Docbox Books

Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight,
Faking it: Mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001: ISBN 0-7190-5640-1
Tochigi Akira

Just around the time that I was reading this book, I also began work watching videos at home for the final judging of the short film competition of a film festival to be held in Chofu, Tokyo. Among the works that had passed the initial screening were several classified as “fake documentaries.” It happened that I felt uneasy about this, and when I called up Obitani Yuri, the filmmaker coordinating the competition, he told me that at the festival, they had decided on the label “fake documentary” for works that had both the “drama” and “documentary” blanks checked off on the entry forms, or for those works that couldn’t easily be categorized as dramas or documentaries. When I heard the explanation, I felt somehow satisfied as well.

But what could that “satisfaction” have been? If we presuppose that we understand drama and documentary as mutually exclusive genres, then having trouble telling dramas apart from documentaries meant that these entries had made us doubt their mutual exclusivity. What’s more, the fact that we find it acceptable to label these works “fake documentaries” means simply that we share an understanding of the current state of affairs: that by blurring the border between these two, enough works have been produced to form their own genre. How then should we conceive of this phenomenon, in which it is hard to tell drama from documentary?

This book is an ambitious effort to grasp the dynamics of documentaries in a theoretical way, by defining the “mock documentary” of the subtitle on the basis of careful discussion. The English word “mock” means to trick someone through imitation; to get a concrete sense of this cinematic style, you could see the New Zealand film that the authors also adduces as one example, Forgotten Silver (1996, dir. Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and Costa Botes). This movie traces the life of a New Zealander who has been forgotten by history, in spite of his having perfected the feature-length film before Griffith, and of his being the first in the world to invent color film and the talkie. It is a work composed with many elements in the genre of the documentary—the testimony of family and film colleagues, found footage, and the narration of the directors, who appears in the film—but in fact it is totally fiction. Incidentally, when this work premiered in Japan a few years ago, the distributor called it a “mockumentary.”

In thinking about the cinematic form called “mock documentary,” the authors invoke the bi-level framework that the film scholar Bill Nichols proposed in his analysis of the forms of representation in the documentary. First, they divide the work into three aspects: the intent of the creator, the text, and audience reception. They look at the texts starting with the five modes (the expositional, observational, interactive, reflexive, and performative) that function in the genre of documentary. Then, by establishing these coordinates, They go on to define the “mock documentary” as fiction that parodies or puts into doubt the genre of specific cultures or documentary, though its appropriation of the codes and conventions cultivated by the documentary. In other words, the “mock documentary” becomes for them a work with a tendency to fictionality intending a fundamental overturning, give or take questions of degree, of the documentary genre’s tendency to factuality: the insistence of a cinematic discourse, arising from the relationships between image and sound and what they denote, that it expresses not fiction but the truth. They use the word “tendency” here because they see fact and fiction not as essentialistic binary opposites, but as a continuum that presupposes fiction and non-fiction as its extremes. Directing their attention to three degrees of the “mock documentary”—parody, critique and hoax, and deconstruction—they go on to analyze specific works.

In recent years, there has been a violent internal division within the genre of the documentary, and many works have appeared in hybrid forms in which it is “hard to tell drama from documentary.” The authors’ argument—that non-documentaries with a strong sense of reflexivity, which have appropriated the codes and conventions of the documentary, have been born from this fluid state of affairs— extremely exciting; you could say that it does not stop at merely defining the “mock documentary,” but rather has a direct bearing on discussions of the “essence” of the documentary. If I were to be so bold as to state any complaint, it would be that the pieces treated in this book are limited to Euro-America, as the authors themselves acknowledge. In cultural spheres such as Japan or the countries of the Third World, which in their fiction films are thought to have cultivated alternative texts that differ from the “classic Hollywood movie,” would the codes and conventions that are the target of appropriation and critique in the “mock documentary” be the same as those in Euro-America? This problem unavoidably presupposes the investigation of the possibilities for the “mock documentary” in Japan, and the work of finding a way to trace conceptually the tradition of the documentary in Japan, so these are topics left for us to pursue.

—Translated by Micah Auerback


Tochigi Akira
Guest researcher at the National Film Center in Tokyo, freelance writer and translator on film. Recent translations include Amos Gitai and Annette Michelson, “Filming Israel: A Conver-sation” (Hihyo kukan 3).

Patricia Rodden Zimmermann,
States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies (Visible Evidence Volume 7)
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000: ISBN 0-8166-2823-8
Wakai Makiko

Unlike “independent cinema,” “independent documentary” has no distinct image as a label. There is a reason for this, and in fact, in Patricia Rodden Zimmermann’s formulation of the term, “independent documentary” works rather as a counter-discourse, one grounded in the practical and theoretical aspects of documentary, constantly blurring the borders of the nation, and contesting any myth of static history.

A resource book for unraveling the history of the American “independent documentary” since the late 1980s, a genre inseparable from the American political arena which enables and disables democracy, the book describes an overwhelming number of films and videos. Connecting old and new theories of documentary, philosophy and history in discourse woven through with references to feminist theorists like Trinh T. Minh-ha and bell hooks, Zimmermann, a distinguished professor of film and photography at Ithaca College who also works as a media activist, maps documentary’s current state of emergency as well as the future of the “independent documentary.”

For Zimmermann, “wars” and “ambushes” comprise the backbone of “independent documentary,” and States of Emergency takes this approach as well. As she declares passionately, “This is a globalized war between the imagined white nation-state and the new formations of diaspora, new subjectivities, exile.” (pp.13) The battlefield is the culture of Globalization; let the war begin. In this vein, the first half of the book maps out three wars; the first is the war or crisis situation against the globalization of media and the radical budget-slicing for the arts led by New Right convervatism in the early 1990s in the US which effectively lead to the breakdown of equal media access for all, a core concept of democracy. Focussing on videos like Stop the Church and programs like PBS’s Frontline that show independent works in the context of American politics, Zimmermann critically shows how a drastic reduction in arts funding occurred over the past decade and was maneuvered into attacks on “independent documentary”—identified issues like HIV, sexuality, disabilities, reproductive rights and race.

Zimmermann’s second war is that of “mobile battlefields in the air” in which documentaries fight wars through memories and trauma like mass rape in Bosnia (the subject of Calling the Ghosts) and Japanese-American internment (the subject of History and Memory). These documentaries work as counter-discourse to state documentaries that would justify their wars. More importantly, these “independent documentaries” go beyond representation of victimhood through processes of giving or listening to testimonies and recovering lost or forgotten memories, thereby creating “hybrid spaces.”

The third war consists of “ground wars” that reclaim the bodies of marginal identities in issues like homelessness, disabilities and sexuality by creating new spaces in documentary. This involves the people in the film, the filmmakers and the audience, and is the approach used in documentaries such as Take Over (the book’s cover image), When Billy Broke His Head and Testing the Limits. These wars exist within the United States and within the videos, and allow neither the audience nor the filmmakers to keep a safe distance and to simply watch them.

As camcorders and smaller budgets bring new ways of countering the mass media and the marginalization of the “independent documentary,” new ambushes, the topic of the second half of the book, are not only a subversive tactic but also hope for the endangered species of “independent documentary” and democracy. Focusing first on the visual imagery of Reproductive Rights discourse, Zimmermann theorizes the ambush of the female body by the “technologies, discourse and the imaginary of reproduction.” (pp.152) The “feminist oppositional public sphere” in the visual is critical in countering the erasure of the female body in public culture, and the possibility of this sphere depends on videos that would reinstate the female body in reproductive rights discourse. There is ambivalence and uncertainty in this section, although Zimmermann tries to remain optimistic about the future; this reflects perhaps the current situation that has the US Reproductive Rights movement stuck in a visual black hole. For this reason, this section becomes something of a battle cry from Zimmermann the feminist fighting a guerilla war.

The last of Zimmermann’s suggested ambushes posits “independent documentary” as “the pirates of the New Image Order.” Migrating in the sea, documentaries can pirate images and information to “de-” and “re-contextualize” them. Various ways of pirating are introducing here, for example the use of radio waves and satellite images, and many examples come from activist works-in-progress. Most likely, they are works by collectives whose great names (Paper Tiger and Barbie Liberation Organization, to give two examples) stand themselves as manifestoes.

Piracy enables us to fight the war in globalized media that crosses beyond the traditional would-be-fight of old and new media. Digital space is a migrant home that becomes the battleground for fair access and fair use of images. “Independent documentary,” itself a fluid entity, changes the meaning and role of “documentary” in the digital era. And so while this book proclaims no winners or losers, it offers a great deal of hope.

One difficulty with the book is the very “real” one of access to many of the intriguing “independent documentaries” cited, ironically proving Zimmermann’s point. And let’s not forget about other “independent documentaries” around the globe. These points aside, however, readers cannot finish reading this book and sit back, just as the audience cannot keep its distance while watching any of the “independent documentaries” described. Rather, the book, like its subject, provokes action, and so, since many of us will not be able to experience the videos firsthand, I recommend experiencing this with—and through—States of Emergency.


Wakai Makiko
Member of women’s video group Video Juku, whose recent productions include Breaking the History of Silence—The Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal for the Trial of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery. Current activities include studying, living and making a video on a bike shop in Dublin.

Segawa Yuji,
The Charm of Beauty: The Truth about Riefenstahl
(Bi no maryoku—Riefenstahl no shinjitsu)
Tokyo: Pandora, 2001. (In Japanese): ISBN 4-7684-7818-2
Okumura Masaru

Film research today is quite different from that of 20 years ago. One of the most dramatic changes can be seen in the increased precision of film analysis. This has come about as a result of the widespread use of electronic equipment such as video and computers, which has made it easy to analyze works on the shot and frame level. We can now observe many examples of minute and precise analysis of film data. The Charm of Beauty can be described as one example embodying this trend.

The Charm of Beauty makes a detailed investigation of all the works in which peerless female director Leni Riefenstahl was involved in, regardless of whether she directed or appeared in them. This book’s study of Riefenstahl, with its emphasis on detailed analysis of all her works, has no peer anywhere in the world, and is important even in this aspect alone. In particular, Segawa devotes considerable time and pages to Riefenstahl’s masterpiece Olympia (1938). Here, through painstaking investigation into every single shot, he reveals unique visual methods of composition that one would not usually pick up when watching the film. Specifically, he exposes the fact that reuse of images, use of reconstruction, and juxtaposition of shots out of time sequence were carried out consciously. This reviewer had not previously noticed some of the points demonstrated, but that is not to say that these techniques themselves are completely unknown.However, it is important to note that Olympia has been thoroughly and demonstratively reworked in its entirety. Riefenstahl’s style and the essence of her films are condensed into this film. This means that Riefenstahl’s manipulation and processing, which risk destroying the basis of documentary, are very important elements in creating her unique brand of visual beauty. Riefenstahl’s films are born in a violent burst of fireworks from the site of fiction and nonfiction, and emerge splendid from the flames.

So why does The Charm of Beauty attempt to conduct such a tenacious and detailed analysis of this work? The fact that Riefenstahl still promotes debate, even half a century after Olympia stunned the world, means that Riefenstahl is still important as a filmmaker—debate about the actress-director and her films continues today. However, Segawa appears to see all of the criticism and debate that has been conducted to date as faulty and remiss, and singles out the lack of actual proof demonstrated in past research, “unproductive” biography, and an official media position for criticism. This book was published in an attempt to break through such views (perhaps they did not go far enough in the search for truth?), and show a complete picture of Riefenstahl.

The most common of all debates on Riefenstahl are those on her relationship with Nazism (or fascism), and with the propaganda deeply entangled with Nazism. Therefore it is only natural that this book, which takes issue with existing evaluations and popularly-held opinions, should place such issues at the core of the debate. The author’s mention of “showing the full picture” can only be a reference to finding some kind of conclusion to these problems.

But was this attempt successful? This book should be praised for the way it reveals little-known facts about Riefenstahl’s feelings and circumstances. The conclusion, however, leaves something to be desired. I suspect Segawa is ultimately trying to say that it is unreasonable that only Riefenstahl has been singled out for so much attack in the post-war period, and that her critics’ position lacks rationality. By way of argument, Segawa says that the Olympics is a festival in which the world’s top athletes compete, pitting their mental and physical stamina against each other. Therefore even if Olympia really is a pursuit of healthy physical beauty, there is nothing especially strange about this. Segawa also suggests that not all those who glorify physicality and beauty are Fascists. He argues that Riefenstahl’s films are not the only propaganda films; rather, many such films have been produced at many different times in many different countries. There is not enough space here to examine the grounds of these arguments thoroughly. Put simply, however, I feel that Segawa’s statements on the basis for his arguments harbor a danger of making all things relative—to make uniform all that is different, and all that is not different.

So why is Olympia, rather than Ichikawa Kon’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) or even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), always the target of criticism? Why, in this type of discussion, are Rienfenstahl’s works alone made the subject of debate? Why was she alone not made exempt of responsibility, instead of forever being criticized? Certainly, some of the criticism has been unjust, based on mistaken perceptions. However, in general, the reactions of Rienfenstahl’s critics have not been extreme. Nor are they completely without base. This is because the subject of Victory of the Will and Olympia is none other than the Nazis, who committed the worst crime in all human history (or the festival the Nazis produced). What’s more, the visual beauty these films construct from that was so unparalleled as to captivate the world with its overwhelming power. The issue is not what Riefenstahl was thinking of at the time or what her intentions were. The problem is that in the end her films were both pro-Nazi, romanticizing Nazism, and also achieved a high level of artistic perfection. Riefenstahl’s documentaries cannot be put into the same category as other such propaganda, but must continue to have a special status.

While The Charm of Beauty did not completely ignore the issues mentioned above, it is unclear how they relate to the book’s conclusion. As a critic, I would be interested in knowing the author’s interpretations of these points.

—Translated by Toby Rushbrook


Okumura Masaru
Lectures part-time at Waseda University and Nihon University. Specializes in the relationship between film and politics. Translations undertaken and supervised include Theo Angelopolis and First Cut: The Editors of American Cinema (both from Film Art-sha).