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In the case of No Lies, the central question "Could it actually have happened?" can be answered with a simple Yes. There is not a single element of the film that does not belong to the real world: any cameraman with a class project to do could easily have picked up a camera and filmed his friend as she got ready for the evening. His friend could have admitted to the camera that she was raped, and then broken down. Even the somewhat hidden edits in the film do not detract from the "realness" of the film: the cameraman could simply have needed to change magazines. In short, there is nothing implausible whatsoever about the premise, structure, or aesthetic qualities of No Lies. But there is one nagging question: would anyone know about the film if it were not a fake documentary? If No Lies were an actual documentary, chances are it would not have the (admittedly minor) renown that it has; it would likely be viewed not by students and scholars of film, but by people in rape crisis centers. I do not mean to belittle such organizations, or the film itself. But without the element of fakery present in No Lies, its renown and importance would, no doubt, be far smaller, if not insignificant.
This is not a minor point. There are hundreds of real-life mediocre heavy metal bands which could have provided equally rich and comedic material for any number of "rockumentaries." Why invent Spinal Tap? Numerous feature films have been unexpectedly discovered, undergone restoration, and shed some light on the careers of their makers. Why invent Colin McKenzie? There are countless thousands of women who have actually been raped. Why invent a character for Shelby Leverington to play? In other words, any one of these stories could be told (and, no doubt, has been told) either in the form of a traditional fictional narrative film or as a traditional, straight documentary. Why, then, have a brave few filmmakers chosen to make films that walk the line between fiction and nonfiction?
The answer lies in the ability of the mock documentary to allow the viewer to explicitly question what he or she is seeing. The advantage it has over the fictional narrative film is that viewers do not leave the theater thinking that they have just watched a pleasant story that has no bearing on their lives or their "worlds." Viewers of Eddie and the Cruisers (1983), a film about a fictitious rock and roll band, know that the film is "just a story," even though numerous parallels can be drawn between the film and actual rock and roll history. A fictional story stays fictional. In a mock documentary, the fictional story seeps into the real world.
The advantage mock documentary has over traditional documentary is that it is able to challenge the assumptions about traditional documentary without actually succumbing to them itself. A mock documentary, by containing some elements which are not of the real world, encourages viewers to question those elements of the real world which they would normally take for granted. A good example comes from Forgotten Silver, Peter Jackson's ingenious mock documentary about a forgotten filmmaker and his long-lost masterpiece. The film tells of how Colin McKenzie, the boy wonder director, discovered a clever way to drive his camera's motor and, at the same time, invent the tracking shot: he hooks up his camera to a bicycle, and films while pedaling. Needless to say, Colin cannot steer, pedal, and film all at the same time; a brief bit of "archival" footage shows a mobile camera narrowly missing several ducks and chickens and then crashing into a bush and toppling over. The authoritative narrator then says, " s later attempt to mechanize a home-built projector leapt way beyond pedal power." Until the words "way beyond," we have been looking at a black and white photograph of what looks like a primitive film projector. At that point, the camera zooms out to reveal that the projector is connected via a series of belts to the steam engine of a locomotive.
It is preposterous to think that any projector at any point in the history of cinema was driven by a steam- powered train. Nevertheless, there is an aged-looking photograph of the rig, and we hear a locomotive chugging away on the soundtrack. We have several questions: How in the world could anyone have thought of that? (That is, either "Colin McKenzie" or Peter Jackson.) Where did that photo come from? And how did they power cameras and projectors back in the early days of cinema, anyway? A traditional documentary on the same subject would answer each of these questions for us. Instead, we get a crazy approximation of what might have been, and are asked to temper what we see with what we know.
This is not to say that canonical documentaries cannot challenge our assumptions about what we see: Edgar Morin's and Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer (1961)—and, indeed, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) before it—force us to question what we see as well as any film. But because a mock documentary presents us with material that is inherently false, we are asked to call into question how we view material that is "inherently true." More importantly, they allow us to ask ourselves, "What makes it 'true?' "

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

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