Too Real: Examining the Mockumentary Film Genre

Genre definitions are fluid and ever changing. What was once considered “horror” may be a thriller today, and a comedic musical could be classified as both in equal parts. New genres emerge every so often as well; infamously subversive director Lars von Trier tried to introduce “digressionism” to the film world in 2013 when he released Nymphomaniac as two parts in chapters, but it does not appear as though the form has caught on quite yet. A relatively new genre that has taken off and increased in popularity, however, is that of the “mockumentary,” which first came to the forefront in 1984 when director Rob Reiner began using the term to describe his cult classic This is Spinal Tap. Two of my favourite mockumentary films are Best in Show and What We Do In The Shadows, which use different approaches to this genre to cause an audience to stop and reconsider that which they may take for granted every day.

In a time when the world seems to get a little more ridiculous every day, mockumentaries are taking this idea and running with it, using fiction under the guise of fact to reveal truth. Not every mockumentary works as a thought-provoking film, however. These works are most effective when they tackle a realistic subject and portray it as true-to-life as possible, augmenting certain aspects to parody them and reveal their flaws. Conversely, depicting outlandish subject matter with an unwavering straight face can also work well, if the topic is far enough out of the realm of possibility so as not to make any outright claims to the truth.

Still from Best in Show (2000) - Mockumentary
Still from Best in Show (2000)

A mockumentary that hits all the nails on the head is Best in Show (2000) from director Christopher Guest. This fictional film poses as a documentary that goes behind the scenes of a highly competitive dog show competition, introducing viewers to the quirky owners and handlers of several of the prized dogs. All of the stereotypes are present: there are the high-strung A-type yuppies with their weimeraner, the wealthy playgirl in need of amusement with her poodle, the redneck fly-fisher salesman with his bloodhound, and the flamboyant gay couple with their shih tzus.

The film is funny due in large part to the incredible improvisational talents of its actors, but that is not the only factor at play. The subject that it depicts is real: dog shows really do exist, and their structures are very close to what we see here. Many actions, reactions, and situations are improbable, certainly, but none are entirely out of the realm of possibility. More importantly, the quirkiness of the characters portrayed is nearly accurate also. Of course, these stereotypes do not all hold true, but it doesn’t take much imagination to believe that they could all exist in real life. This film also manages to gentle what could be seen as harsh portrayals by creating a cast of ultimately good-hearted individuals; as unlikable as some are at first, they do all redeem themselves within the film’s climax. Ultimately, the two characters that receive the most favourable depiction steal the show, revealing that the film does not seek to damn, but to lightly poke fun and amuse, while simultaneously causing an audience to shake their heads in rueful recognition and reconsideration.

Mockumentary - Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) - Mockumentary
Still from Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

Competitions are popular subjects for mockumentary films; while Best in Show took on the dog show circuit, Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) depicted a fictional small-town beauty pageant, and the recent Mascots (2016) tackled competitive mascot events. These two films, however, did not come close to attaining the same level of cinematic success as did the discussed classic. These films failed to show the restraint that Best in Show mastered, taking everything too far out of the realm of possibility and shattering the delicate illusion into which an audience must agree to buy when engaging with mockumentary film.

The funniest parts of Drop Dead Gorgeous are the scenes depicting beauty pageants as they really are; these are the moments when the audience laughs as it cringes, and cannot help but wonder how on earth these competitions still exist in this form today. These scenes effectively satirize the events, and reveal the overarching cultural problems within them. Difficulties arise, however, when the film ventures out of the realm of the believable. It is difficult to imagine that one competitor would set out to systematically murder her opponents, no matter how much she desires the crown. Fictional films require a suspension of disbelief, yes, but the difference here is that the film is portrayed as a documentary; we are supposed to believe in it as part of our own universe of fact.

Still from Mascots (2016)
Still from Mascots (2016)

Similarly, Mascots fails right from the get-go when it asks its audience to buy into the idea of large-scale, competitive mascot events, which do not and lord-help-us should not exist. The film is unable to satirize a real event, so it ends up simply making fun of a fake one. The tone is therefore uncomfortable, and not for the right reasons; one does not find themself wondering about the validity of the real world, but instead about the point of the movie itself.

On the complete other end of the spectrum exist films such as Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do In The Shadows (2015), a mockumentary style film that purports to follow the lives of three modern-day vampires flatting together in New Zealand. The extraordinary friends face the completely ordinary struggles of paying rent, distributing housework responsibilities, accessing exclusive nightclubs, and overcoming housemate disagreements. This film does not aim to convince its audience that anything is true, so it is not an event or group of people that is parodied, but the documentary genre itself.

Still from What We Do In The Shadows (2015) - Mockumentary
Still from What We Do In The Shadows (2015)

In What We Do In The Shadows, there is no doubt that the film and subject matter it depicts is fictional. However, every issue that the vampires face is entirely and hilariously relatable to an audience as it is presented in a straight-faced fashion. We all understand the problems caused by a messy housemate, but the average complaint involves empty pizza boxes as opposed to a literal crime-scene-worth of blood on the carpet. When we cannot access a nightclub, it’s because our clothes aren’t quite cool enough, not because, as vampires, we must be invited into every building that we enter. When our mundane, everyday struggles are depicted in this augmented way, they are put into jarring perspective and our own priorities are called into question, similar to the way in which a traditional mockumentary reveals the ridiculousness of something we may take for granted. It is in the parallels between this fictional world and the one in which we live where the dark humour lies.

The idea that documentary film aims to educate and narrative film aims to entertain has been disputed time and again, and no genre threatens this idea more than that of the mockumentary. A fictional film claiming to depict non-fiction events or individuals may seem to be pure fluff, but actually has the power to cause serious thought and reconsideration. Films such as Best in Show are funny because they seem so real even in their outlandishness, but cause an audience to reconsider how ridiculous the real-life event truly is. On the other hand, works such as What We Do In The Shadows take the idea of the mockumentary to a whole new level, and do not pretend for one moment to be factual, but are able to reveal truths nonetheless. When a mockumentary falls somewhere between these two poles it falters. But when it claims its position with confidence and verve, it may find a way to reveal just as much about human nature as any documentary possibly could.