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F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing

Alexandra Juhasz
Jesse Lerner
Volume: 17
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    F Is for Phony
    Book Description:

    The essays in F Is for Phony discuss a broad scope of works and explore issues raised by “fake docs” such as the fiction/documentary divide and the ethics of reality-based manipulation. Contributors: Steve Anderson, Catherine L. Benamou, Mitchell W. Block, Luis Buñuel, Marlon Fuentes, Craig Hight, Charlie Keil, Alisa Lebow, Eve Oishi, Robert F. Reid-Pharr, Gregorio C. Rocha, Jane Roscoe, Catherine Russell, Nizan Shaked, Elisabeth Subrin.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9541-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: Phony Definitions and Troubling Taxonomies of the Fake Documentary
    (pp. 1-36)

    And there’s no law that says we can’t start fake and end real. So, there is a movie jail: a massive, overcrowded multiplex looping this year’s flops, serving stale popcorn and overly syrupy Coke, with an antiquated sound system, weak bulbs, and no stadium seating. Filmmakers are sent there for infractions against movie laws: breaking codes of continuity editing, going over budget. Viewers, too, get hard time, for crimes of self-awareness. Films get locked up for engaging in falsehoods; breaches in labeling garner the greatest penalties. But all this is silly—although no longer fake—and that’s the point. “The...


    • 1 Steel Engines and Cardboard Rockets: The Status of Fiction and Nonfiction in Early Cinema
      (pp. 39-49)

      It was once a commonplace of film histories to root the opposed tendencies of cinema toward documentary or fiction in the respective achievements of early film pioneers Louis Lumière and Georges Méliès.¹ The obvious differences between the engine of steam and steel pulling into Ciotat station and the cardboard rocket hurtling toward a papier-mâché moon were cited as incontestable textual evidence of this split heritage. Although such a schema offered the comforting historical coherence that binary oppositions often provide, it also implied that these tendencies were clear from the outset—that the categories of fact and fiction were demarcated and...

    • 2 La Venganza de Pancho Villa: A Lost and Found Border Film
      (pp. 50-58)

      On January 5, 1914, Frank N. Thayer, representing Mutual Film Corporation, and General Pancho Villa, head of the Constitutionalist Army in the Mexican revolution, gathered in the office of attorney Gunther Lessing in El Paso, Texas, to sign a contract. In it, Pancho Villa agreed to give exclusive rights to Mutual to film the triumphant campaign of his army on its way to Mexico City. As a result of this contract, the film,The Life of General Villa(William C. Cabanné, 1914),¹ was made, becoming one of the first biographical films ever made and “one of the oddest episodes in...

    • 3 Trashing Shulie: Remnants from Some Abandoned Feminist History
      (pp. 59-66)

      Shulieuses conventions of direct cinema to explore the residual impact of the 1960s, and to challenge the parameters of historical evidence or material. The project was initiated upon my seeing an obscure 16 mm documentary portrait of a young Chicago art student, shot in 1967 by four male graduate film students. Their subject was a young Shulamith Firestone, months before she moved to New York and tried to start a revolution. Other than a few screenings in 1968, the film has sat on a shelf for thirty years.

      MyShulie(let’s call it #2) is a scene-by-scene recreation of...

    • 4 No Lies about Ruins
      (pp. 67-75)

      When the cops busted theVeracruzanos, they thought they had some major league looters of pre-Columbian artifacts on their hands. Although such objects have long been protected as national patrimony in Mexico, the high prices they fetch in the auction houses and galleries of New York and Europe, the relatively unmonitored and isolated condition of many of the country’s archaeological sites, and the country’s relative poverty all conspire to perpetuate the contraband traffic in antiquities.¹ The destructiveness of those engaged in gathering objects for this illegal trade—sawing, chopping, and prying objects off pyramids and out of tombs—deprives researchers...

    • 5 The Past in Ruins: Postmodern Politics and the Fake History Film
      (pp. 76-88)

      Since the late 1970s, theorists of historiography have challenged the assumption that the goal of history writing should be the progressive assembling of “larger historical truths” into grand libraries of fact and interpretation.¹ Hayden White’s influential writings on narrative and historiography claim that the work of the historian has never been merely the transliteration of a preexistent past into a documentary medium. Rather, he argues, history is fundamentally constituted through the emplotment of historical data into recognizable narratives and literary tropes.² Although White’s intervention initially proved more readily assimilable in the emerging field of cultural studies than within history proper,...


    • 6 Land without Bread
      (pp. 91-98)

      Before you see the film which has been announced for this meeting, I should like to tell you very briefly something about this district of Spain which you are about to visit, especially about some aspects of it which do not appear in the film.

      When I made this film, my intention was to give the bare facts, not to interpret them or to invent new ones. I was drawn to this place because of its drama and awe-inspiring poetry. The little I had read of it had made a deep impression on me. I knew that there, for centuries,...

    • 7 Surrealist Ethnography: Las Hurdes and the Documentary Unconscious
      (pp. 99-115)

      Luis Buñuel’s 1932 filmLas Hurdes(a.k.a.Tierra sin pan) may be the only actual example of a surrealist documentary film, and its experimentation provides an important example for understanding more contemporary play with documentary representation. The very possibility of documentary veracity is put in question by Buñuel, partly by working within the terms of ethnography and challenging its humanist conventions, and partly by pushing an aesthetic of realism into the realm of the absurd. Produced within the modernist context of interwar Europe, Buñuel’s film coldly calculates the cruelties of history, delimiting the realm of the European ethnic repressed.


    • 8 Extracts from an Imaginary Interview: Questions and Answers about Bontoc Eulogy
      (pp. 116-129)

      Q: What was the impetus in making this film?

      A: My work in photography was being generated by an increasingly narrative subtext, ideas about duration and the use of history and ritual and their artifacts. I was also fascinated by how certain bodies of knowledge and their representational strategies were codified into structures and surfaces that had their own intrinsic valences and ways of reception. For example, anthropology and, specifically, ethnographic film had historically contained epistemological assumptions about the Other. These are deeply embedded in a historical tradition that can be traced to the early eighteenth century. On a personal...

    • 9 Makes Me Feel Mighty Real: The Watermelon Woman and the Critique of Black Visuality
      (pp. 130-140)

      The conceit of Cheryl Dunye’s 1995 featureThe Watermelon Womanis that the archive of the lived reality of black lesbian women is so scattered and fractured that it becomes necessary for the artist to weave the historical narrative herself, to uncover through the practice of her art bits and pieces of usable evidence, remnants of an early version of liberated black lesbianism. The film follows the character Cheryl, played by Dunye herself, in her search through videos, books, and the memories of an odd collection of characters, and as she looks for incomplete and compromised narratives, stories, and clues...


    • 10 The Artifice of Realism and the Lure of the ″Real″ in Orson Welles′s F for Fake and Other T(r)eas(u)er(e)s
      (pp. 143-170)

      F for Fake(1973) is one of the last films that Orson Welles would complete and release (although certainly not his final project of significance) before his career was cut short by his death in 1985.¹ In essence, it is a film about the pitfalls of the art market, about how, in advanced capitalist modernity, the commodification of art inevitably undermines claims to authenticity, even as such claims are avidly established and pursued by the market’s arbiters (gallery owners, museum curators, and auctioneers) and beneficiaries (collectors) as a measure of cultural and monetary value. The trouble is, Welles suggests, that...

    • 11 Forgotten Silver: A New Zealand Television Hoax and Its Audience
      (pp. 171-186)

      Although documentary texts have traditionally enjoyed a privileged position in relation to fictional media as assumed bearers of truth and knowledge about the social world, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to maintain that status. Some of the more interesting recent research within the realm of documentary theory has centered on the long tradition of documentary hybrids, from drama-documentary¹ and nature documentary² to the more recent explosion of reality TV, docu-soap, and reality game-show formats.³ For both filmmakers and audiences, these hybrid forms have often profound implications for the continued stability of documentary as a recognizable form within audiovisual media....

    • 12 The Truth about No Lies (If You Can Believe It)
      (pp. 187-195)

      It’s July 2002 and I am observing a photo shoot for a new “reality” program that will air on TNT in 2003 called (working title)The Residents. R. J. Cutler, producer ofThe War Room(1993) and the Emmy Award–winning series (FOX and PBS)American High(2000), is the show’s executive producer, and his company, Actual Reality Pictures, has been making this work for the past year.The Residentsfollows a year in the life of surgical and family practice residents at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)’s medical centers in that city. The residents allowed a film...

    • 13 Screen Memories: Fakeness in Asian American Media Practice
      (pp. 196-220)

      With this metaphor, Morrison eloquently expresses the power and the potential of memory within historical and literary narrative.¹ Like the Mississippi River that has been “straightened,” its curves and broader banks buried under sand and mud, official history is recorded and passed down in partial and deceptively straightforward stories, due either to the limitations of the expressive form or to the demands of political interests. Memory, with its nonlinear nature, its emotional power, its ambiguities, gaps, and fissures, can function as a powerful challenge to official record, much like the river that “floods” the original places it is remembering. Because...


    • 14 Faking What? Making a Mockery of Documentary
      (pp. 223-237)

      This volume is predicated on a category, the fake documentary, that the editors have chosen over and above the term mockumentary, for reasons they have amply delineated. It is considered that mocking is only one possible stance that the fake documentary can take. It can also copy, mimic, gimmick, play with, scorn, ridicule, invert, reverse, repeat, ironize, satirize, affirm, subvert, pervert, convert, translate, and exceed documentary style (see Juhasz’ introduction to this volume). For all of that range of “play” available to them, the editors have chosen predominantly to focus on fiction films that mimic documentary style while somehow announcing...

    • 15 As a Finale: Reflections on a Phantasm
      (pp. 238-240)

      In the year 2001, we held a series of screenings in Claremont, California, about the fake documentary, F Is for Phony, that culminated in a symposium (and later, this collection). Imagine our surprise when, near the day’s end, an unidentified Claremont College undergraduate arose from the audience and demanded that we “screen his film here and now,” one he insisted would be of the greatest relevance to the day’s lofty proceedings. Imagine our greater surprise when we found that his film did throw into crisis all that had been discussed that day, as well as most of the issues central...

  6. Filmography
    (pp. 241-244)