The fine art of the mockumentary

Casey Affleck's spoof film 'I'm Still Here' follows a grand tradition of blurring the line between fact and fiction

The jury's still out on Joaquin Phoenix. Did the Walk the Line star quit acting to try his hand at becoming a hip-hop musician as a ruse to help his brother-in-law Casey Affleck make a much-hyped documentary about celebrity, friendship, media intrusion and the cost of fame?

Affleck avoided answering the question both in his film and when talking to the press in Venice, where his movie premiered on Monday. And why not? He should be praised for keeping the audience guessing. The rumours of a hoax are a major component of the film; speculating on what is and what isn't real is all part of the fun.

I'm Still Here joins Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish, co-directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, as not only one of the best documentaries, but one of the best films of the year. And in all three, the audience is never told explicitly if what they are watching is truth or fiction.

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy plays with the question of his identity in a film about the attempt to discover who the artist really is. Much of the hype surrounding the film before it premiered in Sundance centred on whether he would reveal himself. In the event, the artist appears on camera shrouded in darkness and speaks in a scrambled voice. It doesn't matter that there is no big reveal, what carries the film is its oral history of street art and searing social critique.

Catfish, one of the break-out hits of this year's Sundance, has the advantage of not featuring anyone famous. Already labelled "the perfect documentary", it's the story of a friendship that develops on Facebook when an eight-year-old girl from Michigan emails the New York photographer Nev Schulman, brother of the film's director, with an immaculate painting she has done from one of his photographs. The directors shoot the film as if it's all happening in real time but it's hard to believe some of it isn't staged. Quite rightly, though, the directors refuse to talk about this – the uncertainty is part of the film.

The fun of mockumentaries lies in their attempt to convince us that what we are watching is the truth. This is Spinal Tap, the granddaddy of the genre, has taken the joke so far that the band now appears in concerts as if they always were real rock legends. Sacha Baron Cohen mixed fact with fiction with his three creations for The 11 O'Clock Show; Ali G, Borat and Bruno. The laughs come from him suckering unsuspecting individuals into believing he is for real. When he messed with that formula for a movie, Ali G Indahouse, it was an unmitigated disaster. Borat, on the other hand, remains his crowning glory because it's the work in which most of those featured believe he is a real man from Kazakhstan.

I'm Still Here tries an even bigger trick. The desire is clearly to split audiences into two categories, those who think it's a joke and those who don't. It's a magnificent ruse. On the one hand, it's hard to believe Phoenix is really such a jackass and that his brother-in-law would expose him as such. What's more, anyone who has seen Walk the Line knows that Phoenix has talent – both as an actor and a musician – in spades, which makes his disastrous attempts at hip-hop unlikely. On the other hand, his actions have affected others in a very real way. His last film, Two Lovers, never had a chance in America after Phoenix made a fool of himself on Letterman with his rapper stylings. The film died a box-office death – not much of a joke for its director, James Gray. Can he ever forgive Phoenix?

Whatever the truth, let's hope Affleck and Phoenix do not veer from their position, asserting that everything on screen is real. It makes a better story. Phoenix has spent two years living as this persona, the character on screen takes his name. Truth has merged with fiction.



'I'm Still Here' is out on 17 September

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent