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Eitzen, in the first paragraph of his perceptive piece on defining documentary, writes, "All documentaries — whether they are deemed, in the end, to be reliable or not — revolve around questions of trust. A documentary is any motion picture that is susceptible to the question 'Might it be lying?'" Since we are discussing fake documentaries, or fiction films that adopt the cinematic constructs of documentaries, the question must be inverted. "Could it actually have happened?" is a relevant question to ask, as each and every mock documentary depends on its viewers believing its premise. That is not to say that viewers must believe that Spinal Tap is a real band or that a film crew would actually follow a serial killer on his "route" for This Is Spinal Tap and Man Bites Dog to work. But for the films to be successful in their co-opting of documentary form, viewers must believe that the subject matter of a mock documentary must in some way be part and parcel of the real world. There is nothing intrinsically implausible about a filmmaker deciding to film his favorite band as they embark on their first U.S. tour in six years; neither is it inconceivable that a film crew (albeit one with loose morals) would follow a serial murderer as he goes out on his rounds.
As I argue above, part of what makes a successful mock documentary is its ability to exist at the same time in the world of the fictive and the world of the actual. This is similar to Carl Plantinga's argument in an article entitled, "Defining Documentary: Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Projected Worlds." Plantinga adapts the theories of Nicholas Wolterstorff and asserts,
"In general, documentary refers to the actual world by taking an assertive stance toward its projected world. With fiction a fictive stance is taken, and the state of affairs presented is not asserted to be true."
Plantinga holds that a documentary film will make claims about the real world by taking a strong position, one way or another, on its own subject matter. And since any documentary's subject matter is part and parcel of the real world, the film can comment on the world around it implicitly by commenting on its own subject matter explicitly.
Though Plantinga discusses traditional documentary and makes no mention of its parodic forms, his ideas, interestingly, apply to mock documentaries, as well. In a mock documentary, the "assertive stance" taken is that, despite appearances to the contrary, the people and events depicted within the film exist in the real world. That is, mock documentary's assertive stance is that the specific world it projects does not really exist, though the larger world that encompasses that specific world does exist and can be studied through the lens of the smaller, more specific world. A mock documentary makes certain assertions about its subject matter, just as a traditional documentary does. The difference is that implicit in any assertion made by a mock documentary is the fact that its projected world, while a subset of the actual world, does not necessarily follow the actual world's guidelines for existence. So a mock documentary, like a traditional documentary, can refer to the actual world by making assertions about its projected world.

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

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