We’ve seen how documentaries have, literally since their beginning, adopted the techniques of fictional filmmaking.
In the twenty-first century, though, fictional movie-makers have adopted the techniques of documentarians, so as to present their subject-matter in a “realistic” manner.
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This is seen in part, with the prominence of the mockumentary – a fictional story presented as though it were documenting actual events. It’s generally believed that the first movie of this type was This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner in 1984, about a down-and-out heavy-metal rock group. However, Real Life, from Albert Brooks a few years earlier, is probably the first theatrical mockumentary.
Years later, some of the Spinal Tap cast- and crew-members made a series of mockumentaries, lampooning amateur theatre, pet shows, and folk music.
The mockumentary didn’t become mainstream until the early two-thousands, however, with the success of the Office TV program in Britain and the U.S. It spawned several other comedy-mockumentaries, notably Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. Canada had its own obscene Trailer Park Boys, a big hit here in spite of its initially limited broadcast availability.
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Around the same time, the box-office smash Borat arrived at cinemas – a mockumentary that skirted the line between reality and fiction. The title character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, was a fictional creation, a Kazakhstani reporter visiting the U.S. who was also apparently in complete ignorance of American social customs. But the Americans with whom he interacted were unaware of Cohen’s real identity, and so their shocked and embarrassed reactions to “Borat’s” misbehaviour appeared to be genuine. In effect, everyone but the star of Borat were real people who became part of a fictional narrative (though I noticed some staging of scenes in the film).
Not all mockumentaries have been comedies. In 1999, the Blair Witch Project initiated the “found-footage” genre, supposedly depicting a group of young friends and their ill-fated attempt to videotape supernatural events in the woods. Marketed initially as a “true story”, the film went on to be a smash, and was followed a few years later by Cloverfield and Chronicle.
The more significant part of this trend, however, is how the documentary “effect” has been incorporated into mainstream filmmaking. The 2009 South African film District Nine, is initially presented as a “investigative” TV documentary about the appearance of an alien spacecraft over Cape Town. As the movie progresses, however, the narrative incorporates scenes that couldn't be a part of a documentary – yet the documentary effects (handheld-cameras, subjects momentarily going out of focus, and the notorious lens glare) are maintained throughout.
It is almost uncommon nowadays to see a mainstream feature that doesn't include at least some of these documentary touches. It is common enough on TV as well. In the remake of the Battlestar Galactica sci-fi series, insert shots of the fleet moving through space, are presented as though the camera operator is zooming back and forth over the spacecraft. The images are computer-generated, of course, and so this seemingly haphazard camera-work is as contrived as the space-ships themselves.
TV commercials similarly employ the shaky, out-of-focus, lens-glare contrivances to convey the “authenticity” of their subjects.
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The irony, of course, as that the widespread use of the handheld camera is dependent upon movie-technology – the Steadicam – a shock-absorbing mechanism that prevents nauseating flutter in the images. The technology of movie-making has now advanced to the extent that films and programs can be made to seem convincingly makeshift.
These effects have been imported into movies less so due to successful documentary features such as the Thin Blue Line or even Ken Burns’ Civil War (which applied fiction and theatricality to factual subject-matter). It was instead due to the influence of cable-news and the consequence omnipresence of “on-the-spot” reporting. These resultant images, captured by handheld or even amateur videographers, were inevitably shaky, out-of-focus and glary. Subliminally it seems, prolonged exposure to such imagery has conditioned audiences to view the well-composed and relatively static cinematography of past times, as insufficiently realistic. The irony there is that making a fictional movie seem like a documentary, is more artificial still.