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)

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