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When the Camera Becomes a Character: Five Great Mockumentaries

Mockumentaries are deceiving.  

Some critics of the genre believe these films are lazy. They think the acknowledgement of the camera destroys the viewer’s immersion in the story, and that it’s hard to be innovative when you’re working in the confines of documentary structure. In some cases, this is true. Mockumentaries appeal to new filmmakers because they don’t require big budgets and set pieces that you’d find in seasoned filmmakers’ repertoires. They’re given a rule book of story conventions to utilize. 

But it’s not that simple.  

The mockumentary genre is a unique storytelling vessel. Typically, mockumentaries highlight the absurdity of everyday life, especially in the workplace. There’s an emphasis on character over plot because characters are given the space to voice their thoughts directly to the camera. We also get a more intimate look into people’s everyday lives, as the camera takes on a fly-on-the-wall perspective. This is why filmmakers typically use the mockumentary genre for character studies that have a comedic edge. 

The mockumentary genre is comedic in nature because the structure is looser and more forgiving than other genres. Oftentimes actors are free to improvise and experiment with their characters’ heightened personalities. Many mockumentaries are ensemble-driven because of this.  

Listed below are a few of the amazing mockumentary films available to check out at Media Services. Media Services also owns several mockumentary series like Parks and Recreation, The Office (US), Modern Family, and more!

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) dir. Rob Reiner 

Considered the quintessential music mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap tells the story of Spinal Tap, a British metal band struggling to maintain their relevancy. Rob Reiner plays the documentarian behind the camera while mockumentary legends Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer play the delusion rockers. A tight 82 minutes, This Is Spinal Tap delivers bit after bit but still finds time to humanize the larger-than-life characters. 

Image credit: This is Spinal Tap (1984). IMDb. 9 August 2023

Bob Roberts (1992) dir. Tim Robbins 

1992 was a busy year for Tim Robbins. The actor best known for starring in The Shawshank Redemption was the lead in Robert Altman’s film industry satire The Player, but he also wrote, directed, and starred in the political mockumentary Bob Roberts. Robbins plays the titular role: a folksinger turned US senate candidate who uses his charm and wealth to manipulate both the media and voters. This film is a cautionary tale about corruption that still feels relevant in today’s political landscape. 

Image credit: Bob Roberts (1992). Furious Cinema. 9 August 2023

Waiting for Guffman (1996) dir. Christopher Guest 

Any of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries could be featured on this list, but Waiting for Guffman is, in my opinion, his best. Guest plays Corky St. Clair, an eccentric theater director in small-town Missouri. The film chronicles the rehearsal process for “Red, White and Blaine,” a musical that details the town’s history. Midwest eccentricities are at the forefront of this mostly improvised underdog tale. You’ll be singing along to the musical numbers that Guest and his This is Spinal Tap costar Michael McKean wrote for the film. 

Image credit: Waiting for Guffman (1996). IMDb. 9 August 2023.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) dir. Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement 

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement wrote, directed, and starred in this mockumentary that follows a trio of vampire housemates living in modern day New Zealand. It’s consistently funny from beginning to end and features many New Zealand comedians in supporting roles. The dialogue is endlessly quotable, and the loose structure makes it a breezy watch. Clement and Waititi are also executive producers for the FX show of the same name. The show follows the same mockumentary structure but is set in New York instead of New Zealand. 

Image credit: What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Entertainment Weekly. 9 August 2023.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) dir. Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick 

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that The Blair Witch Project changed the horror genre forever. While it doesn’t fit the typical mockumentary mold, it does use documentary conventions to subvert expectations and enhance the realism within the film, thus making the scares all the more horrific. Upon the film’s release, many people thought that it was completely real due to its marketing and experimental style. The Blair Witch Project is a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking, and it popularized the found footage subgenre.

Image credit: The Blair Witch Project (1999). The Guardian. 9 August 2023.

Chloe Fulk is a senior studying film production and music history. She has worked at Media Services for close to two years. In her free time, Chloe likes to watch movies (shocking, I know) and write film reviews for the Indiana Daily Student. Her favorite films range from Dirty Dancing to Saw.

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