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

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game