high regard, even fighting at school when his name is besmirched.
Combo portrays the masculine trait of dominance through his violence and aggression towards immigrants and non-English residents, however mostly towards those who are physically weaker than him, such as a middle aged shopkeeper, young boys and women. The reasons behind Combo’s aggression and nationalist ideals could be because of the lack of employment, partly due to his lack of education and criminal record, partly due to Thatcher greatly diminishing industrial work and partly due to the influx of immigrants taking a minority of the available jobs. Geoff Mayer writes “It has been noted by some critics that issues relating to unemployment, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse are constituents not merely of the decline of the traditional working class, but symptomatic of a crisis in masculinity”(Mayer, 2003, p.25). In Combo’s case, his idea of the traditional working class is one of industrial-working English men, however in Meadows film, the only people who seem to be working are non-white individuals and women.
In the scene where Combo intercepts Lol (Vicky McClure) on her way to work at, the women who pass Lol and call out greetings are of Asian heritage. Combo’s confession of love for Lol in his car is a pivotal moment of his masculine crisis. Combo’s car is the place he feels most in control, however he has L-plates on the back, which undermines his experience. Not only is his love for Lol rejected when he tells her the night they spent together was “the best night of my life”, and she responds “It was the worst night of my life”, but when one of the young boys insults nationalist ideas whilst in Combo’s car, Combo feels his masculinity and his position of power challenged, and stops the car to physically eject him saying “Don’t you fucking ever undermine me again in front of my fucking troops”. This assertion of dominance isn’t believable as it is an extreme reaction that almost seems petulant and immature coming from a man who believes he has some kind of military authority.

Combo’s subverted masculinity is evidence of how Meadows takes the power away from the macho character in order to expose his humanity and to question the definition of masculinity. The subversion of masculinity is explored in both BE and TIE through themes such as ballet, empowered women, and homosexuality in the former, and nationalism in the latter, and unemployment in both. The mainly sympathetic view of the male protagonist is largely due to “the perceived ‘losses’ the narrative signal: losses of work, dignity, self-respect, familial and personal relationships, economic, political, social and sexual power and ‘potency’”(Lay, 2002, p.108). When men experience these losses, they fall into a crisis of masculinity because their place is questioned.
In BE, ballet is often referred to as being the pastime of the homosexual, which is viewed as inferior, for example in the scene when Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) tells Billy that “plenty of men” do ballet, Billy’s reply is a dismissive “poofs”. Behind Debbie there is a huge poster that shows a man next to a washing machine, below text which reads ‘At your service Susie. Your ever-faithful washing slave’. This poster highlights how key masculine identities are changing around the oblivious child protagonists as gender roles change to suit a society that thrives on consumerism rather than labour and production, consumerism that requires creativity to further advertising and entertainment.  
Billy’s explanation to Michael of why ballet isn’t a homosexual indulgence is filmed as the two boys are coming out of a tunnel. When Michael tells Billy he would look “wicked” in a tutu, this could be seen as a literal coming out. John Hill wrote “The film is acutely conscious of the popular associations of ballet with effeminacy and homosexuality and much of the film is preoccupied with downplaying these connotations”(Hill, 2004, pp.104). This is the first time Michael broaches his fascination for Billy. Hill writes that the attraction to ballet “sets in motion within the film the discourses of gender and sexuality, and a questioning of the heterosexual masculinity that underpins the working-class community”(Hill, 2004, pp.104). Apart from in the dance lessons with his teacher, much of Billy’s dancing is a mixture of tap and Irish, as seen in the scene where he dances out of frustration and seeks to “physically burst out of his environment”(Hill, 2004, pp.104) in the outdoor toilet. Michael could be seen as representing the working class homosexual, however he could also be seen as a foil for the ultra-masculine, heterosexual grown up Billy in the end scene. So ballet in Billy’s community is stereotyped as the indulgence of the homosexual, which Billy constantly has to prove he is not. Steve Blandford writes of BE, “The film is clearly at pains to avoid an easy correspondence between Billy’s aptitude for dance and the usual clichés about gay men that so often accompany the portrayal of male dancers”(Blandford, 2007, p.29). By having a gay best friend, Billy’s own sexuality is up for scrutiny, however James Leggot believes “the homosexual characters are mostly pushed to the fringes…to dislodge any anxieties that the main protagonist might be gay”(Leggot, 2008, p.88). Ballet is a vehicle for subverting traditional masculinity in BE through opening up a creative channel as a means of expression and redefining the boundaries of what is an acceptable masculinity. Hill wrote, “Billy becomes an emblem of economic rejuvenation through participation in the ‘creative’ industries” (Hill, 2004, pp.108).
In TIE, the minority who are discriminated against are people of ethnic or non-Christian backgrounds. Combo convinces Shaun that the war on immigration is more important than the war his father fought in; echoing the sentiments of the disillusioned British population who felt the influx of Asian Muslims into the country was preventing white Anglo-Saxon people from having a job or a place to live. He preaches that Thatcher sent “good, innocent” men on a “phony” war to “fight shepherds with rocks and little rifles”. Nationalism subverts the idea of masculinity by presenting an extreme territorial dominance that forces Shaun to question Combo’s views by the end.
Both filmmakers show men feeling threatened by change in their lives and communities, which in turn threatens their masculinity. The anxiety about unemployment leads to explosive aggression from Jackie and Combo. For Jackie this is directed towards the “scab” miners who cross the picket lines and against his son which carries “accusations of class treachery” at his “suspiciously non-masculine endeavour”(Leggot, 2008, p.94), whilst Combo blames immigration. In TIE, Combo’s masculine aggression could be perceived as deriving from his failure to fit into society, and his refusal to accept how his community has changed since his incarceration. He is visibly delighted in the scene where he passes on his aggressive, racist behaviour in the scene where he encourages Shaun to pace back and forth shouting “Fuck off, you Paki bastards”, calling him “son” and congratulating him. This scene is preceded by a shot of the Combo’s gang all walking towards the camera, shot from a low angle, with Gadget spitting; the men looking aggressive and threatening. This is a direct contrast to a shot previously with Woody’s gang where they were all laughing, looking friendly and approachable.
The ‘male-panic’ of BE with the men shown drinking, striking and barely being able to survive financially has an underlying positive portrayal of women. The only main character that is working and earning a living, as well as not drinking, is Billy’s dance teacher, Sandra, (Julie Walters), and in TIE, Shaun’s mum, the shoe-shop keeper and Lol, are the main white characters who are employed. All of these women represent the “de-industrialised, consumer-led, feminised world”(Lay, 2002, p.105). In BE, Walter’s is one of the only characters who has a car and lives in an area that is a complete dichotomy of the run down terraced streets of Billy’s world. When Billy goes to Sandra’s house, Sandra’s husband becomes an immediately detestable character, belittling the strike and supporting the idea of pit closure. Debbie later reveals that her father is “always pissed”, and at one point “pissed himself” as well as having been made redundant. This revelation takes away from the dominant figure in the previous scene that sits away from the family, in the foreground of the shot, making him seem bigger than the other characters, and turns him into a figure of ridicule. In the household, Sandra is the breadwinner whilst her husband is an incontinent, unemployed alcoholic.

Mark Schreiber, in his study of masculinity in Contemporary British Film described Britain as a “post-industrial scrap heap” after the decline of traditional industries, with the north hit especially hard because of its “consequential inflexibility for economic change” (Schreiber, 2007, p.1). It would seem however, there is consequential flexibility for a change of masculinity. In BE, Tony wakes in the early hours, takes his father’s hammer and attempts to leave the house when Jackie tries to stop him by hitting him, however this doesn’t work and Jackie is shown as being entirely powerless as Tony walks straight passed him and out of the door. With no work and no money, Tony and Jackie begin to fight like animals, which added to the shots of the striking miners with the verbal and physical missiles, indicates feral behaviour. However, Jackie comes through for Billy as a father and overlooks his prejudices towards ballet, even though it is an alien world to him. Even though Billy’s father is struggling with his changing identity, Billy is valiantly forging his own path, Leggot describing him as “angelic”(Leggot, 2004, p.168), accentuated through Billy’s literal balletic flight.
In TIE, Woody’s group are shown as sitting around in café’s and crowding into small rooms to shave Shaun’s hair or drink. They seem to have no space in society and little purpose or drive, with no real desire for employment, which gives them no need to provide therefore little expression of stereotypical masculine traits. Monk writes “The youth-orientated films present young male joblessness and social exclusion as taken-for-granted states with no history, no proposed solution and no expectation of change. With detached irony, they framed the male underclass not as a ‘social problem’ but as a subcultural ‘lifestyle’ with certain attractions for a young, post-political male audience”(Monk, 2000, p.160). Woody’s gang have rejected the violence of masculine models like the soldiers of the Falklands, instead creating their own utopian tribe of equality that has a new form of masculinity. Unemployment and a lack of political interest means the members of the crew are treated like family, with love and respect rather than a patriarchal hierarchy based on power.

Both films feature children as the protagonists, which begs the question; how do we identify with young boys from working-class, northern backgrounds? The masculinity of Billy and Shaun is examined through the male stereotypes imposed upon them by their families and friends, but what stereotypes are we imposing on them? To attempt to answer these questions, the audience need to understand that the traits of masculinity explored previously can be interpreted as being subverted because of reasons that supersede the narrative and characters of both films. BE was created as one of the first lottery funded films, winning three BAFTA’s including Best British Film. It was created in Hollywood style for a worldwide audience, with the strike being an inconsequential background to the real struggles of the arts in a society based on consumerist and industrialist values. Blair’s strategy with the UK’s Film Council funding, launched in 2000 was that it would finance popular films that entertain people and make them feel good, which is what BE does. It takes a period of time that the audience can relate to as being dismal and bleak, and gives it a utopian twist We identify with the Billy’s desire for a better life, for a brighter future. Meadows created TIE as a reflection of the bullying and violence he’d experienced in his own life and his involvement in the skinhead movement of the 80’s. He openly states, as does Stephen Graham, that he identified strongly not only with Shaun, but also with Thomas Turgoose. Through using real clips of soldiers in the Falkland’s war and playing popular upbeat music over the top, Meadows comments on the futility of war and the twisted perception civilians may have garnered from the footage shown to them at home. Masculinity is challenged in the film by Shaun’s various patriarchal role models, whilst representing the different forms of masculinity as a person changes with age. Meadows film allows the audience to identify with the idea of a child finding their own identity, their own voice in a society that ostracizes anyone outside of the mainstream.

Although BE and TIE are similar in so many aspects, from the young male protagonists to the disillusioned and unemployed man, the desire for change to the struggle for continuity, the treatment of masculinity is multifaceted. Blandford writes, “Billy Elliot appears to assert that masculine identity can only be enriched by embracing a much broader set of values in a rapidly changing world”(Blandford, 2007, 29) which can aptly be applied to TIE as well. Both Shaun and Billy are at a point in their life where they are finding their own voice and creating their own identity, the filmmakers highlighting this through exploring the limited options young men in 80’s England had. Shaun’s inclusion into the skinhead group and Billy’s discovery of ballet are vehicles for the boys to find their voice and to figure out their identity. The resistance Billy faces only makes him work harder in order to prove his choice of masculinity can still be taken as seriously as the men he grew up around. Shaun craves the inclusion of a crew, suffering from the grief of his father’s death, and experiences this twice, once with Woody and once with Combo. The last scene of the film shows Shaun throwing a St Georges flag into the ocean, a metaphor for him throwing away the ideas others have forced upon him. When he looks up and makes eye-contact with the camera, we are encouraged to believe he has come to his own decision about his identity and what it is to be a man. Schrieber writes of British Contemporary Cinema “I would like to read them as examples of a successful deconstruction of gender stereotypes and as triggers for a cultural healing process of the trauma of social and cultural destabilisation caused by economic decline and a gradual realisation of what one might call “post-industrial masculinity””(Schreiber, 2007, p.1).


1.     Blandford, Steve. 2007. Film, Drama and the Break-up of Britain. Bristol: Intellect Books.

2.     Hill, John. 2004. A working class hero is something to be: Changing representations of class and masculinity in British Cinema. In: P.Powrie, A. Davies and B. Babington, ed. 2004. The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema. London: Wallflower.

3.     Lay, Samantha. 2002. British Social Realism. London: Wallflower Press.

4.     Leggot, James. 2004. Like Father? Failing parents and angelic children in Contemporary British Social Realist Cinema. In: .Powrie, A. Davies and B. Babington, ed. 2004. The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema. London: Wallflower.

5.     Leggot, James. 2008. Contemporary British Cinema. London: Wallflower Press

6.     Mayer, Geoff. 2003. Guide to Cinema. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc.

7.     Monk, Claire. 2000. Men in the 90’s. In: Robert Murphy’s, 2000. British Cinema of the 90’s. London: British Film Institute.

8.     Schreiber, Mark, 2007. Re-negotiating Concepts of Masculinity in Contemporary British Film. Working Out Gender. [e-journal] 17. Available at [Accessed 28 April 2014]

Monday, 8 February 2016

“Mock-documentaries are a more reliable source than documentaries”

Nanook of the North is credited as being one of the first feature length documentaries. Made in 1922 by Robert J. Flaherty, it shows the lives of the Inuit people of Quebec, Canada, from fishing and hunting to eating with family. The hypocrisy of this film is that many parts were reconstructed in order to add to the romanticism of the narrative; the ‘family’ at the centre of the film were cast and paid Inuit; the famous walrus scene was re-enacted with spears that were no longer the primary hunting tool, and the clothes worn were nostalgic costume, not the western clothes they had come to appropriate (Duncan 1999: 1). It has been argued that these elements of dramatizing information are still appropriate for the factual discourse of documentary (Ward 2005: 32), however I believe that Nanook of the North falls under the umbrella category of docufiction, and more specifically, docudrama – a text with documentary content, but presented in a fictional form (Springer, Rhodes 2006: 4). In this essay, I argue that the mock-documentary is a more reliable source than the documentary due to the underhand production and actualisation of the documentary form, in comparison to the upfront nature of the mock-documentary, shown through parody and satire. The reason I am using the term ‘mock-documentary’ rather than mockumentary, pseudo-documentary or any other term, is succinctly explained by Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight “mock-documentary suggests its origins in copying a pre-existing form, in an effort to construct… a screen from with which the audience is assumed to be familiar” (2001: 1). By comparing mock-documentaries to documentaries, as well as using my own film, Looking for George as a source, I hope to show how mock-documentaries should be taken as a more valid source of opinion through parodying the often covert agenda’s of documentaries.
Initially, this will be addressed through comparing the current Reggie Yate’s documentaries, Extreme Russia with sketches from the political mock-documentary TRWBT. Subsequent to this, I will explore the techniques that are employed to convey the information about characters in documentaries, mock-documentaries and hoaxes, looking specifically at the cast/crew dynamic of Troll-Hunter, the presenter characters of Dale Mailey from TRWBT and Benjamin Crawley in Looking for George. I will question the authenticity of the documentary presenter and their authority to educate the public. Finally, I will discuss the ethical nature of the mock-documentary, which involves a critique of whether the satirical form trivialises the information or opinion it attempts to convey. I will conclude this essay with an informed opinion of why mock-documentaries are to be taken as a more valuable source of opinion in comparison with documentaries, based on the commentary they make about politics, the media or the documentary form itself. 

A brief history of the Documentary, and the form of the Mockumentary 
According to John Parris Springer and Gary D. Rhodes, Kino Pravda of early 20th Century Russia was the beginning of documentary filmmaking, pioneered by Dziga Vertov with non-fictional films that attempted to record the facts of unscripted life in the newly formed Soviet Union, rejecting any fictional or narrative elements (2006: 1). In 1960’s France, Jean Rouch began to develop his own style of documentary film making, helping to popularise the conventions of cinéma vérité by using hand-held camerawork and synchronous sound. At the same time, ‘direct cinema’ was being developed through the documentaries of Richard Leacock, D.A Pennebaker and the brothers David and Albert Maysles, who worked on observational documentaries. They believed in letting the narrative come together in the editing suite, whilst allowing the filming to remain strictly non-interventionist, unlike Rouch who had a more provocative and interactive approach towards his subjects (Hight 2010: 110). I believe that the problem with the documentary form is the façade of truth, which is undercut by the agenda of the presenter and crew as well as the post-production manipulation of interviews and action, making it seem as though a narrative has developed organically when in fact it has been constructed. A reaction to the documentary format was the mock-documentary and hoax, which parody and satire the tired techniques in order to expose how inauthentic the presentation of information is. These texts often questioned the role of the crew and the presenters, who are edited to seem as though they are invisible to the interviewee, as well as having no agenda other than to film the action truthfully. 

What is the agenda of the text to be communicated to its audience? 
The agenda of the mock-documentary is often made clear through the commentary or critique they are making. This is often not the case in documentaries that are presented as sources of quotable information, created with no intent other than to inform. In my opinion, this is not the case in Reggie Yate’s documentary series, Extreme Russia. The episode to be discussed is called Far Right and Proud. Both the title of the series and that of the episode create a bias towards a fervent nationalism that is supported by the narration over the introduction that includes insightful snippets such as “growing up in the 80’s, Russia was painted as this weird, big baddie”, images of Russian policemen out in force and marches with Putin’s face on the flags. Reggie Yates, a former children’s television presenter and BBC radio 1 host, was chosen to investigate why far right groups, which are well known racist strongholds, were rising in numbers. It seemed as though Yates’ race was used to provoke responses from the small-minded racists interviewed, with comments describing mixed-race children as “freaks”. Yates talked to Dmitry Demushkin, a former neo-nazi, who now led a far-right group and agreed to speak with Yates; however, Demushkin’s agenda outweighed the importance of Yates’ interview about the group’s beliefs. It became apparent that Demushkin was using his interaction with a black man to eliminate previous racist accusations by posting pictures on social media. Yates agreed to attend a self-defence class run by Demushkin, in which he met a man who invited him to a traditional Russian sauna. The nudity obviously made Yates uncomfortable as he made allusions to the apparent homosexuality of being naked in a sauna with another man, belittling the tradition and implying that the tough Russian man was a repressed homosexual. Yates’ agenda here is clear, despite the unbiased pretence of reporting on the support of political parties in Russia. The documentary demonizes the views of the entire group by showing clips that portray them as racist, homophobic and infers the self-defence classes run by Demushkin are the cause of racist attacks on immigrants with no clear evidential link. The agenda of the program The Revolution Will Be Televised (TRWBT) is made clear from the opening title sequence that reads, “Our world is full of hypocrisy, corruption and greed. Someone has to fight back. Shame it had to be these guys”. The idea is that the series exposes the hypocrisy of the media, the corruption of the government and the greed of multi-national corporations. The series is a mock-documentary because it uses factual information but presents it satirically. Like all mock-documentaries, TRWBT relies on audience media literacy to recognise the documentary format of its sketches, and therefore understand the satire. In the first series, one of the sketches used continuously presents mock-documentary style coverage of two lesser-known MP’s, a Conservative named James Tottingham-Burbage, and a Lib-Dem called Barnaby Plankton. In episode three, the two characters wander around an estate, talking presumably to those with lower incomes, about the cuts to their benefits. They ask them how they would feel about moving out of their council houses and into a cardboard box. The agenda is clear: to show how ludicrous the welfare cuts are; to satirize the relationship between politicians and the public, and to poke fun at the documentary technique of the infallibility of the presenters by portraying them as silly and ridiculous. When brainstorming the plot for Looking for George, we took inspiration from TRWBT in the form of political critique. Our agenda was to criticise the political far right parties in the UK for hijacking the patron saint, Saint George, and using him as a figurehead in the Protection of English National Identity Party, or PENIP. The English Defence League use the Saint George flag at marches and often sing the song “With Saint George in my heart, keep me English” at rallies. Through research we discovered that Saint George was historically born in Palestine, fought for the Roman army, and was born to Greek and Palestinian parents. In addition, he is the patron saint for at least four other countries. We tried to make our agenda clear through the blatant parody of the BNP 2014 banned party political broadcast, available on Youtube, in which an animated English Bulldog trots through different parts of Great Britain, criticising the effect of immigration and ‘Islamification’ of the UK. We directly satirised the final part of the video in which a politician says “Just listen to ordinary people like you”, followed by the opinions of apparently ‘ordinary’ people who ask for “British jobs for British people” and the restoration of capital punishment. We began our propaganda video with Saint George drinking a beer, a reflection of the many pictures of Nigel Farage drinking, apparently to make him a more likeable and relatable candidate. We then went on to have opinions from ‘ordinary’ people that reflected the anti-immigration feelings of parties like the BNP and UKIP. We wanted to highlight not only how Saint George had has his identity hijacked in the name of political propaganda, but also how politicians themselves become a product of their campaign rather than retaining their individuality. Our film was released on the same day as the British general election 2015, an election that was dubbed by the BBC as the ‘social media election’ (Wendling 2015: 1). The candidates had become caricatures of their parties, and I feel this was captured in Saint George’s character in the apparent control during the propaganda video, contrasted with the drunken antics towards the end of the film. Whilst our film requires the audience to have an understanding of the policies of UKIP, the use of Saint George by the EDL, and potentially the BNP political broadcast, it is not essential in order for them to grasp the parody of far right policies. Paul Ward’s description of the mock-documentary is apt to what we attempt to achieve with the PENIP party broadcast, “The sober discourse of an informational documentary mode is juxtaposed with ludicrous statistics and outright lies, so that the original conventions appear ludicrous too” (2005: 74). Our agenda is to mock the political broadcast, but its feature in our mock-documentary is made clear from the captions, highlighting the documentary technique that we are satirising. Whilst the agenda of the documentary is supposedly clear from the offset, as shown in Reggie Yates’ narrative introduction, there are often hidden motives that are revealed after a closer reading. On the other hand, the mock-documentary is more open with its intentions, providing they have a level of media literacy and are aware of its fictional nature, and the tropes it is parodying. In this way, the agenda is communicated in a more transparent manner to the audience, despite the biased opinions. 

What techniques are employed to convey information about characters and their roles? The introductory narration is one of the tell-tale signs of a documentary program, often spoken in an over-enthusiastic and disjointed voice. The narration is often used throughout, especially when the presenter is on screen travelling, walking or thinking. Alternatively, the presenter will directly address the camera, breaking the fourth wall and connecting with us, the ‘audience at home’. As aforementioned, captions indicating where footage has come from are another documentary technique, but captions are also used to demonstrate who interviewees are. In most documentaries, the crew are invisible, never being caught on camera or spoken to directly. The effect of this is to create a sense of verisimilitude that implies the action has organically occurred with no directions from the producer or cameraman, often achieved in the editing suite during post-production. The issue I have with this is the pretence of reality, the idea that the action would have happened regardless of whether the camera were there or not.  By parodying the documentary techniques, the mock-documentary highlights the hypocrisy of the documentary. This is achieved in Man Bites Dog, where Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde write, produce and direct the film, as well as editing, filming and acting in it. As seen in fig. 3, the men are often in shot interacting with the main character, with the reflexivity taking a dark turn as they end up participating and facilitating the murders, rapes and cover-ups of the serial killer they originally intended to document.

Another film where the cast/crew are involved in the action of the documentary they are shooting is Troll-Hunter, a Norwegian hand-held horror/hoax about a group of students who, whilst filming about bear killings, accidently become involved with a troll-hunter and uncover a government level cover-up. The self-reflexive nature of involving the crew as cast in this film is purely fictional, as the cast in the film are actually actors. However, this film also satirises another documentary trope; the found footage declaration at the beginning of the film. Troll-Hunter begins with a statement that declares the footage was delivered to the production company as hard disks of rushes, and they have released the film as unedited clips, in chronological order, with no image manipulation. It then goes on to claim that a “team of investigators” had concluded this footage was real. These statements encourage the audience to extend their belief to the idea of reality within the footage. This is one of the reasons hoaxes are not as valid a source of information as mock-documentaries, as they attempt to con the audience into believing the films they watch are factually correct. The presenter is often portrayed as being a source of knowledge and authority in the documentary form, shown through their point of view being constantly consulted in relation to the topic they are investigating. Brian Cox is a physicist and a professor of physics at the University of Manchester, a respected academic in his field, and therefore fully entitled to present documentaries on space. However, when Stacey Dooley, a BBC3 television personality, presents documentaries on marijuana production in South Africa in her recent series Stacey Dooley Investigates, it is difficult to see what her authoritative status is. When Dooley shadows the airport drug enforcement, and comes across a package that was labelled with an address in E16, she gives the valuable insight “The hipsters won’t have any weed to smoke”, and during a three minute action sequence in which she rides with the police, she helpfully points out where she is and what she’s doing, in case we hadn’t been paying attention, “I’m not looking to push my luck, this is Johannesburg, and we’re door stepping drug dealers”. We try and parody the presenter of documentaries like Dooley with the beginning of Looking for George, having a slow-zoom in to Benjamin Crawley standing in a museum, saying “I’m Benjamin Crawley, part-time historian, full-time Englishman, and today I’m in a museum”. By pointing out the generic spot he’s in, we highlight the absurdity of presenter’s narrative. This continues with our travelling shots of Crawley walking along streets in Hebden Bridge or around Manchester Piccadilly Gardens. The humour is accentuated in the wardrobe choice of the Crawley, satirising Richard Clay, a BBC history presenter. The long coat, the flyaway hair and the tucked in shirt are all parodies of the documentary presenter attire. This is just one of the ways we parody the documentary techniques employed to build the characters role. We use typical documentary shots such as the presenter walking towards the camera and then walking past, but we mocked them by having ridiculous narrative. TRWBT also parodies the presenter with the character ‘Dale Maily’, a reference to the sensationalist newspaper and online gossip site, The Daily Mail. In series one, episode three, Dale Maily introduces his story with the tagline “I’m Dale Maily, the fearless hetero journalist” and finishes with “Telling you the right way to think”. The small section of ‘news’ involves him reporting on an English boating race, pretending to hold similar beliefs to those he is interviewing in order to get a response from them. He asks a young man about the Falklands, calling the Argentinians ‘Argies’ and questioning whether or not they should be “beaten down”. The young man responds by saying, “We should let the Argies take the Falklands, and then we kick the shit out of them, and take the Falklands back!” to which Maily and the young man guffaw. The coverage of the boat race highlights the lack of ethnic or religious diversity, and attempts to poke fun at the opinions of the upper class. The Dale Maily sketch uses news tropes such as location shooting, hand-held camera and natural lighting that increase the verisimilitude of the piece; however, because the content is sardonic, the effect is to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation.

 What are the ethical concerns behind the mock-documentary? 
While TRWBT uses factual information, Looking For George uses information that is false and potentially misleading. This could be viewed negatively, as with the first on air hoax by Orson Welles in War of the Worlds in 1938, where a story of alien invasion was broadcast as a news item resulting in a panicked public and policemen storming the studio. The program caused a local mayor to call the studio and announce there were mobs on the streets of a Midwestern town. However, in Looking For George, as Roscoe and Hight say of mock-documentaries, we attempted to “engage directly with a factual discourse, and effectively to encourage viewers to develop critical awareness of the partial, constructed nature of documentary” (2001: 160). We did this through questioning the authenticity of the presenter through using Benjamin Crawley to ridicule the seriousness of documentary presenters. Our film is a hybrid of what Roscoe and Hight would refer to as “parody” and “critique”; parody because we appropriate documentary aesthetics to emphasize humour; and critique because we engage critically in the reflexivity towards factual discourse, raising questions about unethical interviewing practice in the apparent spontaneity of our doorstep interview with Saint George. A lot of mock-documentaries, particularly low budget shorts use non-professional actors. The positive aspect of this is that a platform is created for previously unknown artists. However, the use of a working script and non-professionals means that the quality control is low, and the actors may not have a say in the final cut of the film, as the story is mainly created in the editing suite. This means they may not agree with how they or their character is portrayed, for example, in Looking for George, the actor Mritunjay Sharma was originally cast as Saint George, however his acting was not to a high enough standard that the crew collectively agreed was necessary for one of the main characters of the film. We had to regroup and change our working script, deciding to change the story line in order to work with one of the actors who had more skill in improvisation. We still wanted to use Sharma, however we created a different role for him, which would allow us to use more documentary tropes. We had a ‘victim confession’, which is often used in documentaries, and blurred out Sharma’s face, dubbing over his voice with another actors, and distorting it to an almost humorous level of unrecognizability. The ethical problem with this is that we didn’t consult Sharma before we changed his character, as ultimately, the creative control lies with the crew, not the actors. This meant although he had auditioned for the role of Saint George, he ended up being an anonymous character, with another actor speaking his lines. This could be viewed as unfair, however with the time constraints and limited filming time, we made the executive decision that the harm would be minor and would be a fair judgement for the benefit for the film. With conclusions like these being made without the actor’s agreement, it could be argued that the mock-documentary practice of creating the story in the editorial suite draws actors in with a false sense of trust, as they are never exactly sure of how their character will turn out. The documentary form and style is described by Springer and Rhodes as including “historically specific devices such as the authoritative voiceover narration… the use of on-camera interviews; forms of evidence such as archival photographs, diagrams, maps and charts; and such visual characteristics as handheld camera” (2006: 4). The mock-documentary borrows these documentary elements, as Looking for George did with Crawley’s insightful narration, the interview with Johanna Eccles, the historical images of Saint George and the shaky hand-held footage. Instead of claiming to be filming real people in a “segment of the real world” (ibid), it bases its content on self-referential irony through acknowledgement of the crews presence, satirical narrative and fictional content. The “real world” of the mock-documentary us irrelevant, because what is important is the critique the director/cast are trying to highlight. To be read correctly, Looking for George relies on the audiences knowledge of the documentary format, a basic knowledge of the political parties of Great Britain, and the typical presenter characteristics. Our film serves as a metacommentary on the rise of far right parties in the UK. Whilst non-fiction television attempts to “mediate aspects of the socio-historical world according to varying agendas, ethics and representation styles that typically incorporate a direct address to their assumed domestic audiences” (Hight 2010: 102), the mock-documentary seeks to upset this through parodying many of the techniques used by highlighting their tired effect on the audience. The mock-documentaries are an essential element of modern day media, critical to weed out the tired conventions that become less and less effective with use. Humour points out the pomposity of the documentary form so it can continue to grow in a healthy direction, and while the mock-documentary may not tell us the correct facts about the patron saint of England, we are taught about how documentary and political propaganda rhetoric is dangerous in influencing the nation. 

Duncan, Dean, W. (1999) ‘Nanook of the North’ in The Criterion Collection. Accessed online: [11.05.2015] 
Hight, Craig (2010) Television Mockumentary: Reflexivity, satire and a call to play. Manchester University Press: Manchester Roscoe, Jane and Craig Hight (2001) Faking It: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester University Press: Manchester 
Springer, John Parris and Gary D. Rhodes (2006) Docufictions: Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. McFarland & Co. Inc: USA Ward, Paul (2005) Documentary: The Margins of Reality. Wallflower: London 
Wendling, Mike (2015) ‘What makes a ‘social media election’? on BBC. Accessed online: [11.05.2015] 

Banned BNP Broadcast 2014. Accessed online: [15.05.2015]
Extreme Russia dir. By Chris Alcock. (UK: BBCthree, 2015)
Looking for George dir. By Amelie Eckersley, John Hemsoll, Jenny Mcintyre (UK: Unreleased, 2015)
Man Bites Dog dir. By Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgium: Les Artistes Anonymes: 1993)
Nanook of the North dir. By Robert J. Flaherty (USA: Les Frère Revillion, Pathé Exchange, 1922)
Stacey Dooley Investigates dir. By Joyce Trozzo (UK: BBCthree, 2015)
Troll-Hunter dir. By André Øvredal (Norway: Filmkameratene A/S, Film Fund FUZZ: 2011) 

War of the Worlds dir. By Orson Welles (USA: Columbia Broadcasting System, 1938)