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In the case of
No Lies, the central question "Could it actually have happened?"
can be answered with a simple Yes. There is not a single element
of the film that does not belong to the real world: any cameraman
with a class project to do could easily have picked up a camera
and filmed his friend as she got ready for the evening. His friend
could have admitted to the camera that she was raped, and then
broken down. Even the somewhat hidden edits in the film do not
detract from the "realness" of the film: the cameraman
could simply have needed to change magazines. In short, there
is nothing implausible whatsoever about the premise, structure,
or aesthetic qualities of No Lies. But there is one nagging question:
would anyone know about the film if it were not a fake documentary?
If No Lies were an actual documentary, chances are it would not
have the (admittedly minor) renown that it has; it would likely
be viewed not by students and scholars of film, but by people
in rape crisis centers. I do not mean to belittle such organizations,
or the film itself. But without the element of fakery present
in No Lies, its renown and importance would, no doubt, be far
smaller, if not insignificant.
This is not a minor point.
There are hundreds of real-life mediocre heavy metal bands which
could have provided equally rich and comedic material for any
number of "rockumentaries." Why invent Spinal Tap?
Numerous feature films have been unexpectedly discovered, undergone
restoration, and shed some light on the careers of their makers.
Why invent Colin McKenzie? There are countless thousands of women
who have actually been raped. Why invent a character for Shelby
Leverington to play? In other words, any one of these stories
could be told (and, no doubt, has been told) either in the form
of a traditional fictional narrative film or as a traditional,
straight documentary. Why, then, have a brave few filmmakers
chosen to make films that walk the line between fiction and nonfiction?
The answer lies in the ability
of the mock documentary to allow the viewer to explicitly question
what he or she is seeing. The advantage it has over the fictional
narrative film is that viewers do not leave the theater thinking
that they have just watched a pleasant story that has no bearing
on their lives or their "worlds." Viewers of Eddie
and the Cruisers (1983), a film about a fictitious rock and roll
band, know that the film is "just a story," even though
numerous parallels can be drawn between the film and actual rock
and roll history. A fictional story stays fictional. In a mock
documentary, the fictional story seeps into the real world.
The advantage mock documentary
has over traditional documentary is that it is able to challenge
the assumptions about traditional documentary without actually
succumbing to them itself. A mock documentary, by containing
some elements which are not of the real world, encourages viewers
to question those elements of the real world which they would
normally take for granted. A good example comes from Forgotten
Silver, Peter Jackson's ingenious mock documentary about a forgotten
filmmaker and his long-lost masterpiece. The film tells of how
Colin McKenzie, the boy wonder director, discovered a clever
way to drive his camera's motor and, at the same time, invent
the tracking shot: he hooks up his camera to a bicycle, and films
while pedaling. Needless to say, Colin cannot steer, pedal, and
film all at the same time; a brief bit of "archival"
footage shows a mobile camera narrowly missing several ducks
and chickens and then crashing into a bush and toppling over.
The authoritative narrator then says, " s later attempt
to mechanize a home-built projector leapt way beyond pedal power."
Until the words "way beyond," we have been looking
at a black and white photograph of what looks like a primitive
film projector. At that point, the camera zooms out to reveal
that the projector is connected via a series of belts to the
steam engine of a locomotive.
It is preposterous to think
that any projector at any point in the history of cinema was
driven by a steam- powered train. Nevertheless, there is an aged-looking
photograph of the rig, and we hear a locomotive chugging away
on the soundtrack. We have several questions: How in the world
could anyone have thought of that? (That is, either "Colin
McKenzie" or Peter Jackson.) Where did that photo come from?
And how did they power cameras and projectors back in the early
days of cinema, anyway? A traditional documentary on the same
subject would answer each of these questions for us. Instead,
we get a crazy approximation of what might have been, and are
asked to temper what we see with what we know.
This is not to say that canonical
documentaries cannot challenge our assumptions about what we
see: Edgar Morin's and Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer (1961)and,
indeed, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) before
itforce us to question what we see as well as any film.
But because a mock documentary presents us with material that
is inherently false, we are asked to call into question how we
view material that is "inherently true." More importantly,
they allow us to ask ourselves, "What makes it 'true?' "