Perhaps credit needs to be given to Orson Welles and his 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds for planting the seeds for the modern mockumentary film. Welles created false newsbreaks to fool listeners into thinking that their regular radio show was being interrupted for reports of an alien invasion. The brilliant conceit gained fame and notoriety for Welles, and he would create fake newsreels when he made his film directing debut with Citizen Kane three years later.
Although Merriam-Webster cites the first use of the word in 1965, the term did not gain widespread popularity until the ’80s with This Is Spinal Tap and a string of fake documentaries masterminded by Christopher Guest. Here is a list of the best mockumentaries, including a couple of overlooked gems. The films here all boast a satiric tone, which is key to the mockumentary. A mockumentary is all about using the tropes of the documentary for comic effect. This – along with not limiting the film to a first person camera point of view — is what differentiates these films from the found footage film, which shares a fake cinéma vérité style but not the satiric edge.
1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Richard Lester’s exuberant romp with the Beatles might be the reason “mockumentary” entered the lexicon the following year. The Fab Four essentially played themselves in a film that offered us an exaggerated look at their professional and not too private lives. A Hard Day’s Night followed them through a day and a half of press conferences, rehearsals, running from fans, and a TV performance. Still wildly fresh and inventive, and it serves a few absurd, comic non-sequiturs.
2. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This is Spinal Tap created a fake rock band in order to follow the careers of the band members and send up the rock documentary — if you will, “rockumentary” — films of the ’70s (specifically The Song Remains the Same about Led Zeppelin and to a lesser extent Let It Be about The Beatles). This film is pure comic genius. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Reiner and performers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, this film simply got everything pitch perfect. The music, the shooting style, the pretentiousness of rock stars, the crassness of the industry, the backstage melodrama – it’s all here and lovingly sent up. The notion of taking things to “eleven” comes from this film, as does the infamous song title “Lick My Love Pump.” The music was so fun that the fake band went on tour and made albums. Guest went on to make a career out of mockumentaries with a string of hilarious but not quite as perfect films: Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. I will let This is Spinal Tap represent the oeuvre.
3. Forgotten Silver (1995)
This little gem from Peter Jackson is too often overlooked and too rarely screened. What makes this mockumentary extra sweet is that it was originally screened as a real documentary on TV to an unsuspecting New Zealand public; the hoax was only revealed later. So Jackson, actor Sam O’Neill, and film historian Leonard Maltin all appear perfectly strait-faced as themselves in a “documentary” about unsung auteur Colin McKenzie. MacKenzie, born in New Zealand in 1888, is credited in the film as having pioneered talking pictures, color film, and tracking shots. However, his supreme bad fortune left his films M.I.A. and his reputation in obscurity. Jackson sets off on an investigative journey – a la Indiana Jones — to unearth McKenzie’s lost biblical epic Salome, and to try and restore his fellow countryman to his proper place in cinematic history. Jackson meticulously mimics the public broadcasting documentary style — from the subdued seriousness of the voice-over narration to the talking head interviews — so that his film is indistinguishable from the real thing. The fake archival footage is an absolute delight.
4. Real Life (1979)
This is Albert Brooks’ masterpiece. Before “reality TV” became a standard, there was a PBS documentary called An American Family. For twelve weeks, TV audiences were invited into the home of the Loud family and watched the mom ask for a separation and the son embark on a gay lifestyle in New York. It is this show that Brooks set as his satiric target and he hit a bulls eye. Brooks plays a pushy, egotistical filmmaker who convinces a Phoenix family to let him and his crew into their lives for a TV show. He promises to be unobtrusive but he can’t help but interfere in everything in order to make his show better. He even creates a ridiculous camera rig – that looks like some alien space suit – to make his crew seem less obtrusive. Of course it only does the opposite. Reality TV (and the reason it’s silly) hasn’t changed a whole lot since the ground-breaking PBS show, so this mockumentary still has wicked bite to it.
5. Take the Money and Run (1969)
Woody Allen’s directorial feature debut (What’s Up Tiger Lily? doesn’t really count because it is a repurposed film by someone else and not one he actually made) was a mockumentary about petty criminal Virgil Starkwell (played by Allen). Allen would return to this format in Bananas, Zelig (playing extensively with special effects and adding himself as the character of Zelig into real historical footage), and Sweet and Lowdown. So as with Guest, I will let one film represent Allen’s particular skill at creating fake documentary footage. Take the Money and Run is less polished than what followed but it is goofily charming.
6. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Jemaine Clement was one of the co-creators of the deadpan HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords and Taika Waititi directed Clement in the indie comedy Eagle Vs. Shark. Together they have created a mockumentary that ranks as one of the best ever. Their subject: The modern day vampire living in Wellington, New Zealand. The genius of their approach is not to focus on the fantastical aspects of being a vampire but rather the mundane – like bloodsucking roommates who don’t do their chores for centuries or how to dress properly when you have no reflection. What’s amazing and satisfying is that Clement and Waititi display a better knowledge of vampire lore than most serious horror films do. Sink your teeth into this one for a truly tasty treat.
7. All You Need Is Cash: The Rutles (1978)
Okay this is a bit of a cheat because technically it is a TV movie but this Beatles-inspired mockumentary conceived by Monty Python’s Eric Idle is so fun that I could not leave it off the list. The Rutles began as a sketch on Idle’s British show Rutland Weekend Television. When Idle hosted Saturday Night Live, producer Lorne Michaels aired clips of the TV show including a clip of The Rutles. This eventually led to the TV movie being made. The Beatles’ alter egos in the film are Dirk (Eric Idle), Barry (John Halsey), Stig (Rickey Fataar), and Nasty (Neil Innes). George Harrison supported the film from the start and even makes an uncredited appearance as an interviewer. John Lennon reportedly adored it, Ringo Starr liked it to a lesser degree, and Paul McCartney maintained a “no comment” response although Idle reports that he has since warmed up to the film. The songs are great and the parody is so close to reality that Beatles fans will love pointing out all the real things the film is riffing on.
8. Man Bites Dog (1992)
This nasty piece of work comes from the creative team of Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde (who plays the lead character). The film is a savage attack on how far a journalist/filmmakers will go to get a story. In this case the story is a portrait of a serial killer. The camera crew follows their criminal around, and let him rant and rave about art and life as he executes murders on camera with the crew doing nothing to prevent him from committing his crimes. In fact, they eventually become accomplices and by implication so too do we as viewers. There is dark, vicious humor to this and the film is included to show the extreme to which this genre has been taken. It’s a brutal and disquieting film but one that’s expertly crafted.
9. Bob Roberts (1992)
Actor Tim Robbins makes his writing-directing debut with this mockumentary about the senatorial campaign of Bob Roberts, a conservative folk singer turned politician. The openly liberal Robbins is clearly targeting the extreme right with his film. He not only stars as Roberts but also wrote all the songs for the film. No list of mockumentaries would be complete without at least one political one. The best political mockumentary is Robert Altman’s 1988 Tanner ’88 but that was a TV show and so technically not fit for this list. But it’s genius was to run a fake candidate (played by Michael Murphy) for president and have real political figures like Pat Robertson, Bob Dole, Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart playing themselves. But Bob Roberts has Gore Vidal delivering a brilliant cameo as a senator.
10. Bruno (2009)
Sacha Baron Cohen specializes in a mockumentary approach in much of his work, starting with his British TV shows. His feature film debut was Borat, a mockumentary about a Kazakh TV personality who comes to the U.S. with a camera crew. But I prefer the second feature film he created, Bruno, about a flamboyant fashionista from Austria. Both characters were taken from ones he had created on British TV. Cohen’s specialty is to create a character that he presents to the world as real and so his footage relies on unsuspecting real people ending up as actors in his films. Bruno takes more risks and has more of a point than Borat but both display something inventive – a kind of mockumentary meets Candid Camera — in terms of approach to the mockumentary format.
Honorable Mentions: Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, Incident at Loch Ness (with Werner Herzog – a man who confesses to not understanding irony – brilliantly mocking himself), Finishing the Game, Strictly Ballroom (it’s just the opening but it’s hilarious), and Series 7.