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F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing

by Michael Sicinski

Colin Mackenzie, the fictional New Zealand auteur, profiled in Forgotten Silver, a fake doc by Costa Botes and Peter Jackson.

Colin Mackenzie, the fictional New Zealand auteur, profiled in Forgotten Silver, a fake doc by Costa Botes and Peter Jackson.

Edited by Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 255 pp., illus. Hardcover: $60.00 and Paperback: $20.00.

Well, this just doesn't seem fair. F is for Phony, the new collection by Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, not only surveys the terrain of the so-called "fake documentary" (Juhasz, in particular, avoids the term "mockumentary"). This would certainly be enough, considering that the fake documentary, by most accounts, is the only new film genre to have emerged in the past forty years, and given the plethora of fake documentaries popping up all over the place in the last few years. (Throw a rock at a film festival and you'll hit one. More on this in a moment.) No, the editors of F is for Phony appear to go one step further, claiming that the collection itself may follow in the footsteps of the genre it assays, adopting the outer trappings of academic nonfiction in order to perpetrate some critically productive hoaxes of its own. Near the conclusion of Lerner's introduction, he cautions:

A few last words of warning may be in order. Most readers will realize early on that our collection includes not only exemplary models of academic writing by premier cinema scholars... but also, less predictably, some less characteristic contributions: the transcription of a filmmaker who conducts an "imaginary interview" with himself, writings that draw on the traditions and methodologies of American studies or communications, nonacademic writings, and even, perhaps, a text by a fake contributor or the discussion of a made-up film.

This move on Juhasz and Lerner's part seems justified, not just by the subject matter at hand, but by the fact that academic writing and traditional documentary cinema both accrue authority (some might say arrogate authority to themselves) by participating in what Bill Nichols calls the "discourse of sobriety." That is, by adopting the outer vestments of empirical inquiry and research, along with a relatively straitlaced style of presentation, both academic writing and documentary film transmit genre codes geared to produce readerly gullibility. Even the most convoluted academic writing tends to articulate ideas that we the readers can safely assume the authors themselves hold to be true. Such writing marshals evidence in order to persuade. We could call this the nonfictional ethos.

Of course, this ethos has been violated in the academy on a few occasions, most notoriously in the Alan Sokal/Social Text hoax. In this sordid affair, Sokal, a leftist physics professor, succeeded in getting the prestigious refereed journal to publish an article on science and postmodernity (Heisenberg's uncertainty principle linked to certain concepts from Lacan and Irigaray, that sort of thing), which the author himself later revealed to be utter nonsense. In the pages of Lingua Franca magazine, Sokal explained that he was out to demonstrate that the real articles in Social Text, as well as the entire poststructuralist corpus, was fraudulent academic flatulence, a self-deceiving hoax on the part of the academic elite who benefited from it. Regardless of one's stance on French critical theory, the ethical question posed by the Sokal Affair seems frighteningly obvious. Why should journal editors be on the lookout for phony texts? What in the history of the profession would instill such vigilance against bad faith?

Clearly, Lerner's assertion is of an entirely different character. Not only does he announce that the reader should watch out for dubious entries (and to his and Juhasz's "credit," the phony anecdote of the epilogue is ridiculously easy to spot, only slightly less obvious than the average fake ad in Games Magazine, circa 1987). The editors' possible disingenuousness is justified by the collection's object of study. The hall-of-mirrors that is the "fake documentary" can, it's implied, best be critically explored in an environment of thoroughgoing readerly suspicion. Most of the essays in the collection provide their own, less shell-gamey version of this thesis. That is, the critical power of the fake-doc is its ability to problematize the transparent styles and truth claims of "normal" documentary, thereby demanding a higher level of hermeneutic engagement on the part of their viewers.

Marlon Fuentes' Bontoc Elegy features indigenous Filipinos who died while being displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Marlon Fuentes' Bontoc Elegy features indigenous Filipinos who died while being displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Whether or not the fake-docs themselves are in any position to inculcate that deeper critical reading ability, after the initial "gotcha!" wears off, is another issue entirely. But this brings me to the question of my job as the reviewer. Unlike Juhasz and Lerner, I am pretty much contractually committed to the "discourse of sobriety." These column inches are not my playground. The book is real, its contexts are ninety-five percent real (and even its fake passage is "real" in the sense that its fakeness articulates the actual critical strategies of its authors), and so my review has an obligation to play it clean, deliver the "real deal." In this regard, F is for Phony will always be one up on any potential explicator or paraphrast. We're the dupes, right from the gate. And this seems to relate directly to the current state of fake-docs, beyond the scope of those covered in F is for Phony.

The collection's purview is somewhat limited, which isn't a problem in itself. Juhasz's introduction expounds upon the prevalence of fake-docs and mock-docs in popular culture, citing films like Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap (the ur-mock-rock-doc), Albert Brooks's Real Life, and the egregiously overpraised oeuvre of Christopher Guest. But Juhasz quickly notes that these pop-culture examples won't be Phony's focus. The films covered in the book do include two well-known landmarks of the genre, Luis Buñuel's Land without Bread and Orson Welles's F for Fake, which could be seen as the progenitors of many of the other films addressed in the collection. But generally speaking, the essays consider independent films and videos whose profile is almost exclusively restricted to academic circles. In this context, Cheryl Dunye's film-historical experiment The Watermelon Woman and Peter Jackson and Costa Botes's New Zealand archival hoax Forgotten Silver are the blockbusters. (They had tiny commercial releases, but they did open in theaters.) Other works under scrutiny, such as Marlon Fuentes' Bontoc Eulogy, Elisabeth Subrin's Shulie, and coeditor Lerner's own film Ruins, belong to a small collection of hybrid works positioned between academic inquiry and experimental cinema. Traveling neither the path of narrative art cinema nor the film and video esthetics of the cinematheque set, these films show almost exclusively within university settings. (In fact, Subrin stipulates that Shulie be accompanied by supplemental educational materials, an interesting insistence on avoiding potential misreading of her film's fakeness.)

As a writer who primarily specializes in avant-garde cinema, I applaud Juhasz and Lerner's decision to compile an anthology dedicated to some relatively obscure works, even if some of the writings (particularly those by the artists themselves) strike me as being of limited value considered apart from the films they discuss. The filmography at the back of the book, complete with distributor information, assures that those interested can use Phony to program a pertinent film series in or out of the classroom. But what most of these works have in common (with the possible exception of F for Fake, Forgotten Silver, and Nguyen Tan Hoang's slyly comic video Pirated!) is their sincerity. As the writings in the collection make clear, these films use the imaginative capabilities of art, along with the genre cues endemic to documentary film style, to generate alterative histories, ones that are speculative and, most importantly, productive of specific intellectual goals with respect to the politics of identity. These, I would argue, are real fake docs, films that lie in order to tell the truth.

Marlon Fuentes's film Bontoc Eulogy exemplifies this tendency, and it is ironically apposite that it is represented in the volume by Fuentes's self-interview. Like so many such works, it so thoroughly performs its own exegesis that further critical commentary is almost redundant. In it, Fuentes uses actual research about Bontoc Filipinos who died while serving as anthropological displays in the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair to generate a testimonio by "Markod," a fictional character whom Fuentes posits as the narrator's grandfather. Is the "discourse of sobriety" really in jeopardy? Yes, there is a degree of rhetorical dishonesty in using first-person family history to incur greater emotional receptivity from Bontoc Eulogy's audience. But as a whole, Fuentes's artistic effort and its political aims are, as they say, sober as a judge.

For all the alleged prestidigitation of the fake-doc as described by F is for Phony, the editors are extremely clear that they privilege the sort of postempiricist historical excavation work exemplified by Bontoc Eulogy. Juhasz writes

This collection is organized to highlight the fake documentaries that are more productive than others, and these are the films upon which our authors will focus: films that don't just deconstruct but reconstruct; films that unmake and make reality claims; films that mark that it matters who remembers and in what context. The fake documentaries studied here are productive and progressive in that they unlink and link their text and viewer to knowledge about many documentary truths, and an equally many documentary lies, about identity, history, authenticity, and authority (16).

What concerns me isn't the editors' political commitments or the films and videos with which those commitments find Foucauldian accord. It's that the object of study, the fake-doc, is viral, ever mutating, and its moment for progressive historical interventionism may well have passed. As I mentioned early in the review, the period after that covered by the essays in F is for Phony has been characterized by a rampant proliferation of fake-docs, but many of them seem to have nothing progressive up their sleeve. At the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, there was deafening buzz surrounding British filmmaker Gabriel Range's Death of a President, a fake-doc that depicts the assassination of George W. Bush and its police-state aftermath. Granted, no one would mistake Death of a President for a real documentary, since we'd all know full well if the President were actually killed. (Not for nothing was the film provisionally titled with the acronym D.O.A.P. There's dupes, and then there's dopes.) There was the predictable oinking from the Fox News/Drudge Report set about liberal tastelessness and the cultural insensitivity of the TIFF for showing such a film. But even though by most reports Range's intellectual project began and ended with civil-liberties scaremongering in the unlikely event of a Cheney Administration, President falls fully in line with real-fake-doc sobriety. (In fact, Nina C. Ayoub's review of F is for Phony in The Chronicle of Higher Education kicks off with a discussion of Range's film.)

Fae Richards, an African American star of the 30s and the subject of Cheryl Dunye’s, The Watermelon Woman.

Fae Richards, an African American star of the 30s and the subject of Cheryl Dunye’s, The Watermelon Woman.

But far away from the political hubbub of Range's film, TIFF world-premiered another fake-doc in its Midnight Madness section. The film, JT Petty's S&MAN (pronounced "sandman"), was identified as a real documentary, profiling the world of extreme gorehound cinema and, in particular, a fake filmmaker whose allegedly simulated snuff films were so realistic as to provoke doubt, both within the confines of the "doc" and in the minds of the S&MAN audience, as to whether the snuff films might be real. There were no obvious markers that S&MAN was a fake-doc, and when the film's publicist was questioned on the matter by journalists, his alleged reply was, "Come see it and decide for yourself." By all reliable accounts, there is no critical edge to the film, no postmodern excavation project or inquiry into the nature of filmic representation. It was just an inexpensive way for Petty and company to produce a feature film, as well as providing a built-in element of hipster hucksterism, since the dissimulation never announces itself, even in the press materials.

Elsewhere in contemporary film culture, Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro, two filmmakers with backgrounds in reality television, have been making the rounds with American Cannibal, a fake-doc that purports to show the two gentlemen pitching and preparing the titular reality program, in which participants believe they are signing on for an endurance test that may well entail eating the competition. The point of this film, I suppose, is that the wild world of reality TV degrades both its participants and the notion of the cinematic "real." (Stop the presses.) But this is hardly on par with the efforts of Shulie, Bontoc Eulogy, or The Watermelon Woman. As with S&MAN, Cannibal is a fake-doc that never tips its hand, and any conceivable critical distance depends on the viewer believing that this reality-TV idea goes "too far" to be true. At least one respected critic, Noel Murray of The Onion, reviewed Cannibal as an actual doc, since, in his words, "it's not that hard to imagine that some dumbass with money could be convinced to back a show in which a group of people are pranked into believing they're going to have to eat human flesh." As with the Sokal Affair, why should Murray or any other viewer assume they're going to be tricked? And what's the point, other than eliciting a reasonable level of gullibility and "exposing" it as an excess of good faith?

And so I ask whether it's possible that in the fake-doc, Juhasz and Lerner have identified not a genre so much as a mutation that keeps on evolving. In this light, the fake-doc may well have moved beyond its usefulness to progressive politics. The final essay in the collection (at least the last "real" piece), by Alisa Lebow, performs a Derridean-by-way-of-Lacan disassemblage of the concept of the "mockumentary," stating quite eloquently that real documentary derives a good deal of its authority from the mockumentary, even as such authority is undermined. The fake-doc format underlines the codes that comprise the "reality-effect" (in Barthes's term), and in so doing reinstates those codes as bearers of reality. But in the end, both categories undo one another. If Lebow is correct (and I believe she is), the empty three-card-monty of S&MAN and American Cannibal both authorize the sobriety of the real-fake-docs, and call fatally into question their efficacy, their ability to use increasingly degraded communicative means to envision productive counter-histories. In other words, it might all be over, almost before it even began.

If there's hope in all this, it would mean that instead of fixating on this or that film or video, we must try to allow the mockumentary virus to act back on so-called reality, to leave its productive stain on our lives and how we think about them. Lebow compares the Lacanian byplay of the mockumentary to questions of the instability of identity, specifically those put forward by Judith Butler (as pertains to gender and sexuality) and Homi Bhabha (on nationality and race). The work that may be left for the fake-doc to perform is the revelation that the truth it so scrupulously mimics is itself already "fake," a performative imitation. "Mockumentary mimesis," Lebow writes, "reveals the impossible ideal of the purported real thing (i.e., the documentary 'original')."

In the same vein, Robert F. Reid-Pharr's brief but brilliant meditation on The Watermelon Woman goes beyond the consideration of its fake-doc status, arguing that Dunye not only undermines codes of cinematic representation, but the very idea that race and its meanings are legible from the body of the bearer alone. (This relates to earlier work by Juhasz that explained how the lesbian use of dildos made the Lacanian Phallus an interchangeable plaything, able to be possessed by all and therefore no legitimate gold standard for "proper" masculinity.)

So perhaps the fake-documentary wanes in power when the genre is compared to "documentary" proper, but gains a new form of termite-traction, a "true" ability to undermine, when it becomes an all-encompassing principle. Congratulations! You're a third-rate copy of an already-degraded idea of "the real." Smile pretty for the camera.

To purchase F is for Phony, click here

Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.3 (Summer 2007).

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