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Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight, Faking it: Mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality, (Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 222 pp. Pbk. ISBN 0-7190-5641-1 £12.99

Reviewed by Paul Ward


This is a timely book examining “mock-documentary”. As with many terms - including, it might be added, “documentary” itself - it is far from straightforward. The usefulness of this book lies in the way that it constructs an admittedly tentative typology of “tendencies” within this disputed area. This needs emphasising: there are degrees of “faking”. The common sense discourse concerning documentary is that it directly shows us the world and that any manipulation by the filmmaker is not only dishonest but also unnecessary. This view of documentary is misguided and naive - all representations do just that, re-present - yet this has not stopped a considerable amount of teeth-gnashing over an apparently widespread use of deception in documentaries.

At the heart of this issue is confusion over documentary’s ontological and epistemological bases. The seductive realism of much documentary output can lead to a film or TV programme being mistaken for “the thing itself”, the apparent correspondence between text and real-world referent becoming not merely one factor amongst many in the text’s meaning, but the only thing that matters. If it looks like a documentary, walks like a documentary, then it had better turn out to actually be a documentary.

Roscoe and Hight head straight for this fertile ground by suggesting that all texts that are documentary in intention and orientation operate within the realm of “factual discourse”. There are degrees of this “factuality” and - as the subtitle suggests - it can be “subverted”. This is the job of the mock-documentary: to subvert, make us think, re-evaluate. In this respect mock-documentary is the logical conclusion of one of the central tenets of documentary - to inform and educate us about the world.

They identify three levels of “mock-docness”. Firstly, there is “parody”, the “’benevolent’ (or not deliberately reflexive) use of documentary conventions” (p.68). Inherent to this level is an acceptance of the “Classic Objective Argument” (pp.49-50) - with such “objectivity” being closely related to (conflated with?) the belief in an unmediated view of the world noted above. This is Spinal Tap (1984) offers us a parodic take on the behind-the-scenes rockumentary, but it does not actually interrogate or deconstruct the formal aspects of the documentary. Similarly, the BBC mock-docu-soap The Office (2001) appropriates the conventions of the docu-soap, but the target of the parody is the parochialism of such workplaces, rather than the conventions of the docu-soap per se. Certainly, there is also an implicit critique of the conventions, but this is very muted, and tends to be on the level of “Do people really make “proper” documentaries like this?”. As the authors make clear, this degree of mock-doc can allow a space for “more critical viewers … to explore the form’s latent reflexivity” (p.73), but this is not the over-riding intention of the documentarist.

In the second level, critique, there is satirizing of an aspect of culture, but there is also a tendency to focus on the mechanics of the documentary representation as well. This manifests itself as “ambivalence” towards factual discourse. A good example given of this form is an episode of ER entitled “Ambush” (1997), where the hospital is visited by a documentary crew. The cynical commentary on this kind of reality-TV is made explicit by scenes where the crew seek out the most salacious events, and the “recognition” by the staff of County General of what is expected of them. The “good faith” that we arguably see in mock-docs of the first degree is replaced by a much more critical and jaundiced idea of documentary practice. The third level takes us one step further again - to deconstruction. This represents a “hostile” appropriation of documentary conventions. The key example here is Man Bites Dog (1992), with its clear implicating of diegetic documentarist and non-diegetic audience in the central character’s deeds. The point of the “fakery” in such a film is to forcefully critique dominant modes of documentary practice and reception.

A good deal more research is needed into mock-docs and “fakery”. One of the most interesting topics that the authors point to is that of spectatorship, namely, how do real people in the audience respond to and categorise relative degrees of “mock-docness”? The recent furore in the UK over the “paedophilia” edition of Brass Eye (2001) suggests that mocking the formal and ideological baggage of certain kinds of current affairs programming can be easily mistaken - often deliberately, in my opinion - for “irresponsibility” (a cardinal sin for documentarists), or not taking a serious subject “seriously enough”. The reported responses from some viewers of the 1995 New Zealand mock-doc Forgotten Silver (pp. 144-50) - pitched somewhere between a mildly wounded tut-tutting and outright anger at the “intellectual arrogance” of the filmmakers - mirror this to a T.

Some of the most compelling work in the documentary field at present is precisely that work that interrogates the boundaries between “fact” and “fiction”, usually doing so by taking a flexible attitude to the notion of reconstruction and “fakery”. Films such as Little Angels (2002) and Tina Goes Shopping (1999) show real people re-enacting and reconstructing events from their lives. If we accept that all documentary practice involves re/construction (and it’s about time that we did) then such films become a potential future of documentary, rather than, as some people would have it, a footnote, aberration, or not even documentary at all.

In my teaching of documentary theory and practice, I tend to find that students are very happy to enter the mock-doc arena, but rarely stray further than the first two of Roscoe and Hight’s categories. The fact is one can explore the formal and ideological contours of “documentary” with more or less “fictional” themes and contents. The problem seems to be that this is seen as a “betrayal” of the tacit contract between documentarist and viewer. As Brian Winston has pointed out:

The real difficulties of ethical documentary production turn on the degree and nature of intervention not on its absence or presence; and they rest far more on the relationship between documentarist and participant than between documentarist and audience (2000: p.1)

Many of the films discussed in this book, and the more interesting work, to my mind, around at the moment, ask us to think about the problems he points to in the first part of the sentence. The same films also encourage us to see the relationship between documentarist and audience as a key element of the broader debate, and this is one of the challenges that this book most usefully opens up for discussion.

Reference

Winston, Brian, Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries (London: BFI, 2000)


Paul Ward is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Brunel University, where he teaches documentary theory and practice. He is currently writing Defining Documentary for Wallflower Press.




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