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If one film exists as a sort of blueprint for the mock documentary, it is No Lies, even though it has little to do with the films that followed it. It is at once the simplest and the most complex of all mock documentaries: its scope is small, its duration is brief, and its filming is technically uncomplicated. Yet, at the same time, it poses larger questions about the nature of the documentary: Can a documentary really tell the truth, and, if it can, how can we know?
No Lies posits itself as a documentary in the vérité mode. Dirk Eitzen, in his article "When Is a Documentary? Documentary as a Mode of Reception," neatly sums up the filmic cues that identify No Lies as a documentary:
"The film scrupulously copies the look of a vérité documentary. The camera is handheld and the camerawork is a bit awkward, the rooms are unevenly lit, there is no nondiegetic sound, and the films consists of what appears to be a single unbroken take. ... The acting in the film is impeccable—as naturally self-conscious (or self-consciously natural) as a 'real' vérité performance."
It is hard to characterize what makes a performance "real," but I, like Eitzen, believe that the performance of the two players in the film — Leverington in particular — is of the utmost important in fooling the audience into thinking that the film is documenting an actual event. Leverington progresses from bemused to slightly exasperated to visibly upset to tearfully distraught in the course of a fifteen-minute film, exhibiting range that Meryl Streep can only dream of. In fact, Meryl Streep could never have played this role, largely because she is Meryl Streep. A recognizable face would have spoiled the illusion instantly.
What else about No Lies makes it so believable? There are the casual references to real-life people and things—the two characters' mutual friends, Night of the Hunter, New York City geography — that lend the film an air of authenticity. I would also argue that the very subject matter that Block has chosen—one woman's rape — pushes the film more toward the real than to the fictional. Rape is rarely presented lightly in films; it could conceivably be on e of the societal problems on which Frederick Wiseman himself would turn his camera — it has that kind of "institutional" power. Treating a dire subject in a matter-of-fact manner is characteristic of the vérité style. More explicitly, cinema vérité is known for presenting a controversial subject in a matter-of-fact style that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions after being presented with "objectively presented" evidence.
But, as mentioned above, No Lies is more than just a critique of the vérité style. When the credits appear at the end of the film and provide the only clue that the film is a "fake" — not a "real" — documentary, the first-time viewer may be more than a little puzzled. Eitzen writes that the film adheres so rigorously to documentary form that first-time viewers who were unaware of the film's true nature often become "visibly disturbed" at how the character of the filmmaker treats the woman. Upon being told that it is a fiction film, these same people redirect much of their anger to Mitchell Block, the man who made the film. "Viewers now feel angry at having been duped," he writes. Eitzen attributes this anger to the fact that the film lies about its true nature. It pretends to be a documentary, but is not. He states that No Lies is "a fiction film about rape, but it is a documentary about documentaries."
But No Lies is unusual among mock documentaries, as it has the power to enrage its viewers by its central deception. Also, its principal goal is to dupe the audience, something not found in such extreme measures in later mock documentaries (though Man Bites Dog (1991) and Forgotten Silver (1996) come close). Most of the other mock documentaries discussed here, however shocking and arresting they may appear, are played largely for comedy. Why, then, have I identified No Lies as a sort of blueprint for mock documentary when its intentions are so dramatically different from those of its predecessors? Partially because intentions are not as important as the subversion of the documentary form, and partly because No Lies, like the other mock documentaries I will discuss, leaves us with an important lingering question: Could it actually have happened?

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Copyright © Ethan de Seife, author of Cultographies: This is Spinal Tap. Reprinted with permission.

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