Mockumentary hasn’t killed comedy – it perfectly skewers how we live now
Mockumentary is an ugly word, a lazy shorthand for a comedy in the style of a documentary. And yes, they can be ugly and lazy, at least when they are made badly. That may be why, every now and again, critics pop up to express the hope that they will go out of fashion and we will concentrate on more traditional forms of storytelling instead.
Recently, a Vice article complained that a “particular strain of mockumentary” has become so ubiquitous that it has infected many British non-mockumentary sitcoms with “the stifled mannerisms and awkward shuffling of the form”. It said: “The mockumentary needs to die for British comedy to survive.”
As someone who has just directed a BBC mockumentary, I would like to say: “Ouch.” I do agree that much British TV comedy isn’t innovative. But the existence of bad mockumentaries doesn’t make them inherently bad. In fact, the style is just as broad as the ever-evolving documentary style. And the documentary is arguably the most central artistic form of our time.
Today, most of us live our lives through a documentary lens. We record and curate our days through Snapchat, Instagram stories, Periscope, Twitter, Facebook Live. We’re dazzled by new visual languages on YouTube: mad GoPro stunts, dashboard cams, the supposedly erotic whisperings of ASMR and the infinitely varied world of vlogging. More than ever, our everyday lives are mediated through media, which suggests that mockumentary is the most appropriate comedic style to explore how we live now.
The joy of directing mockumentaries is that you can edit ruthlessly and cram in way more jokes and stories than you can fit in a regular sitcom. This turned out to be perfectly suited to the subject of the BBC3 show I helped make: an exploration of the mesmerisingly strange phenomenon of YouTube vloggers. The mockumentary language of jump-cuts, mixed media and silly cutaways are the same hyperactive editing styles adopted by YouTube personalities. We made sure to film with the same technology vloggers use – laptops, iPhones, GoPros and Canon SLRs. And this marked the first time I had to call for another take because the boom mic wasn’t in shot.
The world of superstar vloggers such as Zoella is fascinating but closely guarded. The only notable genuine documentaries about them are whitewashed brand promotion exercises, either made by fellow vloggers or by YouTube itself. So, even though the characters in Pls Like are imaginary, the care we took to make them as authentic as possible means our very silly fake show is arguably more truthful than the equivalent documentaries on the subject.
Mockumentaries are one of the most unforgiving styles of filming for cast and crew. There’s no artifice to hide behind, so you can instantly tell when someone’s doing too much acting, or if the camerawork is too slick. It’s quite tricky to plot a story that can be revealed only by what a documentary crew would happen to stumble upon.
Undeterred, many modern comedies and films borrow the unpretentious freewheeling camerawork and jump-cut style of the mockumentary without the full-on commitment of dressing up as real documentaries. The intent is to evoke the same spirit: that the characters you will meet will be slightly caught off guard. You get the fun of peeping through the paparazzi lens, while feeling slightly uncomfortable for intruding.
The Thick of It is the classic example of this on TV, while Britain’s leading cinematic practitioner is the director Ben Wheatley, in films such as Kill List, Sightseers and, now, Free Fire. Before making films, Wheatley created some of the internet’s first successful viral videos and directed news-style visual effects sequences in Armando Iannucci’s fake history show Time Trumpet, including a War of the Worlds-inspired vision of Tesco invading Denmark.
One of the many distinctive things about Wheatley’s filmmaking is how he takes crazy situations and grounds them in reality. “A handheld style makes you feel like there’s a human witnessing the story.” He told me. “You understand the point of view. It reacts how an eye reacts: the camera is intelligent and it looks on your behalf. It takes in emotion.”
The handheld camera can make you feel like you’re right there in the room, investigating. “It’s not just about jiggling the camera around. The camera becomes a character, so you have to brief the cameraman like you would an actor. There’s not just one style of handheld camerawork: it changes depending on the mood you’re trying to create, and even the weight and shape of the camera you’re using.”
He explains how in his adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise the camera moves are more fluid and controlled when the building is functioning properly, becoming more jerky and spontaneous when order starts to break down. “But in the end, the audience only gets upset about the style when it doesn’t work. After all, no one complains about the shaky-cam you see in the Bourne films or Saving Private Ryan – or on the news.”
When I explained the Vice article to Wheatley, he just giggled. “You can’t say one style is better or worse. You should just take each mockumentary on its merits. Do the actors have the skill to pull it off? Is it the right approach for the story you’re telling?”
When executed well, the mockumentary style informs how every character appears on camera. In The Office, David Brent comes across as a worse boss than he normally is: he’s further alienated from his staff because, while they are trying to hide from the camera’s gaze, he’s showing off to it. This character doesn’t just happen to be in a mockumentary: he appears the way he does precisely because of it.
For certain stories, the mockumentary is clearly a more appropriate form than a normal filmic style. But it’s not simply a choice between two options: there’s a third way, too. Instead of making a film look more like found footage, you can make found footage look more like a film. So, in Force Majeure, a movie about the marital fallout following a husband’s cowardly escape from an avalanche, the final scene is a beautifully shot yet incredibly accurate re-creation of some viral phone footage of an incompetent coach driver that the director found on the internet.
The final word on a criticism of mockumentaries is perhaps best left to a mockumentary about criticism. That’d be the Australian show Review; its fantastic American remake has just finished its final series on Comedy Central. The mockumentary satirises the limits of artistic criticism by forcing its milquetoast presenter to give inadequate star ratings to life experiences increasingly outside his comfort zone. Far from being a retread of The Office, this is just one of many inventive comedies that prove it’s not time to reject the mockumentary just yet. We should just try harder to do the format justice.