August 16th sees the premiere of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, a feature film by Ben Berman that follows a Vegas stage magician in decline during the last years of his life. The film’s subject, Johnathan Szeles, is notorious in magic circles for his stunts that push the envelope when it comes to blood and gore.
Szeles was diagnosed with a serious cardiomyopathy in 2007 and retired from the stage in 2014. With just a year to live, he teamed with Berman to make a movie, but things go wildly out of control as nobody can be 100 percent sure about how truthful Johnathan is ever being about anything.
Documentaries that twist the truth are nothing new, though — whether it be unscrupulous filmmakers or lying subjects, the boundary between real and fiction sometimes gets hard to distinguish.
In prep for The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, here are 11 other docs that didn’t stick too closely to the facts.
Nanook of the North
One of the earliest documentary films ever produced, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North was an enormous success. The film depicted an Inuit man and his family as they struggled for survival in the Canadian Arctic, but time revealed that much of Flaherty’s footage was staged to one degree or another. First and foremost, his protagonist wasn’t named Nanook — an Inuit word for polar bear — but rather Allakariallak. Flaherty also set up scenes to make his subjects seem more primitive than they were, asking them to hunt without the guns they were accustomed to and to fake surprise at the playing of a phonograph record. This was the very beginning of nonfiction film, so modern ethical standards hadn’t been figured out, but it’s still a little frustrating.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Maverick street artist Banksy prides himself on blurring the lines of truth and fiction, with some of his most notable works involving deception and lies. So when it was announced that he would be directing a documentary, nobody quite knew what to expect. Exit Through the Gift Shop starts out as a profile of French immigrant Thierry Guetta, who is obsessed with street art to the point that he takes up a spray can himself and finds fantastic success as “Mr. Brainwash.” But we never see Guetta actually make any of his own work, and the prevailing theory is that his exhibitions feature work by Banksy and fellow street artist Shepard Fairey. If that’s the case, it’s a hoax that has continued for a decade and ensnared celebrity patrons like Madonna.
Mermaids: The Body Found
When you tune into Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel you’re typically expecting non-fiction programming. But both networks ran into a lot of pushback in 2012 with the airing of Mermaids: The Body Found, a pseudo-documentary hoax examining footage that purportedly shows a half-human, half-fish being in the ocean. That footage was digitally rendered, and all of the scientists and other experts in the film are portrayed by actors, but enough people believed it anyways that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was forced to put out a statement denying the movie’s claims. Some conspiracy theorists still believe it was real to this day.
I’m Still Here
Hollywood actors having dramatic flameouts is something that happens just about every day, so few people questioned the premise of Casey Affleck’s 2010 I’m Still Here. The movie followed Joaquin Phoenix, who had seen massive success with Gladiator and Walk The Line, as he announced his retirement from acting to pursue a new career as a rapper. The entire enterprise was scripted, but Phoenix stayed in “character” throughout the production and promotion process, leading many to believe that it was all real. After its release, it would be another two years before the actor would return for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and of course it’s only fitting that the prankster would play the lead role in the upcoming The Joker.
One of the most famous hoaxes of all time is Orson Welles’ legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast, where his compelling audio verite take on alien invasion in New Jersey had people all over the East Coast flipping their lids. Along similar lines came 1992’s Ghostwatch, which had been promoted for weeks as a real investigation into a house in northwestern London. The concept came from horror writer Stephen Volk, who intended it as a six-part miniseries until the BBC convinced him to condense it into 90 minutes. The absolute deadpan nature of the presentation, coupled with trusted host Michael Parkinson introducing it, made it terrifying to viewers, over 20,000 of which called the network to complain.
Incident at Loch Ness
Werner Herzog is one of cinema’s greatest mavericks, and both his fiction films and his documentaries make the viewer question what they’ve just watched. One of the most absurd examples is a Chinese box of interlocking films released in 2004 as Incident at Loch Ness. The film follows Herzog as he films a documentary about the legendary lake monster, only to be irritated by a Hollywood producer who is trying to make the film more commercial by hiring attractive actors to play roles. But the producer is actually actor-director Zak Penn, who is producing the whole movie as a hoax. Part fact, part fiction, Incident never comes clean to the viewer about its intentions, making it a hell of a watch.
Director Dean Fleischer-Camp didn’t make Fraud with the intent to trick anybody, exactly. But his take on the documentary format is uniquely manipulative and dishonest. In the film, he doesn’t film a single frame. Instead, every piece of footage comes from a family’s YouTube page, which Fleischer-Camp and an editor trawled for pieces they could use to build a narrative. With that in fand, they crafted a dizzying tale of a father who brings his family into massive amounts of credit card debt before burning his house down for the insurance money and fleeing to Canada. Only one problem: that’s not what they did. The whole project was an attempt to see if he could tell a completely fictional story using documentary footage, with the subjects’ permission.
Rolling Thunder Revue
Martin Scorsese isn’t the kind of fly-by-night filmmaker that you’d expect to pull a hustle like this, but people are full of surprises. When he took on Bob Dylan’s 1975 tour with a number of his previous collaborators including Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, he had access to a bunch of archived film from the time. He supplemented that with interview footage from musicians, critics and other prominent figures. Some of the most interesting footage is an interview with filmmaker Stefan Van Dorp, who was originally hired to make a film around the tour before being fired. Only one problem: Van Dorp is a fictional character, played by actor Martin Von Haselberg. Why? Lord only knows, as it doesn’t make for a significantly better film. Scorsese blurs the lines in other places as well, including a fraudulent story of a teenage Sharon Stone traveling with the tour.
Before Peter Jackson brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, he made bizarre and uncommercial films in his native New Zealand like X-rated puppet comedy Meet the Feebles and ultra-bloody sci-fi splatter flick Bad Taste. One of his most controversial efforts didn’t seem outrageous on the surface, but managed to upset people anyways. In 1995, New Zealand channel TV ONE aired Forgotten Silver, a documentary about a pioneering early moviemaker named Colin McKenzie who invented many of the techniques of modern cinema well before history recorded them. Of course, McKenzie never existed and all of his works were expert forgeries by Jackson.
Producing nature documentaries is an expensive and time-consuming task, often requiring crews to set up in inhospitable conditions for weeks at a time just to get a single scene. In that light, Winged Migration, directed by Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin, seems to be even more spectacular an accomplishment as it tracks groups of birds as they navigate the entire globe. Unfortunately, much of what the viewer sees in the movie was set up in one way or another, as the birds you see were raised from birth by the film crew and trained to follow them. Other scenes, including an unforgettable one where a baby chick is attacked and eaten by crabs, were also fabricated and edited in deceptive ways for heightened drama.
First on the Moon
The Russian space program is one of that country’s proudest achievements, beating the United States to a number of milestones. But this wildly successful 2005 film poses a hypothesis that Russia actually landed men on the moon in 1938 as part of a bizarre secret experiment. The premise is absurd, but during production the filmmakers led many newspapers into believing that their story was completely true, tying it in with a reported meteorite impact in Chile. The movie took three years to make and was filmed in many of the same locations that the original cosmonauts trained, lending it even more hoax power, and in 2005 it won the Venice Horizons Documentary Award at the Venice Film Festival.
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Published at Wed, 14 Aug 2019 14:30:14 +0000