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A mockumentary (a portmanteau of the words mock and documentary) is a type of film or television show in which fictional events are presented in documentary style to create a parody. These productions are often used to analyze or comment on current events and issues by using a fictional setting, or to parody the documentary form itself. They may be either comedic or dramatic in form, although comedic mockumentaries are more common. A dramatic mockumentary (sometimes referred to as docufiction) should not be confused with docudrama, a fictional genre in which dramatic techniques are combined with documentary elements to depict real events.
Mockumentaries are often presented as historical documentaries, with B roll and talking heads discussing past events, or as cinéma vérité pieces following people as they go through various events. Though the precise origins of the genre are not known, examples emerged during the 1950s, when archival film footage became relatively easy to locate. A very early example was a short piece on the "Swiss Spaghetti Harvest" that appeared as an April fools' joke on the British television program Panorama in 1957.
The term "mockumentary" is thought to have been popularized in the mid-1980s when This Is Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner used it in interviews to describe that film. It is not known with certainty when the term "mock-documentary" was first used, but the Oxford Dictionary Online notes appearance of "mockumentary" from the mid-1960s.
Mockumentaries are often partly or wholly improvised, as an unscripted style of acting helps to maintain the pretense of reality. Comedic mockumentaries rarely have laugh tracks, also to sustain the atmosphere, although there are exceptions – for example, Operation Good Guys had a laugh track from its second series onwards.
Early work, including Luis Buñuel's 1933 Land Without Bread, Orson Welles's 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, various April Fool's Day news reports, and vérité style film and television during the 1960s and 1970s, served as precursor to the genre.
Early examples of mock-documentaries include David Holzman's Diary (1967), Pat Paulsen For President (1968), Take the Money and Run (1969), and All You Need is Cash (1978). A Hard Day's Night (1964), written by Alun Owen, and purporting to describe several days in the lives of The Beatles, was possibly the first feature film that could be characterized as a "mockumentary".
Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run is presented in documentary-style with Allen playing a fictional criminal, Virgil Starkwell, whose crime exploits are "explored" throughout the film. Jackson Beck, who used to narrate documentaries in the 1940s, provides the voice-over narration. Fictional interviews are interspliced throughout, especially those of Starkwell's parents who wear Groucho Marx noses and mustaches. This style of this film was widely appropriated by others and by Allen himself in Zelig (1983) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999).
Albert Brooks was also an early popularizer of the mockumentary style with his film Real Life (1979), which was a spoof of a PBS documentary.
Early use of the mockumentary format in television comedy may be seen in several sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969–1974), such as "Hell's Grannies", "Piranha Brothers", and "The Funniest Joke in the World".
Since the 1980s, the mockumentary format has enjoyed much attention, especially in the work of director Christopher Guest. Guest cowrote and starred in the 1984 mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner, and has gone on to direct a series of films in the same genre. Films such as Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, all written with co-star Eugene Levy, were critical successes.
Zelig was a 1983 American mockumentary film written and directed by Woody Allen, and starring Allen and Mia Farrow. Allen plays Zelig, a curiously nondescript enigma who is discovered for his remarkable ability to transform himself to resemble anyone he is near.
In 1995 Forgotten Silver, claimed New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie was a pioneer of most aspects of filmmaking. When it was revealed to be a mockumentary, director Peter Jackson received criticism for tricking a number of viewers.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is an example of a successful film from 2006 which uses this style.
Thomas, Thomas is a German short mockumentary about the city archivist Wolfgang Weber, who proves that a director of an Ayurvedic clinic is the reincarnation of an Irish mining pioneer.
Man Bites Dog is a 1992 Belgian black comedy crime mockumentary written, produced and directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde
Dark Side of the Moon is a 2002 French mockumentary by director William Karel. The basic premise for the film is the theory that the television footage from the Apollo 11 Moon landing was faked and actually recorded in a studio by the CIA with help from director Stanley Kubrick.
The 1983 The Comic Strip Presents... film Bad News Tour was a spoof rockumentary about a British heavy metal band. It preceded Spinal Tap by a year, but is not known to have been an influence on the U.S. film. The film led to LPs being released and the band really touring and was followed by a sequel, More Bad News in 1987. Stella Street was a mockumentary which ran on the BBC from 1997 to 2001. It was written by Phil Cornwell, John Sessions and Peter Richardson and featured Cornwell and Sessions playing all the characters between them. The series was shot on handheld camcorders.
In television, the most notable mockumentaries in the 2000s have been: ABC Australia's The Games (1998–2000), Trailer Park Boys (2001–2008), the British shows Marion and Geoff (2000), Twenty Twelve (2011–2012) (which follows the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games), The Office (2001) and its many international offshoots, Come Fly with Me (2010), which follows the activity at a fictional airport and its variety of staff and passengers. British comedy duo Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French often presented short mockumentaries as extended sketches in their TV show French & Saunders. Discovery Channel opened its annual Shark Week on 4 Aug 2013 with Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a mockumentary about the survival of the Megalodon.
Other successful television mockumentaries include the American sitcoms Parks and Recreation (2009–present), The Office (2005–2013), and Modern Family (2009–present); the American improv comedy Reno 911! (2003–2009); the Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys and its films; the Australian Chris Lilley shows Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year and Ja'mie: Private School Girl.