A-List: Documentaries and Mocumentaries
By Josh Spiegel
August 13, 2009
For a long time, it was widely assumed among the general filmgoing public that the only way to mock the sometimes-stodgy form of filmmaking known as documentaries was to make fun of it in sly, sometimes crass ways. With the upcoming release of the sci-fi thriller District 9, which employs handheld camerawork as much as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, it's time to accept that Christopher Guest and his pals no longer have the market cornered. Mockumentaries are no longer for comedies; what's more, documentaries are fascinating in ways that most people would never have imagined; last year's Waltz With Bashir may be the only foreign documentary that is completely animated.
For a long time, of course, documentaries were just people talking into cameras, discussing histories from the recent and distant past. In 1984, things changed dramatically, even though a certain heavy metal band wasn't the first to plumb the depths of the mockumentary (though said band may well have inspired the term). Nowadays, filmmakers are constantly working to break down barriers of the documentary. Some have become auteurs of the genre; from Michael Moore to Ken Burns to Errol Morris, documentary filmmakers are easily as well-known for their stylistic choices and their topics as are most mainstream filmmakers.
So, in honor of the awesome-looking District 9, which is likely the only movie to have aliens and humans coexist in documentary-style footage (I think we can all agree that Cloverfield didn't feature any kind of happy coexistence), this week's A-List looks at some great documentaries and mockumentaries. Two movies that won't show up, though, are Blair Witch and Cloverfield; though these certainly paved the way for District 9, I have to be honest and tell you that, I think, the first is wildly overrated and the second is just not that great. There will be, though, lighthearted mockumentaries (moreso than those two horror movies, for sure), and some heavy documentaries that will make you think. Let's take a look at the list.
Roger & Me
Nowadays, people have an opinion on Michael Moore. This, in fact, may be one of the few statements I can make about the man that wouldn't garner vitriol from either side of the argument. Of course, even in 1988, when Roger & Me was released, people had their opinions of Moore. However, it wasn't until the 21st century, with movies like Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko that Moore got the attention of pretty much everyone in this country. Though each of those movies are, in some way, good (the latter is the most accomplished, partly because Moore doesn't show up on screen for the first hour), his best film remains his first major mainstream effort, about how the auto industry was eating Michigan alive even in the 1980s.
Moore spends most of the movie discussing his efforts in trying to get Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors at the time, to talk to him about why hundreds of thousands of jobs were being taken away from workers in Flint, Michigan in times of crisis. There are, of course, diversions along the way, as Moore invites the viewers into the homes and lives of various Flint citizens whose lives have changed for the worse because of General Motors. Moore doesn't get to talk to Smith, who is always close to the camera but manages to evade it easily. That doesn't mean that Moore is unable to prove a point or even win a moral victory here. As disappointing as it is to not see Smith get a bit of a verbal shellacking, the evidence is damning enough. This is a hot-button issue dealt with as wildly as possible.