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An illustration of this notion is Zelig, Woody Allen's film about Leonard Zelig, the miraculous Chameleon Man. Zelig is the "ultimate conformist": a man who instantly starts to physically resemble those around him in order to "fit in." While it is obviously medically and biologically impossible for a human being to physically alter his shape merely by being placed in the company of others, Allen's film holds very closely to the tenets of traditional documentary (in particular the newsreel) and presents its subject matter as existing within the America of the Jazz Age. That is, Zelig uses traditional documentary form and an actual historical setting — New York City in the Twenties and Thirties — as a backdrop for an inherently impossible — yet purportedly true — tale. By placing its own subject matter firmly in the milieu of the actual, and asserting that its events have actually occurred, the film is able to comment not only on the social mores and eccentricities of the Jazz Age, but also on the place of the (Jewish) individual in a large, multiethnic society; the condition of conformity as a biological necessity (Leonard Zelig needs to change his appearance in order to survive); and the notion of defining oneself by adopting the characteristics of a group (most vividly expressed when Zelig, a Jew, joins the Nazi Party in Germany), among numerous other real-life concerns.
Zelig asserts that the events it depicts actually happened, and its clever re-creation of the actual world strengthens those assertions. But, like many mock documentaries, Zelig has another level of reference to the actual world. It presents an identifiable disparity between what we know about America during the Jazz Age and what we are being asked to believe, just as Magritte showed us the contradiction between what we see and what we are told. Zelig presents us with an opportunity to question its validity as a document, and also to question what we think we know. Certainly, Leonard Zelig did not exist (not least because he is "played" by Woody Allen in the purportedly real footage). But could he have?
One can take Plantinga's discussion of Frank Capra's famed Why We Fight series and apply it to the mock documentary:
"All documentaries manipulate their materials to a certain degree and some to a high degree. Think of the Why We Fight series, for example, with its use of archival footage selected from millions of feet of film gathered from various sources around the world, its ostentatious Disney animation, its carefully written, highly charged voice-over narration, and its dramatic use of non-diegetic music. The degree of manipulation in a film is a defining characteristic of neither fiction not documentary. If it were, we would have to classify Why We Fight as fiction. But the series, according to the theory I have described, is documentary in spite of its manipulations and it spite of its dramatic and propagandistic nature, since its basic and distinguishing function is to make assertions about the actual world. This documentary function can be achieved just as well in films that manipulate their materials to a high degree."
If we are to argue that the mock documentary is a subset of the documentary, rather than of the fiction film, then Plantinga's argument for Why We Fight can be applied to Zelig and This Is Spinal Tap and the others of the genre. These films' subjects are manipulated to the point of complete fiction, which is probably a few steps farther than Why We Fight goes in its manipulation of the "truth." Obviously, mock documentary as a genre owes a great deal to both fiction and nonfiction films, but since a mock documentary adopts the formal behavior of a documentary and not of a fiction film, it can be grouped with documentary. And, in that mock documentaries can take assertive stances about the real world through their depiction of admittedly fake subject matter, they can be said to be more closely related to the documentary than to the fiction film.
For a mock documentary to be thoroughly successful, it has to maintain its central conceit throughout its duration. In other words, it must constantly keep one foot in the world of the real and one in the world of the projected. Not so coincidentally, the mock documentaries whose conceits are maintained are the ones that are the most critical not only of t he established documentary form, but of the people who watch them. For this reason, I will argue that Man Bites Dog and Forgotten Silver are the most successful of the mock documentaries, No Lies notwithstanding.

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Copyright © Ethan de Seife, author of Cultographies: This is Spinal Tap. Reprinted with permission.

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