In fiction film we are asked to suspend our disbelief, but in documentary we are asked to trust the filmmaker to provide factual evidence, despite their subjectivity. We’ve rounded up a list of five films that, like F for Fake, blur the boundaries of fact and fiction.
From the beginnings of his career Orson Welles was known for his provocative blend of fact and fiction, from his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast to his thinly veiled lambasting of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane, complete with faux newsreels. But never did fact and fiction become so entangled as his penultimate feature, F for Fake, where Welles inspects the life of Elmyr de Hory, an art forger, through a series of interviews and vignettes – but is this a work of fakery itself?
Read below for five more films that bend the rules of documentary and will have you questioning ideas of authenticity at every turn.
Fraud / Dean Fleischer Camp / 2016 / USA / 52 mins
You may know Dean Fleischer Camp from his recent stop motion comedy and web series Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, but lesser known is his controversial 2016 documentary, Fraud. Comprised of found footage of a family’s YouTube home videos Fleischer Camp and his editor Jonathan Rippon whittled down 100 hours of footage into this alternative story of a family pushed to the brink. Its premiere at Hot Docs International Documentary Festival proved contentious with some audience members branding Fleischer Camp a liar in a post screening Q&A. Despite its artifice, Fraud is a strangely compelling feat of editing, which builds to a bizarre and totally unforgettable climax.
The Vampires of Poverty / Luis Ospina, Carlos Mayolo / 1977 / Colombia / 28 mins
A short semi-mockumentary addressing the ‘misery porn’ trope of documentarians exploiting suffering for profit. Two film crews roam the streets of Bogotá and Cali, one documentary crew looking to film the poverty of the city, and a second crew, filming the documentarians. The duality of viewpoint highlights the exploitative nature of the first crew’s footage and, whether staged or not, makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience only assuaged by a fourth-wall-breaking climax with a message as pertinent now as it was in the 1970s.
The Falls / Peter Greenaway / 1980 / UK / 185 mins
To call Peter Greenaway’s first feature film a mockumentary feels disingenuous; The Falls is a meticulously curated catalogue of material documenting a global phenomenon – it’s just that the phenomenon never happened. According to the film this phenomenon, or ‘Violent Unknown Event’, caused bird-like mutations, the emergence of new mysterious languages and immortality in its survivors; The Falls is a directory of a cross section of survivors and their ongoing symptoms. Contrary to the film’s absurdity the deadpan narration and the vast scope of collated material provides an unnerving and compelling legitimacy. But despite its false pretence, much of the film acts as a cipher for Greenaway’s later fiction films, making it a must watch for any die-hard Greenaway fan.
The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods / John Wilson / 2016 / USA / 16 mins
Now a major HBO series, ‘How to with John Wilson’ John Wilson’s short films are a delightful exploration of the minutia of New York life. The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods is an investigative look at the Queens based brand TriSonic found in dollar stores across New York. Despite the prescriptiveness of his titles Wilson meanders around his subjects, using a faux-naïf voiceover to let his footage speak for itself.
The investigation leads Wilson to a Las Vegas trade fair where his encounters with salesmen border on the absurd, with one such vendor selling political novelty toys states his political neutrality whilst wearing a MAGA hat.
Wilson’s unreliable narration works to amplify the peculiarity of the modern urban experience, perhaps best exemplified in his narration of a leisurely break in the foyer of the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, where he promptly leafs through a Marxist colouring book.
Watch the full film here.
Lettre d’un cinéaste / Chantal Akerman / 1984 / France / 8 mins
In this short film Chantal Akerman’s introduces herself as she starts her day; she stretches as she wakes up and gets out of bed whilst her voiceover talks the audience through her filmmaking process, including the casting of an actress. At this point we see actress Aurore Clément start Akerman’s day again, as she gets out of bed, gets dressed and takes over Akerman’s role. Through Clément, Akerman exposes her gripes with the film industry, the difficulties of being a female filmmaker, and the pressure of making films to please people. The exposure of the artifice reveals the extension of Akerman in her fiction films, but also the plastic nature of documentary and its inability to be objective.