Mock-documentaries in Canada: Looking for the Real Thing

Curator's Note

Mock-documentaries have become a ubiquitous feature of the media environment. Yet, arguably their presence in Canada displays particular characteristics. In a country where virtually every feature film requires some public money to be made and where filmmakers must submit themselves to an arduous process of funding applications, feature filmmaking still represents an all-but-impossible task. As low-budget texts that make fun of themselves, mock-documentaries are arguably a cultural form custom made for a nation of filmmakers not sure of their right or ability to make films, especially ones that might be popular. Many of the most familiar mock-documentaries in Canada rely on parodies of endearing young male filmmakers (e.g. Hard Core Logo) or protagonists (e.g. Trailer Park Boys). Vancouver filmmaker Ileana Pietrobruno’s film Girlfriend Experience (2008) is a mock documentary with a difference. She uses the conceit of the fake documentary to get at the unsatisfiable urge to have the “real thing,” in both film and sexual desire alike. Pietrobruno’s film thus undertakes a timely critique of gender and genre in Canada.

Pietrobruno uses a number of clever formal conceits to explore and challenge the audience’s own desire for the real thing, whether it is the escapism of fiction film or the social responsibility of documentary. Like the film’s protagonist, Daniel, the film-viewer is motivated by desires. Filmed in documentary style, the film resorts to “re-enactments” to fill in scenes where there is no documentary footage. Even more telling than the observational-style footage, these acted scenes highlight the cultural scripting of desire. Girlfriend Experience consistently evokes this feeling of missing referents and lost objects through its jittery handheld camerawork and quick editing. One result is that, just as fiction film’s promise of fantasy is thwarted, so too is documentary’s promise of reality.

There is, of course, no sure fire way to access truth on film. The mock-documentary form is by necessity an extended formal metaphor for the quest for both truth and reality; delusion and desire are its perfect subjects. The documentary viewer, like the john, is in quest of the “girlfriend experience,” a simulation of the real thing. What better metaphor for the Canadian film industry?  

Comments

Michele Byers.'s picture

don't think you'll find one...

Ah technology… I just lost my comment… am trying again…

Zoe, I’m very curious about the relationship between national screen cultures and identity that you raise here. What is it (or is there something) about Canada as a production space that creates a particular kind of anticipation of truth or reality (realism)? Is the taking up of not-quite-real spaces/narratives within the Canadian filmmaking tradition particularly attributable to the funding question, or is this—avoiding if possible the deeply essentialist potential of this question—also related to what Canadianness itself often stands for in its most mythic sense.

In the late 1990s in Toronto, my partner—and I to a much lesser extent—was involved with Albert Neremberg’s Trailervision, which posited "the movie trailer as a new medium" (www.trailervision.com). The idea was for the 90 second spot to be the movie, primarily using unscripted improv and on the street shooting. Watching these trailers take apart generic Hollywood codes seems akin to what you are describing here: a desire for something for which there is ultimately no referent but that seems "real" nonetheless.

This film looks fascinating.

 

 

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