Nine Landmark Mockumentaries

Privilege

For the purposes of this list, I'll define a "mockumentary" simply as a fiction film that is made to look like nonfiction. It could be a parody, it could be a pastiche, it could be a put-on. And like it or not, we seem to be stuck with it. Although certain protocols have settled in over the past decade, with comedic mockumentaries generally relegated to sitcoms (The Office, Modern Family) and dramatic mockumentaries taking the form of "found footage" horror movies (Paranormal Activity, REC), it's still a distinct genre. So how did we get here? The following nine examples should provide a reliable history.

  1. Las Hurdes, a.k.a. Land Without Bread (1933, Luis Buñuel). Eighty years after Buñuel premiered this 27-minute film about poor rural Spaniards, scholars still debate whether the surrealist filmmaker was parodying "anthropological documentaries" (e.g., 1922's Nanook of the North) with his staged scenes and patronizing voiceover, or if he was crafting heartfelt antifascist agitprop. Whatever the case, since a lot of this doc was faked – we'll never know how much – Buñuel was laying the groundwork for the mockumentary genre.
  2. The War of the Worlds (1938, Orson Welles). Yes, it was a radio program. But Welles's phony newscast, freely adapted from the H.G. Wells novel, certainly fooled a great deal of listeners at the time (though fewer than legend would have us believe), and did what every good mockumentary should do: carry an impeccable authenticity. Welles would continue to influence the genre: Citizen Kane opened with a flawless imitation of a 1941 newsreel, and one of his final directorial efforts, 1973's F for Fake, could also pass as a mockumentary, though it's really more of a screen essay with a 30-minute gag at the end.
  3. David Holzman's Diary (1967, Jim McBride). During Hollywood's golden age, there was zero interest in movies that challenged traditional narrative structure. It took the first wave of independent filmmakers in the mid-'60s to start pushing the boundaries. While some may point to the 1959 experimental film The Savage Eye as the true progenitor of the mockumentary genre, I give the nod to David Holzman's Diary, a deadpan comedy about a fictitious New York filmmaker detailing his daily ups and downs, often directly addressing the camera. Not only did it establish many of the "rules" of the mockumentary format, Holzman also anticipated, with startling accuracy, today's rash of YouTube vlogs.
  4. Privilege (1967, Peter Watkins). For years, British director Watkins essentially owned the mockumentary genre. After TV projects that blended fact with fiction, such as 1964's Culloden and 1965's The War Game (which, at just 48 minutes and loaded with staged footage, nevertheless won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature), he doubled down with this Orwellian look at a future England in which a pop star (Paul Jones) becomes a messianic mouthpiece for a totalitarian government. Watkins went on to make the even more disturbing mockumentary Punishment Park in 1971.
  5. Take the Money and Run (1969, Woody Allen). The comedic mockumentary as we know it was born with Allen's second feature, in which the director played a bumbling bank robber. Interviews with witnesses (all phony, of course), handheld camerawork, voiceover narration – all the hallmarks of a typical documentary are here. 1969 moviegoers weren't quite ready for this approach, or for Allen, and it would take a few more years for his work to catch on. His next mockumentary was 1983's Zelig, which was more directly influential as the genre took shape in the '80s.
  6. The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972, Charles B. Pierce). This G-rated, Arkansas-shot horror mockumentary, featuring non-actors playing themselves in staged interviews and dramatic reenactments (of incidents that, of course, never really happened), was reportedly made for just $160,000, yet grossed $20 million – much of it from drive-ins. I'm skeptical about those numbers, but the movie did arrive at the height of the Bigfoot mania that swept the '70s. Though by no means great art, Boggy Creek nevertheless influenced many verité-style horror flicks released over the next decade (such as 1980's Cannibal Holocaust, itself a "found footage" milestone), as well as a certain 1999 film that closes this list.
  7. Special Bulletin (1983, Edward Zwick). In the same year that gave us Zelig, American TV viewers were treated to this NBC movie of the week, a phony news broadcast about homegrown terrorists threatening to blow up Charleston, South Carolina. Special Bulletin didn't pull in as many viewers as CBS's Trapper John, MD did that night, but at a time when the three networks dominated primetime TV, even the "low-rated" Special Bulletin drew in 12.6 million viewers. It thus prepared mainstream audiences for the mockumentary onslaught.
  8. This Is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner). The term "mockumentary" was finally established with this film, with director Reiner frequently using it to describe his debut comedy about a washed-up rock band. Spinal Tap's influence over the genre – and over screen comedy itself – was, of course, enormous, even if the movie itself was indebted to Eric Idle's 1978 Beatles spoof The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. Costar/cowriter Christopher Guest would later become the director most associated with the genre, while Reiner turned to more traditional Hollywood fare.
  9. The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez). How else can I end this list other than with the most important horror movie of the past two decades? Ironically, despite Blair Witch's phenomenal box office success, it took a few years for its "found footage" imitators to take over, not only the aforementioned Paranormal Activity franchise but bigger-budgeted titles like Cloverfield and Chronicle.