For a special April Fool’s Day Five In Focus series, a group of documentary directors choose their favorite five fake documentaries.
The Blair Witch Project
I saw this at its second public screening ever, a midnight showing at the Sundance Film Festival. Already word was getting out about it but nobody foresaw the level of hype and hysteria (and box office!) that would surround it later. I just know that for about 90 minutes no one in that packed theater moved a muscle or even breathed, especially Yours Truly. No real screams, but for pure, gut-wrenching suspense it was unsurpassed. And all because the filmmakers understood that it should look like a group of students had simply taken a video camera into the woods. (How they kept their camera batteries charged for a few days in the woods is another matter.)
David Holzman's Diary
I remember seeing this back in college and thinking the whole time it was a documentary. Until the end credits, that is, when I noticed that David Holzman was played by one L.M. "Kit" Carson, who was also one of the screenwriters (though it was largely improvised). I saw it again recently and found Holzman a thoroughly unpleasant character, and some of its central conceits quite dated. Nevertheless, the film was hugely influential (call it the grandfather of Blair Witch) and deserves its place in the film pantheon.
There are films that pretend to be documentaries (faux docs) and those that mock the documentary form (mock docs). This classic mock doc, a sendup of the PBS documentary series An American Family, was an even bigger sendup of the 70's auteur notion of The Director As Superstar. Only in this case the director (played by the director of Real Life, Albert Brooks) was a documentarian, and his delusions of grandeur hilariously punctured cinema verite's core myth that the camera's presence doesn't impact the "truth" of the situation being recorded. Note to self: bad idea to have an affair with the subject you're documenting, especially if you're filming her marriage falling apart.
This 1983 made-for-TV program (directed by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz) about an incident of terrorism off the coast of Charleston, SC took on a terrifying reality largely because of its brilliant representation of TV news, from its all-videotape format to the unctuousness of the news anchors to the shaky handheld camerawork of the kidnapped camera crew. It was powerfully clear that if disaster were ever to strike, this is the way Americans would get the bad news. A prophecy that fully came home to roost on 9/11.
Take The Money And Run
For those like myself who grew up despising the unbearable seriousness of old school documentaries, this early Woody Allen mock doc was particularly endearing. Maybe it was the parody of hoary doc clichés like the ever-present "voice of God" narrator, or maybe it was the anything-for-a-laugh editing style, but I'm hardly alone in feeling it's Woody's funniest film.