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20 November 2014

From Orson Welles to What We Do in the Shadows: A brief history of the mockumentary

The greatest offerings from the only new film genre to have emerged in the last 50 years.

By Ryan Gilbey

This week brings the release of a new mockumentary—What We Do in the Shadows, which stars its co-writing-directing team Taika Wahiti and Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) and brings the format to bear on the subject of vampires. Time, then, for a quick rundown of the highlights in what is arguably the only new genre to emerge in the last 50 years.

Orson Welles

The fake newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane (1941), that frustrated quest for definitive truths, only signals the futility of the search ahead. The horror story played for real was Welles’s idea too, long before The Blair Witch Project, in his infamous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds which caused evacuations of both kinds in many of its listeners. And Welles never expressed more blatantly his fascination with deception than in F for Fake (1973), an intriguing little compendium of musings on the subject of forgery, each one stamped with a lingering question mark.

Zelig (1983)

Woody Allen is the unsung king of the mockumentary—his first film, Take the Money and Run (1969), belonged to the genre—and Zelig is one of the zingiest. The film was pieced together from fake newsreel footage that found the unassuming Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) in the company of politicians, popes and celebrities. But it too was pretending to be something it was not; this film about a master forger was itself a forgery. Zelig is partly about how we rewrite ourselves and rewrite history; it features interviews with modern intellectuals who bring their own biases to bear on the Zelig phenomenon. The fraudulent authority bestowed upon the film by its documentary appearance is integral to that argument.

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This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

An ambivalent relationship with the documentary format is one prerequisite of the faux documentary: it’s there in the daddy of the genre, This is Spinal Tap. For all its digs at heavy metal pomposity, the movie spared its most unforgiving jibes for its ostensible creator, the fictional film-maker Marty DiBergi, played by Spinal Tap’s own director, Rob Reiner, in a deliciously nasty send-up of Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz (1978), all awkward cool and fawning chumminess. It seemed to be saying, if it was saying anything at all, that DiBergi, with his ingratiating turns of phrase (“Whaddya say? Let’s boogie!”) was as much to blame for the stupidity of the music industry as daft props like the band’s replicas of Stonehenge, or rather Stone’enge.

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Husbands and Wives (1992)

The distrust palpable in Zelig surfaces in two other Woody Allen mockumentaries: Husbands and Wives, which ends with Allen himself, as a beleaguered interviewee, asking meekly “Can I go? Is this over?”, like a prisoner pleading with his torturers (significantly, the film anticipated the airing of Allen’s own dirty laundry by a matter of months); and Sweet and Lowdown (2000), in which, at one point, the contradictory recollections of three commentators are acted out, throwing the reliability of this semi-mockumentary into doubt.

The films of Christopher Guest

An integral force on This is Spinal Tap, where he co-wrote the screenplay and played the dippy guitarist Nigel St Tufnel, Guest went on to advance the mockumentary, taking it further into the realm of intricate, Altman-esque ensemble character studies. Waiting for Guffman (1997) poked fun at community theatre; his most accomplished picture, Best in Show (2000), immersed itself in the world of competitive dog shows; in A Mighty Wind (2003), it was folk musicians who got it in the neck; For Your Consideration (2006), featuring a small turn from fellow mockumentarist Ricky Gervais, skewered the movie industry.

Ghostwatch (1992)

The BBC played a Halloween prank on its prime-time audience by transmitting Ghostwatch, in which Michael Parkinson, in an apparently live broadcast, reported on things going bump in the night. The switchboards were jammed by spooked viewers who hadn’t cottoned on to this supremely chilling gag, which predated the similar concept of The Blair Witch Project. That bold stunt hinted at a contempt both for the kind of viewers who believe everything they see on television, and for the self-righteously authoritative voice of documentaries and reality-TV shows.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The natural next step after Ghostwatch was for horror to be dragged back round the campfire where it belonged. The bare-bones shocks of this camcorder chiller inspired a whole rash of found-footage and verité horrors, few of which ever quite equalled the purity and freshness of Blair Witch.

The Office (2001—2003)

It’s easy now to take for granted the accomplishments of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s melancholy sitcom. But it was genuinely innovative, as well as enormously funny and fine-grained, and maintained verisimilitude at all times. It always seemed perfectly plausible that someone would be making a documentary about this unremarkable Slough office, a lesson that some of the sitcoms that jumped on the mockumentary bandwagon—I’m looking at you, Modern Family, but not at you, Parks and Recreation—seem to have forgotten.

Borat (2006) and Brüno (2009)

Sacha Baron Cohen took the mockumentary baton from Ricky Gervais and literally ran with it—stumbling into public spaces, first as the Kazakh naïf Borat and then as the camper-than-thou Euro-queen Brüno, to provoke Candid Camera-style reactions from unassuming passers-by, pontificating politicians and bigots alike. The weaker passages, such as Borat’s misadventures in an antiques shop, invite suspicions that we are witnessing the second coming of Jeremy Beadle. But in their best moments—Borat singing the national anthem at a rodeo or Bruno on a camping expedition, in both senses, with some grizzled hunters—these have a frisson of danger behind every laugh.

What We Do in the Shadows is released 21 November.