Even better than the real thing

A parody of reality TV in which contestants fight to the death is the latest example of the serious spoof. Ryan Gilbey charts the long, honourable history of the mockumentary
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No one in Hollywood ever got rich telling the truth. Could that be why the flourishing faux-documentary genre feels so refreshing? It says: I'm lying. This is fake. Don't believe what you're seeing. And almost without anyone noticing, such honesty has made it a trustworthy alternative to the manipulations of narrative cinema and documentaries alike.

No one in Hollywood ever got rich telling the truth. Could that be why the flourishing faux-documentary genre feels so refreshing? It says: I'm lying. This is fake. Don't believe what you're seeing. And almost without anyone noticing, such honesty has made it a trustworthy alternative to the manipulations of narrative cinema and documentaries alike.

Zelig (1983) was a mock newsreel that implicitly questioned its own validity, The Blair Witch Project (1999) dragged the horror movie back to round-the-campfire basics where it belonged, while Best in Show (2000) commented subtly on the insidious conventions of the docusoap. Now Series 7: The Contenders ­ not strictly a mockumentary, but a parody of reality TV that plays by the same rules ­ is the latest picture to prove that fake is the new truth.

The film takes the form of a fictional show in which six Ordinary Joes engage in a fight to the death for the public's entertainment. Cinema is never on secure ground when it sneers at television ­ glasshouses, stones and all that ­ but Series 7 is complicated and redeemed by being at least half in love with the sensationalist conventions (the narration that guides us in our sympathies, the endless recaps, the teaser-trailers for next week's show) of its chosen target.

The makers of faux documentaries, or mockumentaries, can exploit an audience's in-built familiarity with such stylistic trademarks, while also capitalising on the decline in the integrity of documentarists, who have begun picking up bad habits from their Hollywood counterparts. You can pretty much guarantee that a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster will be guilty of prettification and cheap resolutions, but it's no longer certain, in an age in which the work of Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield can, without irony, be acclaimed as probing, that a documentary will be a haven from those vices.

Moore's film Roger and Me (1989), about the underhand practices of General Motors, and Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney (1998), in which the film-maker conspires with unreliable witnesses in the defamation of Courtney Love, are both riddled with conflations and distortions of evidence. This isn't the whole story ­ directors such as Errol Morris and Britain's Patrick Keiller are worthy successors to Humphrey Jennings. But so many documentaries succumb to cosmetic embellishments as a matter of course. Last year alone, there was The Last Days, with its bullying score, Beyond the Mat, with its contrived emotional showdowns, and One Day in September, which adopted a smugly superior attitude toward the media on which the film itself relied for much of its material. Even a fairly irreproachable work, like the recent Dark Days, about a homeless community living in New York's subway tunnels, can pique a viewer's scepticism: how long did it take, you wonder, to get the light just-so for that shot of an ex-con taking a shower with his own looming shadow looking on?

On television, discussion shows have been taken to task for employing phoney guests to divulge phoney maladies. How long can it be before Richard and Judy are revealed to be subversive stand-up comics who have got one over on the British public? Well, we can hope.

All this fraudulence has resulted in an artistic regeneration. Television may be the greatest beneficiary, with fictional chat-show hosts such as Mrs Merton, Ali G and, best of all, Larry Sanders, interacting with real guests, while Chris Morris on Brass Eye used drugged meat, also known as the promise of publicity, to tempt politicians and celebrities into embarrassing themselves. Long before that, the BBC played a Halloween prank on its prime-time audience by transmitting Ghostwatch (1992), in which Michael Parkinson, in an apparently live broadcast, reported on things going bump in the night. The switchboards were jammed by spooked viewers who hadn't cottoned on to this supremely chilling gag, which predated the similar concept of The Blair Witch Project.

That bold stunt hinted at a contempt both for the kind of viewers who believe everything they see on television, and for the self-righteously authoritative voice of documentaries and reality-TV shows. Indeed, an ambivalent relationship with the documentary format is one prerequisite of the faux documentary ­ it's there in the daddy, or at least the cheeky uncle, of the genre, This is Spinal Tap (1984). For all its digs at heavy metal pomposity, the movie spared its most unforgiving jibes for its ostensible creator, the fictional film-maker Marty DiBergi, played by This is Spinal Tap's own director, Rob Reiner, in a deliciously nasty send-up of Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz (1978) ­ all awkward cool and fawning chumminess.

In its pedantic attention to detail, This is Spinal Tap was undoubtedly influenced by Neil Innes and Eric Idle's Beatles pastiche, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978), which also gave the character of the documentary maker short shrift, reducing this BBC authority figure to a buffoon scarcely fit to clean the bong of Dirk, Stig, Barry and Nasty (that's The Rutles to you). Likewise, This is Spinal Tap seemed to be saying, if it was saying anything at all, that DiBergi, with his ingratiating turns of phrase ("Whaddya say? Let's boogie!") was as much to blame for the stupidity of the music industry as daft props like the band's replicas of Stonehenge, or rather Stone'enge.

Neither film deconstructed the documentary, but through meticulous research and production design, they established a commitment to their respective facades equal to the most faithful period drama. In other words, if you're faking it, if the audience knows you're faking it, if the whole point is that you're faking it, then play the damn thing with the sobriety of a courtroom oath. To appreciate the pivotal part that seriousness plays in the DNA of the faux documentary, you need only compare This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show (by Tap's co-writer Christopher Guest) with other experiments that have failed to adhere to those laws of verisimilitude ­ Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), Bob Roberts (1992) or Man Bites Dog (1993), all of which winked to camera at regular intervals and included scenes to which no documentary crew would have been allowed access. By contrast, the makers of This is Spinal Tap were so intent on maintaining plausibility that they excised a shot of the band taking drugs, reasoning that the characters would never have risked being caught red-handed, or white-nosed, with the camera running.

The mockumentary format is generally a passing gimmick for most film-makers, but one director has revisited it with a regularity which suggests mild obsession. His fascination with the blurring of art and life was signposted by his breakthrough movie, which was not only named after his then girlfriend, but also loosely quantified their relationship, and even featured the woman in question playing herself.

Annie Hall (1977) ­ starring Diane Keaton, née Hall ­ is not strictly one of the faux documentaries that have peppered Woody Allen's career, but the naked honesty of that title (alright, so it was second choice after the even more nakedly honest Anhedonia ­ the inability to experience happiness) suggested a man whose relationship with truth and its place in art was complex. Allen had already made one mockumentary by the time of Annie Hall ­ his debut Take the Money and Run (1969) ­ but it was not until he returned to the format with Zelig (1983) that he fully exploited the artistic tensions that came with the territory.

Here was the story of an insignificant man whose chameleon-like ability to blend in with those around him, to become what he was not, got him noticed. The film was pieced together from fake newsreel footage that found the unassuming Zelig in the company of politicians, popes and celebrities. But it too was pretending to be something it was not; this film about a master forger was itself a forgery. Zelig is partly about how we rewrite ourselves and rewrite history ­ it features interviews with modern intellectuals who bring their own biases to bear on the Zelig phenomenon ­ and the fraudulent authority bestowed upon the film by its documentary appearance is integral to that argument.

This distrust surfaces in two other Allen mockumentaries ­ Husbands and Wives (1992), which ends with Allen himself, as a beleaguered interviewee, asking meekly "Can I go? Is this over?", like a prisoner pleading with his torturers (significantly, the film anticipated the airing of Allen's own dirty laundry by a matter of months); and Sweet and Lowdown (2000), in which, at one point, the contradictory recollections of three commentators are acted out, throwing the reliability of the documentary into doubt. Even in this continuing challenge to the notion of truth, Allen was not quite quick enough off the mark.

It may be as depressing as it is astonishing to note how much in cinema was pioneered by Orson Welles, but in this case it really is true. The fake newsreel is there at the start of Citizen Kane (1941), that frustrated quest for definitive truths, and as in Zelig its presence only signals the futility of the search ahead. The horror story played for real was Welles' idea too, long before The Blair Witch Project or Series 7: The Contenders, in his infamous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds which caused evacuations of both kinds in many of its listeners. And Welles never expressed more blatantly his fascination with deception than in F for Fake (1973), an intriguing little compendium of musings on the subject of forgery, each one stamped with a lingering question mark.

That movie's French title, Vérités et Mensonges (Truth and Lies) grasps at the nature of cinema. Movies are beguiling lies elevated by each accidental glimmer of truth that we discern within them. But documentaries by their very definition announce themselves as the whole truth, and each trace of alteration or dishonesty, however slight, can only render them bogus. Perhaps the faux documentary is the ideal bridge between the two, accommodating the artistic liberty of the fiction film while assuaging the suspicions of audience members who have found that in cinema there are mensonges, damn mensonges and then there are documentaries.

'Series 7: The Contenders' is released 1 June