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F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing--Where the Truth Lies: When Reality Ain't

By Ron Sutton

F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing
Editors: Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner
University of Minnesota Press, 2006
244 pages
This is Volume 17 in the Visible Evidence Series edited by Michael Renov, Faye Ginsburg and Jane Gaines.


Imagine yourself living in Germany in the late 1930s. If you're hiding Jews in your house, how would you respond if the Gestapo knocked on your door and asked, "Do you have any Jews in your basement?" "Yes" will doom those you're hiding and perhaps yourself, and "No" will start you on a slippery slope of telling the truth only when it is in your best interest to do so. Would you "lie" to "do" the truth?

This question, right out of Ethics 101, is central to the 15 fascinating essays in F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing. The book's lengthy introduction by its editors, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, sets a challenging context for the varied set of writings.

Juhasz states boldly that, "Fake documentaries always imply, and usually make explicit, that many documentaries lie to tell the truth, and that all documentaries are 'fakes' in that they are not the world they so faithfully record."

Lerner completes the introduction, concluding that "Fake documentaries don't simply play with the real world, its cultural diversity and its past--they also undo documentary form and its traditional tropes of truth-telling."

We are warned that the book's essays will vary from exemplary academic writing to less predictable work: "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, non-academic writing and even, perhaps, a text by a fake contributor or the discussion of a made-up film." Humor and possible deception will be included in the mix.

The editors emphasize that there is no set way to read the book. With that guidance in mind, I started with titles that piqued my interest and films I knew or had seen. I began with Mitchell Block's "The Truth About No Lies (If You Can Believe It)." No Lies was Block's New York University master's thesis, which he explains was created in response to and as a protest against the 1973 documentary TV series, An American Family.

This work raised ethical issues for Block, and, as he tells it, for the film's initial editors, Eleanor Hamerow (also Block's professor at NYU) and Charlotte Zwerin. At issue was the presentation of the family life of the Louds on national broadcast television, in direct cinema style with too little regard for how it would ultimately affect their lives.

Block's protest film appears to be a cinema vérité documentary about rape. It mimics the style of American Family and affects its audience as if it were a "real" documentary. Upon first viewing you develop great sympathy for the woman and considerable loathing for the male filmmaker who pushes her on camera for intimate, lurid details of her rape. But in the end, the viewers learn this is fiction film done with script and actors, and discover that while they thought it was the woman being "re-raped" by the filmmaker and his camera, it is they who have been assaulted. Screenings often produced quite visceral reactions toward Block, even among some fairly sophisticated viewers.

Another essay that captured my fancy was "Forgotten Silver: A New Zealand Television Hoax and Its Audience," by Craig Hight and Jane Roscoe. The authors make clear that the context for this "fake documentary" had much to do with the hoax being so convincing to the audience.

Forgotten Silver ran in the Montana Sunday Theater slot on Television New Zealand. Since the country had been celebrating 100 years of cinema, "A documentary about an apparently forgotten New Zealand filmmaker seemed appropriate, if somewhat unusual," as the concluding program of a series about New Zealand and its proud past.

Add to this the fact that the National Film Archive had been conducting a nationwide search for old films, and you have an environment ripe for suspension of disbelief. Peter Jackson (of The Lord of the Rings trilogy fame) makes reference to this national film search at the start of Forgotten Silver, "when explaining how he first encountered the work of Colin McKenzie."

Of course "McKenzie" is a fake historical character. The entire film was a hoax, a fact both Jackson and fellow filmmaker Costa Botes thought would be apparent early on in the film; however, many of the 400,000 viewers who saw Forgotten Silver missed the clues and were outraged when they discovered the documentary was a hoax. Public response ran from amused to enlightened, to the succinct suggestion that "Peter Jackson and his Silver Screen conspirators should be shot." This excellent essay analyzes how and why this unintended phenomenon occurred.

Other essays are equally intriguing. "La Vengeance de Pancho Villa: A Lost and Found Border Film," by Gregorio C. Rocha, tells a real but almost unbelievable tale about this "lost" film document. The author ends his essay with the comment that this film "is one of the oddest and most complicated compilation experiments in the history of the silent cinema." The essay explains clearly why this claim is accurate--if it is true.

By far one of the most intriguing essays was "The Artifice of Realism and the Lure of the 'Real' in Orson Welles's F for Fake and Other T(r)eas(u)er(e)s" (sic), by Catherine I. Benamou. She deals with the film of her title but also with Welles' trickery in his "War of the Worlds" broadcast and his film masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Her arguments are intellectually challenging, and she employs demanding academic language filled with words that will send you to your dictionary.

Other essays are about films such as Ruins, Shulie, Bontac Eulogy and The Watermelon Woman, and a compelling essay by Eve Oishe on "Screen Memories: Fakeness in Asian American Media Practice" certainly opened up new territory for me.

With the film Borat becoming a box office phenomenon, the issues raised by these essays are of contemporary importance. If "a truth" or "the truth" is the aim of a film, does it matter how much or how many people were manipulated into appearing in it? How honest does a filmmaker such as Michael Moore have to be if he is making an important political statement? Aren't unacknowledged re-enactments "fudging" in terms of capturing the "real thing?" Or are they an essential part of getting it "right," of "doing the truth" as documentary filmmakers attempt to capture this elusive "real thing?" Indeed, what is this "real thing" documentary filmmakers are trying to capture? Does it even exist, or is the "real" eventually found only in the "eye of the beholder"? Is a sharp distinction between "real" and "fake" important, especially in this sub-category of the documentary?

F Is for Phony provides stimulating thought, if not answers, about fakery and truth in documentaries. I frankly had never thought about the implication that when a film is declared a "fake" or "mock" documentary, we're positing that there is a "real" documentary from which it deviates in both form and substance. This informative and provocative study raises these issues and more.

The book also has a helpful filmography with information about the availability of more than 75 of the films discussed, a modest index and short professional write-ups of each essayist.

So in the end, "lying" to the Gestapo may be a perfectly acceptable way to "do the truth."


Ron Sutton is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.