Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, January 19, 2007

Independent Film-Making Mocks At Mass Media Best Propaganda Tactics - Death Of A President

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Mass media have long had a choke-hold on the construction of everyday reality, but independent film making is striking back, using the same tools as the propaganda machine to challenge the status quo.

When the news is piped into our living rooms, we are served up a deftly edited, carefully filtered stream of images masquerading as the objective truth. Over time we have come to accept the idea that shaky, hand-held camera footage, video taken from surveillance cameras, and grainy, poor quality video are analogous with reality, actuality, and immediacy. They are somehow more real, and we have been taught to trust them.


But there is nothing more objective or real about them. Just as the adult entertainment industry pipes out artificially created 'amateur' video, so documentary film-makers and newscasters use a grab-bag of tried and tested visual cues to convince us that their work is authentic and trustworthy.

As we enter a new phase of online video and citizen journalism, we should be wary of any claims these new media forms may make to greater truth or verity.

The mockumentary film challenges our belief in the truth of these claims to truth by providing us with utterly convincing cinematic lies. The word is a fusion of 'mock' and 'documentary', and by mimicking the techniques and style of the documentary film to tell entirely fictional tales, this revolutionary approach to film-making serves as a wake up call to us all.

Cheap, high quality cameras, affordable editing and effects solutions and Internet distribution channels have made it so that almost anyone can produce independent films that look and feel real, all the more so if they are poorly shot and badly edited. The tools of the propaganda machine are now firmly within the grasp of everyday people. Reality is up for grabs, and there is no highest bidder anymore.

In this overview of this emerging cinematographic format, complete with video examples, I take a look at one recent mockumentary, Death of a President, and discuss the role it plays in this increasingly unique movie-making genre.

Fictitious times call for fictitious measures

''We live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious President. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons... Shame on you, Mr Bush, shame on you.''

Moore, Independent Film-maker

''Documentary concerns itself with representing the observable world, and to this end works with what [John] Grierson called the raw material of reality. The documentary draws on past and present actuality -- the world of social and historical experience -- to construct an account of lives and events.

Embedded within the account of physical reality is a claim or assertion at the centre of all non-fictional representation, namely, that a documentary depiction of the socio-historical world is factual and truthful.''

Keith Beattie, via Reality Film

Death of a President is an award-winning documentary that details the events surrounding the 2008 assassination of George W Bush. In other words it is a work of fiction. But to look at it, it is very hard to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins.

The film-makers behind this mockumentary feature have used some amazing feats of technology and editing to seamlessly fuse archive footage or real events, and real people, including the current president, with well orchestrated, fictional film content.

In doing so, they not only present the viewer with an utterly compelling 'thriller', built as it is on a single powerful premise, but also challenge the very tools used by the mainstream media to convince us of their objectivity and the truth of what they show us. After seeing the film you are left with a sense that if a work of fiction such as this could be so convincing, how much easier must it be for newscasters and documentary film-makers to convince us that their carefully thought through productions are accurate reflections of reality?

In this first video clip from the film we see a raft of familiar techniques used to create a palpable sense of reality. Shaky, hand-held footage from numerous video sources, with lapses in focus, and sudden 'whip' pans to the center of the action. The cross cutting of street level action with talking-head eye witnesses, the careful use of ominous, incidental music and loaded voice over narration that adds a specific context and tone to the images. All of these familiar visual signals place us in the realms of the apparently real - the realms of the documentary, with its claims to veracity.

Knowing that the film is fake, however, we suddenly have a critical eye, and find ourselves looking out for exactly which points have been faked, and how the techniques used are attempting to manipulate us. This is seldom something that we think about as we sit down to the news.

Propaganda and the creation of the Other

This next clip is a masterclass in the techniques used by news media to create an Other - a shadow, enemy or scapegoat . Note how the scene begins with images of a Mosque set in stark opposition to the surrounding sky scrapers. Already we are being given a message of two cultures at odds with one another. Then, in the soundtrack we segue seamlessly from a Muslim prayer to a voice over narration connecting Muslim people to terrorism.

As innocuous video footage of Muslim youths walking down the street plays out, this voice over continues, and the subject matter is terrorism in the Palestinian community. The two, in our minds, are now connected despite the fact that the one may have nothing to do with the other. In this way, the mass media often creates associations - we are not told explicitly, but rather a constant drip feed of associations adds to the propaganda machine's goals.

Then we see the use of still images, which are even easier to contextualize in any way you see fit using narration and soundtrack. Here we hear flimsy evidence somehow supported by the use of the photographic image, that ultimate pretender to the truth.

This is all too familiar - it is part of the visual language we are familiar with from hours of watching news and documentary footage over the span of our lives. As is the use of a witness seated in a strangely darkened room, as if it were an everyday occurrence to speak to a film crew in a blacked out office. We are being manipulated, and the mockumentary form wants us to know that this is the case. The same cannot be said form mainstream mass media news.

Blurring the boundaries

In this final clip we see how a talented film-making team can seamlessly interweave stock footage taken from actual events with choreographed, faked footage. The results in the following sequence are utterly convincing, and all the more so for the paparazzi positioning of the camera, the fast, dramatic cuts, the use of surveillance camera footage, and the breaking up of the action with interviews.

This truly amazing use of a combination of raw film-making talent and the latest digital technologies makes for compelling, and incredibly convincing viewing. It also stands as a fitting testament to the idea that with enough resources, any reality can be constructed by film-makers and news media.

The boundary between real and fake is no longer tenable, and as such it seems wise also to keep a critical point of view towards the mass media and the reportage that they deliver to our TV screens.

Mockumentary 2.0: online video and LonelyGirl15

Death of a President uses some state of the art technologies to pull off its mockumentary feat, and like any small to medium sized feature, had a sizable crew of film-making professionals on board to make it as convincing as it is. But the approach used needn't require either expensive technology or a vast crew of professional technicians.

The new visual language that we associate with truth and verity is based firmly in the use of consumer-grade video, amateur editing and shaky, hand-held camera work. If this is taken to the ultimate extreme, the result looks a lot like your average badly made YouTube video.

Take, as an example, the case of LonelyGirl15, a YouTube video blogger who rose to notoriety and extreme popularity in the YouTube community before being 'outed' as an actress working for a small independent film-making team.

In the following example we see a new form of mockumentary emerging that dispenses entirely with the effort to mimic TV broadcasting and documentary, as Death of a President does so well. Instead we have long takes, an actress looking incredibly natural, as if she were sitting around her house, poor sound quality, amateurish lighting and frankly dull, personal subject matter. If I tell you that this video - not the most popular of the many that were made - has already been viewed 168,623 times, you get an idea as to the potential the mock-online-video form has to reach huge audiences.

Reality is being redefined, and the choice is now there to play a part in carving out your own critical, personal or artful creations that play with the fine line between reality and the depiction of reality we have come to accept as a substitute.

Additional resources

If you would like to learn more about Death of a President and the mockumentary genre, you may want to take a look at the following links:

Readers' Comments    
2007-01-19 04:19:42

rufo guerreschi

This is a great guide to various tecniques of disinformation that have been practiced for a long time by news media. This type of information should be a main part of ordinary curriculum of high school students. Great job Robin!

posted by Michael Pick on Friday, January 19 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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