How do mock-documentaries use documentary conventions to convey a sense of verisimilitude?

This essay intends to study examples of the mock-documentary, or mockumentary film and discuss in what ways the films use the realist principles and conventions traditionally associated with documentary film and in what ways these mockumentary films subvert them. The films that will be looked at in this essay are Cloverfield and End of Watch, as both are different examples of ways documentary principles and conventions can be used. As well as the two films that have been previously mentioned, the 2009 mockumentary film Bruno will also be looked at.

The first film that will be looked at will be the 2012 action thriller mock-documentary End of Watch. David Ayer’s ‘buddy cop’ action thriller film concerns itself with the escalating tension between various gangs, Mexican trafficking and drug cartels and the police within downtown L.A. End of Watch has been described as ‘an unflinching cop drama that uses the handheld approach to heighten the drama and escalate the tension.’ The use of handheld cameras by the protagonists of the film, and occasionally antagonists, within the film, is a clear example of this film being a mockumentary, with the film’s explanation of these cameras being that the character of Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) is filming for a night school film class. From there the film is seen mostly through the camera of Brian and also through his partner Mike’s camera. This allows us, as an audience, into the subjectivity of these characters and their struggles. The Director of End of Watch, David Ayer, said on the subject; ‘it enables the characters to talk directly to the audience, so you get pulled into the friendship and relationships too.’ This is emphasised by the fact that we also see the supposed camera footage of Brian and Mike when they are off duty, during their lives at home. This not only makes us share the subjectivity of the characters, as we go through everything they go through, but the handheld camera techniques make the interactions feel more real. Because of this emotional involvement with the characters when an exciting moment happens (such as the climax of the film) and the characters’ lives are threatened, the resulting scene is considerably more tense for the audience.

End of Watch

Cloverfield is similar to this in that it shows you the background of the main characters; their personal lives and relationships, before the attack on the city that takes up the rest of the film. Therefore, the ‘stakes are higher’ during certain tense scenes such as the subway sequence. Cloverfield differs however as the characters in the film are viewed from the first person perspective of another character, whereas End of Watch switches between the two protagonists and even the antagonists. These characters in End of Watch are just ‘watched’ or observed by the camera through long shots. This is one example of the film using and playing with documentary film conventions, as this is very similar to the films of the direct cinema movement. Films of this movement are characterised as having no voice over and being observational, often showing us parts of life we wouldn’t see in other films, being what Nichols calls ‘the observational mode.’[1] Craig Hight agrees, writing; ‘mockumentary appropriates style from the codes and conventions of documentary…[2] This is certainly true of End of Watch where we see parts and scenes from the characters’ lives that don’t drive the plot forward but rather simply observe the characters, relating the film to the direct cinema movement. An example of this is during the wedding scene when we see various characters talking to each other. Mike and Brian and their respective partners are drunkenly talking about their sex lives, and the character of Sarge (Frank Grillo) is talking to an unnamed character about how he misses his partner who was killed in action years before. This exchange between characters doesn’t readily appear relevant to the plot and is very reminiscent of the sort of scenes found in films of the direct cinema movement, such as the scene in Gimme Shelter (the Rolling Stones concert film directed by Albert and David Maysles, the founders of the direct cinema movement) when the bands are playing on stage and the camera simply follows what the audience is doing. Similarly, End of Watch simply follows what its characters are doing in this scene, making this an example of mock-documentaries using the conventions of documentary films. Although after the climax of the film, during which Mike is killed, this scene with Sarge becomes a moment of foreshadowing. This is not apparent on first viewing and arguably makes the scene an example of the film subverting the ideas of direct cinema as it takes a convention and uses it in a different, new way and thus subverting the idea of documentary films. There are elements of these direct cinema conventions present in Cloverfield also, with one example being the scene before the group are attacked whilst walking the subway. In this scene, Rob’s brother has been killed and we see him phoning his mother to explain. He is shot in a long shot, and the scene is also one long unbroken take. This is similar to the many scenes in Gimme Shelter and other direct cinema films, where the camera would focus on one thing and be left there for a significant amount of time.

Cloverfield

Bruno, on the other hand, isn’t similar to this, and rather than subvert the films of the direct cinema movement it subverts personal documentary films and their conventions such as the work of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Bruno follows the title character (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) as he travels America with the intent of becoming famous. The people featured in the film (mostly) aren’t aware of the tricks being played on them by Cohen. The film follows his journey as he narrates the film and gives us the story of his life. One example of Bruno subverting personal documentaries can be seen in the format of the film. The film follows Bruno around the United States in a way very similar to a film such as Roger and Me follows Michael Moore’s journey across the country. But whereas, in Roger and Me, Michael Moore is exploring the collapse of his hometown of Flint, interviewing important people and trying to find an answer, Bruno subverts this convention of there being a ‘mission-driven’ main subject by being concerned with following the made-up character of Bruno as he tries to ‘crack’ America. This is the first example of Bruno parodying personal documentaries. Another example of how it subverts personal documentary filmmaking can be seen in the opening credits. Whereas a personal documentary film such as Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger and Me, or other films by Moore such as Bowling for Columbine, opens with Moore’s narration explaining his life and the story so far, over clips and photos of his life up until the point of the film. Bruno on the other hand parodies and subverts this convention by opening the film with Bruno’s narration explaining his life and who he is over still images of sexually explicit scenes featuring Bruno, poking fun at and ultimately parodying personal documentary conventions.

Roger and Me.JPG

 

Despite the genre, most mockumentaries use similar documentary techniques in their construction. One example of this is the ‘talking heads’ convention of many documentaries and factual programmes, the convention of having someone, usually a professional talk to the camera and the documentary subjects about something in an informative way. This can be seen in many documentaries such as Roger and Me when the bailiff is explaining to the camera about his process of evicting people from their houses. Another example of this is in Senna, when the doctor at the race track where Senna is killed and is explaining what happened to Senna in an informative, knowledgeable manner. End of Watch uses this documentary convention through the characters or Brian and Mike talking to the camera about their process and explaining what they are doing. An example of this is in the locker room when Brian is explaining to the audience what all of his equipment is for. As in documentaries such as Roger and Me, Brian makes eye contact with the audience and talks in an informative manner. Until his partner jokes about this, however, subvert the trope, and he stops. Cloverfield does this in a different way, as the genre of the film doesn’t automatically lend itself to having a ‘talking head’ scene. The scene in which the characters meet with the military and the Lt. Colonel explains what is going. He uses words associated with the military which helps give a sense that he is knowledgeable and informative similar to the ‘talking heads’ in documentary films such as Senna. Bruno differs from the ‘talking head’ convention subversion established in the aforementioned mock-documentaries in that the majority of the people in the film aren’t aware of the mock-documentary nature of the film, as the main aim of the film is to trick people. An example of this ‘talking head’ convention in Bruno is the man who claims to be a ‘gay converter’. He talks to the character of Bruno and the audience about his processes in a typical ‘talking head’ style but the convention is being subverted as he is being tricked.

Bruno

Another documentary style present in the films is the use of handheld camera, a modern documentary filmmaking technique. The handheld camera techniques make End of Watch and Cloverfield feel very akin to reality TV shows and homemade camera footage, which gives the films a realistic verisimilitude. On this topic, Jane Roscoe writes; ‘Like much Reality TV or docu-soap, the style looks rather amateurish, which for us as viewers tends to signify authenticity and heightens the feeling that we are seeing the world as it is.[3] In End of Watch, as the narrative is primarily concerned with police work and the lives of the policeman, the film uses documentary techniques that make it feel familiar to certain shows, in particular, the long-running American reality show Cops. Critics noted this, with Peter Travers writing that; ‘End of Watch has the feel of an uncensored reality show.’ This is true of End of Watch as it has many conventions similar to the show such as the subject matter but more important elements such as the multiple camera angles and cuts and the explaining of police actions and procedures to the camera. While this is not the traditional notions and conventions of documentary filmmaking, it is the conventions of the show Cops, and it is clear that the filmmakers were trying to emulate the conventions of this modern documentary style as opposed to traditional documentaries and their styles. Cloverfield also strives to create a sense of realism is through the use of shaky handheld camcorders, which gives a sense of the film being filmed by an amateur, as if the footage of the destruction of the city is actually being filmed by a normal man from New York. On this idea, Roscoe writes; ‘The aesthetics of the camcorder look, the shaky frame, the movement in and out of focus, the inability to keep the subject(s) within the frame, and the camcorder’s portability are most often associated with intimacy and authenticity.[4] This is true of End of Watch as well with an example in the film being the scene when Mike fights with the gang member. We don’t see everything, the shots are shaky and the footage is even sometimes upside down. This gives the film a sense of a realist documentary and these examples show us how the films use the conventions of realist filmmaking and documentary filmmaking to draw the audience in and have them believe it to be real.

End of Watch 2

Another convention of documentary filmmaking that is subverted in mock-documentaries is the convention of the long take. End of Watch doesn’t show this convention as much as, but certain scenes are filmed mainly through long takes. One example of this is in the scene when we see the characters pursuing a criminal. This scene is shot in one long take, filmed entirely through the police cruisers dashboard camera, again giving the film a sense of the TV shows such as Cops, as well as giving the film a sense of realism. But Cloverfield is different as it is all supposedly filmed on one camera. While there are cuts, either explained as the characters turning the camera off or through a clever use of editing, most of the footage in the film is presented through long takes which are a key tenant of traditional documentary and realist filmmaking. A key example of this is the aforementioned subway scene in which Rob phones his mother to explain his brother’s death. Realist filmmakers believe that the long, unbroken shot aids realism, as Pramaggiore writes; ‘(on long takes) so the audiences experience an unfolding of reality through unmediated access to characters.’ [5] This is true of Cloverfield and also true of End of Watch as the long shots and long takes in the film allow us access into the lives of the characters, and the long takes add a sense of realism to the film.

In conclusion, mock-documentary/mockumentary films use the realist principles and conventions traditionally associated with the documentary film to subvert them for their own needs. In the case of End of Watch and Cloverfield certain conventions of documentary filmmaking are used to add a sense of realism to the films and thus to make the audience more drawn into the events in the film and to the characters. Other films such as Bruno use documentary conventions for humour purposes, and to trick people. Despite what the different reasons are for documentary conventions to be used, all mockumentary films use the conventions in the same way; to add a sense of the real.

By Tom

 

References

  1. Nichols, Bill. Introducing the Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 109
  2. Craig Hight, ‘Mockumentary – A Call To Play’, in Rethinking Documentary – New Perspectives, New Practices, ed. by Thomas Austin and Wilma De Jong(New York: McGraw-Hill International, 2008), p. 205
  3. Jane Roscoe, ‘The Blair Witch Project: Mock-Documentary Goes Mainstream’ in Jump Cut, no. 43 (July, 2000)
  4. Jane Roscoe, ‘The Blair Witch Project: Mock-Documentary Goes Mainstream’ in Jump Cut, no. 43 (July, 2000)
  5. Maria Pramaggiore, Tom Wallis, Film: A Critical Introduction(London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005), p. 187
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