"There's never been a really good documentary on rock 'n' roll bands," Kurt Cobain once said—to which Dave Grohl responded, "except Spinal Tap." While clearly a spoof, Christopher Guest's This Is Spinal Tap nonetheless is a mockumentary that reveals aspects of culture more truthfully than some documentaries do.
Not all mock-docs are whimsical in nature: Others reveal the darker sides of society and offer commentary on our morbid obsession with violence, celebrity, underlying political corruption, and conspiracy theories. The last topic's explored in Canadian filmmaker Matthew Johnson's Operation Avalanche. Distributed by VICE Films, the "lost footage" mockumentary follows a group of novice filmmakers-turned-CIA agents tasked to fake the moon landing in 1969.
Johnson went to extreme lengths to capture some of the film's footage, going as far as to film at NASA without authorization by posing as an actual documentary filmmaker. Filled with wit, humor, and sharp historical commentary, Operation Avalanche explores the common tinfoil-hat notion that there's more to government activities than meets the eye. (If you're looking for more from Johnson, his webseries Nirvanna the Band the Show is making the leap to VICELAND next year.)
If Operation Avalanche leaves you thirsting for more mockumentaries, here's five more that are worth your time.
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash
Six years before Spinal Tap, there was this mock-"rockumentary" following the Rutles, an obvious parody of the Beatles that first appeared on British television (and later, Saturday Night Live). Although the 1978 cult film didn't gain much traction in the US, All You Need Is Cash directly inspired Spinal Tap and dialed up the popularity of the rock-mockumentaries to eleven. (Quizzically, the Rutles eventually went on tour and created their own music, with two of their singles ending up on UK charts.)
As this truly bizarre election day rapidly approaches, the political satire Bob Roberts is more relevant than ever—a great watch if you want to both laugh and cry over our current political climate. Directed by and starring Tim Robbins, the film follows the corrupt, right-wing, titular character as he runs for president of the United States. With money and ambition on his side, the conservative candidate does anything to win—including intense scheming and unabashed pandering to voters. Remind you of someone?
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America takes political satire a few steps further, presenting an alternate history of what would happen if the South won the Civil War—a dystopia where black people are sold online, electronic shackles are advertised on TV, and the most popular entertainment program is a Cops-inspired show about runaway slaves. While clearly absurdist in nature, the biting satire uncomfortably reflects some of their daily horrors that occur in the United States. Some of the products featured in the film's faux-advertisements actually existed in the past, suggesting that the film isn't as farfetched as we'd hope.
What We Do in the Shadows
Many mockumentaries so closely straddle the line between reality and fiction that viewers could be conceivably tricked into believing they're actual documentaries. That's definitely not the case with What We Do in the Shadows. Directed, written, and starring filmmaker Taika Waititi (who's helming the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok), the offbeat comedy follows vampire roommates living in New Zealand and gives an "insider's look" at what it's really like as supernatural creatures adapting to the 21st century. If you want to find out what happens when vampires stop being polite and start getting real, this bloody good mockumentary is it.
Man Bites Dog
On the other side of the mockumentary spectrum lies Man Bites Dog, a controversial, utterly disturbing horror movie. The 1992 Belgian film follows a documentary crew who gets sucked into a life of crime while profiling an unapologetic serial killer. Featuring graphic scenes of brutal murder, gang rape, and various other sadistic acts, Man Bites Dog is hard to stomach—because of its disturbing nature, the movie was banned in Sweden and earned a NC-17 rating in the US—but it's also become an important piece of modern cinema.
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