In A.O. Scott’s article for the New York Times, “How Real Does it Feel?,” he raises a very strong and valid point that “It’ not just that the definition of “documentary” itself is mutable: unlike other journalistic and quasi-journalistic forms, no code of ethics has ever been agreed upon by practitioners of the art, and what rules of thumb there are tend to be temporary, controversial and broken as soon as they are made.” Scott goes on to state that, “Movies that look or feel like documentaries are much more numerous, and far more perplexing, especially since video truthiness has become the default setting of so much media.”
Let us then consider these points in connection with Peter Jackson and Costa Botes’ Forgotten Silver (1995), a short feature-length mockumentary viewed in class which appears to stretch the bounds of mockumentarian integrity beyond even the levels that Jackson and Botes themselves may have thought existed, thus appearing to violate the unspoken “code of ethics” that may or may not exist inherently within the form itself.
When the film was shown on television in New Zealand in late October 1995, it was reported on the local news that Jackson and Botes had discovered an actual “long-lost” filmmaker by the name of Colin McKenzie. When it was later revealed to be a hoax, there was outrage in New Zealand that Jackson and Botes had so seamlessly fabricated a local kind of folk legend virtually out of thin air (perhaps lent extra credibility by integrating actual history and news events into their creation) that they felt duped to the point of anger. Did Jackson and Botes realize the furor their invention would cause? Or did they merely believe it to be all in good fun? If they did realize the angry reaction their film would inspire, did they care? These are the kind of questions raised not by the film itself, but by its reception and by its tiny sliver of a place in film history.
The film itself, then, is a curiosity because it seems to benefit so hugely from the air of “authenticity” it exudes within the moment of watching it, only to be undermined later by the realization that it was all a kind of absurdist in-joke on the part of Jackson, his co-writer/director Botes and the various actual film scholars, critics (such as Leonard Maltin), actors (such as Sam Neill) and distributors (including one of the Weinstein brothers), who labored to make it appear, generally speaking, as “real” as possible. Of course, this is all part of the in-joke on the part of Jackson: get a historian/critic like Maltin to weigh in the on the validity of McKenzie’s work and his posthumous place in the annals of film history, combine it with Neill’s stamp of approval and inspiration and through in Weinstein’s adoration and foaming-at-the-mouth distributor mentality (a self-parody, or is it?) with just a slight sideways wink and you have all the makings of a convincing mockumentary that only those with an appreciation of what Jackson is actually doing, versus those who believe what is going on throughout is actually happening, will understand on a whole other level.
Among the more “realistic” elements of the film would be the recreation of the various silent projects of Colin McKenzie, culminating in the “world premiere” of a silent epic called Salome, reportedly “lost” and “rediscovered” by Jackson and company, directed by McKenzie himself. The actual footage of a silent epic seemingly directed by McKenzie feels as authentic as any silent film you could imagine from the time in which it was supposedly “made.”
Take, for instance, the physical look of the film-within-a-film: the color tinting, the full-frame aspect ratio, the nips and scratches on the print itself (consistent with any and all silent film prints that were “discovered” during the process of “rediscovering” Colin McKenzie and his work), and the histrionic acting style of the various cast members. It all has the air of authenticity, exuding melodrama in the style of The Birth of a Nation, Cabiria, Battleship Potemkin and other actual silent epics of their ilk made around the time of Colin McKenzie’s supposed oeuvre.
McKenzie’s reputation and validity as a genuine film artist ever so slightly ahead of his time is furthered by the “discovery” of some footage of him trying to take the first manned flight of an airplane some time before the Wright Brothers. Jackson’s faked footage of this incident is just as convincing as every other silent film “reproduction” within Forgotten Silver, including the wannabe Buster Keaton-esque star who goes around throwing pies in the faces of ordinary citizens, including women and children, as well as a high-ranking politician.
If there are those elements of Jackson’s film that “feel real,” the question of “authenticity” becomes complicated, however, by his slightly more absurdist touches, from the “steam-powered film camera” (evidently a camera built into a train?) to the notion that he would make an entire film in Chinese without having the “foresight” to invent subtitles. There is, then, a blurring of the lines between what is believable and what is clearly pulling our leg. This returns us to the reaction to the film: whether it be the New Zealanders who were so taken in by Jackson and his team’s “discovery” or those who saw the film and knew it was an elaborate and, seemingly, not at all mean-spirited (in fact, rather playful) in-joke on the part of Jackson and company.
As one review puts it, “With some “mockumentaries” (or “meta-documentaries”, “pseudo-documentaries”, or whatever else you want to call them), it’s best not to know beforehand that they’re fakes. The opposite is true of Forgotten Silver” (Berardinelli). Personally, I found that the film was so convincing at times that I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching a mockumentary, even though I knew on some level that the whole thing was just an elaborate in-joke.
Compare this, whether as intentioned by the syllabus or not, to Block’s No Lies (1974), a short mockumentary viewed during the same two-hour class session, which takes on the cinema-verite style to give a confessional interview in a woman’s apartment and question her about her side of a story claiming she was raped and then, on some level, wronged by the police during her initial questioning after the apparent crime was committed.
Here is a film that feels entirely believable from beginning to almost-end, with a young filmmaker aiming his grainy 16mm (?) camera at a woman in a badly-lit apartment, standing most of the time as she is getting ready to go out for the evening. As the interview begins, it seems innocent enough. As one classmate put it during discussion, the filmmaker “appears to have just turned on his camera and started filming their conversation.” As the 14 minute film goes on, however, his line of questioning gets increasingly ugly and before too long he is evidently poking and prodding too deeply into the details of her rape. She is defensive and yet forthcoming, and he begins to not believe her as his questions get further and further intimate. Ultimately, the question of belief or not becomes not just the audience’s issue, but the filmmaker as well.
And then comes the glass of ice water in the face followed by a cold, hard proverbial slap across the cheek: a disclaimer barely readable on the left-hand side of the screen at the end of the ending credits in which the filmmakers reveal that the story is fictional and that what we’ve been watching is a couple of actors portraying a filmmaker making a documentary about a woman’s rape and a woman playing a woman claiming to have been raped.
The reaction to this one in the rational audience member is understandably one of disgust, outrage or even anger because of the seemingly tasteless treatment of “serious subject matter.” Is this reaction any more or less valid than that of the New Zealanders who felt let down by Forgotten Silver’s elaborate fiction? Who can say? The fact that this film appears to be not an in-joke, not a put-on, but a genuine interview by a genuine filmmaker genuinely wondering if a genuine woman was genuinely raped makes the ending all the more disturbing – had I not seen it in a mockumentary class I could’ve believed it was true. Indeed, I felt like it was true until the very ending credit.
Forgotten Silver, on the other hand, has elements which make it feel both genuine and like a put-on, an in-joke. As I see it, Jackson is playing on some level on some audience members’ knowledge of film history and on the plausibility of some hoaxes that could be played on an unsuspecting public. As Berardinelli wrote, it makes Forgotten Silver more fun to be aware that it is a put-on rather than to believe it real. But then how to account for the fact that I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching a fake documentary the entire time? Well…some of us just want to believe.