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This is not a pipePerhaps the mock documentary owes its existence to a single Belgian painter who startled the art world in 1929 with La Trahison des Images. This is, of course, René Magritte's famed oil painting of a pipe, beneath which are painted in pretty cursive the words, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" — "this is not a pipe."
The painting is a challenge, not just to anyone who sees it but to the artistic establishment as a whole. Magritte presents the viewer with a choice: Do you believe your eyes, or do you believe what I'm telling you to believe? By placing the object and its written description in diametrical opposition, Magritte deliberately leaves the viewer in artistic limbo. A successful mock documentary can have the same effect on a viewer, leaving her to wonder, "Could that actually have happened?" or, perhaps even, "Was that for real?" The answer to the latter question, depending on how one looks at it, is either Yes or No: Yes, that was a real film you just saw; No, that was not an actual occurrence depicted within it. Like Magritte's painting, there is no sure answer. Is it a pipe? Or is it not a pipe?
Of course, one one level, Magritte is being totally honest with the viewers of his painting. What they are seeing is not a pipe per se, but a representation of a pipe. So, no, it's not a pipe. It's a painting of a pipe. That hidden degree of honesty that Magritte proffers to the viewer is not unlike the hidden kernel of truth, exhibited as a grounding in the actual world, that is present in most mock documentaries.
Though, obviously, a painting is not a movie and a movie is not a painting, La Trahison des Images is an important predecessor to mock documentary. The pipe in Magritte's painting cannot conceivably be of anything but a pipe, just as the mediocre heavy metal band in This Is Spinal Tap (1984) cannot conceivably be anything other than a mediocre heavy metal band. The meaning of each of the pieces, however, lies in the interplay between what one sees and how one sees it. The title of the painting—"The Treachery of Images"—succinctly applies to the operating principle of the mock documentary, as well. Such films do not simply project an alternate "world" for their spectators to observe—that is the domain of traditional narrative cinema, to which the mock documentary obviously owes a great deal. Mock documentaries use the language of documentary to subvert the ways in which documentaries are made and viewed. They take the tools documentary uses to produce "truth" (or a semblance thereof) and use them instead to produce fictions. They use familiar conventions to trick us.
Mock documentaries raise several questions which I will address. How do directors of mock documentaries render their fictions believable? How do they use the language of documentary to subvert documentary form? How important is it that we buy into the film's central conceit; i.e., will the films "work" even if we do not believe in their authenticity as documentaries? How do mock documentary films differentiate themselves from actual documentaries, and how do they tip their hands to let the viewers in on the joke? Why are most mock documentaries played for comedy? And is it possible to produce a definition of the mock documentary?

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Copyright © Ethan de Seife, author of Cultographies: This is Spinal Tap. Reprinted with permission.

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