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Conflict and Controversy in Small Cinemas

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Edited By Janina Falkowska and Krzysztof Loska

This book examines small cinemas and their presentation of society in times of crisis and conflict from an interdisciplinary and intercultural point of view. The authors concentrate on economic, social and political challenges and point to new phenomena which have been exposed by film directors. They present essays on, among others, Basque cinema; gendered controversies in post-communist small cinemas in Slovakia and Czech Republic; ethnic stereotypes in the works of Polish filmmakers; stereotypical representation of women in Japanese avant-garde; post-communist political myths in Hungary; the separatist movements of Catalonia; people in diasporas and during migrations. In view of these timely topics, the book touches on the most serious social and political problems. The films discussed provide an excellent platform for enhancing debates on politics, gender, migration and new aesthetics in cinema at departments of history, sociology, literature and film.

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15. Mockumentary cinema and its political might: Self-reflexivity and carnivalesque in the films of Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen (Janina Falkowska)

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Janina Falkowska

Western Arts and Humanities, Canada, and University of Economics and Humanities in Bielsko-Biala, Poland

15. Mockumentary cinema and its political might: Self-reflexivity and carnivalesque in the films of Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen

Abstract: The topic of this chapter is “mockumentary” cinema. Called by Timothy Corrigan “essay films,” such documents “interpolate a subjective and investigative agency within the footage of media events from a variety of angles.” Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen make their films in the manner of mocku-documentary, each of them using their investigating personae to remake the news across “their own image and agency.” Eventually, they create politically powerful boisterous carnivalesque films far exceeding the effect of a mere presentation of fact. I am especially interested in the ways these films cross genre boundaries and emerge as a separate small cinema with its own choice of means, among which the narrator seems to play the most effective part in producing a powerful emotional response to this kind of film.

Keywords: Mockumentary, carnivalesque, Michael Moore, Sacha Baron Cohen, essay film

Small cinema is usually described as cinema of small nations or produced in small countries. However, we have observed cinemas defined by particular characteristics or formats emerging in one country or one geographical location and then spreading over continents, imitated and emulated by others elsewhere. French New Wave and the Dogma Movement are obvious such examples in fiction cinemas, while in documentary cinema, it is mockumentary and self-reflexive cinema that merit similar attention.

In this chapter, I will concentrate on documentary cinema and its specific variety: mock-documentary film. Being a variation of documentary film, on the one hand, it embodies the genre’s uniqueness in content and form but, on the other hand, it symbolizes the enigmatic nature of any other genre categories.

In essence, documentary is a nonfiction film that reenacts, comments on, or generally retells history. It is entirely factual, even though it may also state opinions about the facts it presents. Conversely, mock-documentary underscores the genre’s origins in copying a preexisting form in an effort to construct a film form that the audience is assumed to be familiar with. A mock-documentary subverts ← 211 | 212 → or ridicules by imitation, applies critical distance, and incorporates documentary for entertainment’s sake. However, a mock-documentary can also exert political criticism through sheer power of images and the antics of the commentator or narrator presented in it.

My attention to this type of documentary grew from a number of research interests I have harbored over the years: interest in categorization, film genres, and subversion of the aforementioned through disruptive practices of mockery and self-reflexive distance. Whenever a carefully designed category or rule organized the principles of genre in neatly defined boundaries, sheer imagination of the director, the outrageousness of major protagonists or narrators in the films uprooted the categories and created a highly welcome chaos in the vein of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque.

How to then treat these kinds of documentaries in which the personae of the commentators take over and go beyond just reporting on the true events? It is the persona that dominates the message, and not the events themselves. In this sense, such films could be treated as particularly obnoxious essay films in which the intrusive selves of the directors overpower the truth value of the presented events. In his book The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker, Timothy Corrigan introduces a definition for the essay film as one revealing the following characteristics, among others: “If both verbal and visual expression can commonly suggest the articulation or projection of an interior self into an exterior world, essayistic expressivity describes (…) a subjection of that instrumental or expressive self to a public domain, often personified as a shifting and disembodied ‘you.’”1

In her article, “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments,” Laura Rascaroli notes several other factors that appropriate a film to be an essay film. After thorough research of many authors writing on the subject, she identifies the following aspects revealed by an essay film:

  • disrespect for traditional boundaries
  • self-reflectivity and self-reflexivity
  • subjectivity and its foregrounding
  • incorporation of the act of reasoning in the film
  • transgressivity, digressivity, playfulness, contradictory and political nature
  • a mode of personal reflection
  • self-conscious style
  • presence of words, in the form of a text, either spoken, subtitled or intertitled ← 212 | 213 →
  • strong presence of the enunciator in the “expository” mode, “in which we find a ‘voice of God’ commentary directed toward the viewer”2

Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen have made such films and have performed in them, respectively. Their films exceed expectations and are a source of constant delight but also introduce serious critique. One of the techniques that they effectively apply is the use of their own investigative personae to remake the data according to their own image and agency.

In the case of Michael Moore, it is his persona that generates resistance, spite (as expressed by many authors of critical articles about him), and adds to the explosive content of the film, which probably would not have been as fiercely debated and perceived as quasi-truthful if it were presented as more toned down in content and unmediated by an ill-tempered journalist. For instance, the presentation of events in Roger & Me (1989), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Sicko (2007), and Where to Invade Next (2015) was generally described as manipulative and not to be trusted.

Most authors refer to Moore’s narrative persona as, either by appearing in the films or by narrating them off-screen, enriching the films’ content with a particular mixture of pathos, pugnacity, and spite. His pseudo-documentaries become mockumentaries because they mimic the genre and turn it “upside down” to expose its authoritarian nature and questionable “truth value.”

Corrigan states that Moore reaches the pinnacle of notoriety precisely because his subjective self gains the upper hand in the message he transmits. “Despite his often outlandish and cartoonish posturing – or, more accurately, because of those poses – Moore and his films effectively mimic and ironize the strategies of conventional news reportage as efforts, I would argue, to return the ideological risks of subjective thinking to the streets of public events.”3

Instead of realizing Moore’s films potential for more insightful analysis of their ideological, historical, and social content, the authors of many publications written on “the case of Michael Moore” remain palpably offended by the content and Moore’s unsubstantiated spite and accusations and react emphatically to the films.

The excerpts from the articles, written by Tony McKibbin, Christopher Hitchens, and Louise Spence, respectively, clearly illustrate the kind of affective reaction Moore elicits, resulting in an obvious discomfort that viewers experience when they watch Michael Moore’s films. For instance, on Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Tony McKibbin states, ← 213 | 214 →

Moore’s documentary is not a film of political thought (à la Errol Morris’ recent The Fog of War [2003]), but a film of insistent righteousness. B. Ruby Rich is absolutely right when she says in her Sight and Sound piece that “experience is more valued than evidence; appeals to emotion tend to succeed over the most perfectly crafted argument.”4

Moore is so hysterically insistent that he leaves skeptics feeling naive. On the one hand, you come away from the film believing any attempt at democracy in America is a waste of time and energy, and on the other, that George Bush’s incompetence is completely responsible for a decline of the American empire.5 When Hitchens and others say that Moore wants it all ways, we merely have to suggest that he wants to mix genres in such a manner that he can offer some very intriguing footage, and seeks to win an argument that is never really logically expressed.6

Not surprisingly, the lack of logic and the presence of emotion in Moore’s direct address to the audiences has been politically effective as it brought about an incredible debate in the Senate. Robert Brent Toplin reports,

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, evidently affected by the emotion-laden footage at the beginning of Fahrenheit 9/11 showing that no senator had been willing to support a challenge to the 2000 presidential election results, agreed to back such a challenge in 2005. This action, dubbed Boxers Rebellion, drew Senators into nearly four hours of contentious debate. The nightly television programs of January 7 brought lively commentary on the matter and the politics of Michael Moore.7

An especially insightful article about Michael Moore’s films has been written by Louise Spence8 who focuses on Moore’s persona and the way it influences his films’ reception. She specifically focuses on the following matters:

  1. The role of authority and intellectual skills
  2. Moore’s reinforcement and reiteration of himself and only himself
  3. Rejection of documentary skills – he is scruffy, tough, slouchy ← 214 | 215 →
  4. Romanticism and nostalgia
  5. Persona as evidence

Louise Spence is especially critical of Moore in the entire article, not changing her approach even upon reflection of the possibility that the Moore persona functions as a character in a romantic comedy in which the rhetoric of comedy moves toward a happy ending. In a pugnacious comedy, every move and trick serves as a proper act in the comedy including a carnivalesque intolerable behavior of the protagonist.

This article looks at Michael Moore’s persona – the aggrieved, aggressive maverick, the know-it-all who knows nothing – to explore the idea of authorial voice and persona in nonfiction filmmaking. Michael Moore, the everyman, the ordinary guy in the gravy-stained tee shirt whose job it is to look after our interests, seems to be the authority that is no better than we are, but who has more guts. Smart, but appearing to be unschooled, his belligerent air of thwarted entitlement and his anti-intellectualism point to a contradictory set of values and viewpoints, paternalistic authority on the one hand and rugged delinquency on the other, that are sometimes hard to splice together.(…)9

His rejection of the documentary label seems to be tied to his rejection of, and disrespect for, the dry authority of documentaries. Yet his persona feeds off the glow of the authority it condemns. Moore has a self-mocking tenor to his persona – setting up a double edged humor. He may be eccentric and weird, but never as eccentric or weird as the others he encounters. He gets a lot of laughs out of nursing his distrust of people in authority and with power, “stupid white men.”10

Almost all the authors of publications about Moore reject his persona as a legitimate author of a documentary film but rather present him as someone who is vulgar, furious, and not a good material for any presentation or performing skills.

In my opinion, however, what Michael Moore really does is work as a subversive clown who wants to challenge the system in place to persuade people to contemplate reality. In this sense, he fits into the idea of carnivalesque, a Bakhtinian idea of the temporary destruction of order in place during a carnival.

Consequently, Michael Moore as the documentary filmmaker is a king of fools or a holy fool so loved by figures of authority (like kings or princes) who could see in him a twisted rendering of their own personae. The members of the audience also recognized this. They understood the climate of constant rebellion in documenting reality, whereby the presented truth becomes the subject of the carnivalesque itself that defines the political life today. ← 215 | 216 →

Disrespect for the figures of authority, disregard for the lawful processes, the blending of the public and the private expressed in social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter by public and private figures alike, all these opinions treated as equally important, truthful, and wise have led to the outrageous carnivalization of society in which disorder rules, everybody and everything are questioned in both hilarious and demagogic ways.

This kind of carnivalization is also present in a well-known film directed by Larry Charles with Sacha Baron Cohen, a renowned British comedian. The film is a mockumentary following the misadventures of Borat, a Kazakh journalist who “leaves his native Kazakhstan to travel to America to make a documentary. As he zigzags across the nation, Borat meets real people in real situations with hysterical consequences. His backward behavior generates strong reactions around him exposing prejudices and hypocrisies in American culture. In some cases, Borat’s interview subjects embrace his outrageous views on race and sex by agreeing with him, while others attempt to offer a patriotic lesson in Western values.”11

In Borat, Sacha Baron functions as a “go between” among an uninitiated audience from Kazakhstan, the nation he represents, and American society he tries to explore and understand (and report about it). He engages interview techniques in an outrageous way challenging the interviewees’ sense of dignity and wholeness. Pretending to be an uncivilized Kazakh, he hilariously questions the assumed political correctness in approaches to gender, politics, and media personae.

We are compelled to admit, however, that Borat is a mockumentary in a different sense compared to Michael Moore’s films. Although it shows data gathering and interviews performed by the main character, the outrageous nature of questions and behaviors elicited by Borat creates a comedic effect not anticipated by the interviewees in the film nor its audiences.

On top of the difference between the types of documentary these films represent, we face a confusion related to the authorial persona in both films. Moore never denies that he is the author, the director, and the performer in the film. Conversely, Sacha Baron Cohen is only a performer in the film directed by Larry Charles, who plays the part of the naive and uneducated journalist from the far, far East somewhere in Asia.

A lot has been written about Borat. In fact, an entire edition of Slavic Review (Vol. 67, No. 1, Spring 2008) has been published about the film under the title “‘Borat’: Selves and Others.” Authors discuss the film in the context of national ← 216 | 217 → identity, “the other,” mock-documentary and other areas. From my point of view and for my purposes, the most interesting analysis has been presented by Natalie Kononenko and Svitlana Kukharenko. Both authors, of Eastern European background, shed new light on the film. Kononenko and Kukharenko, in their article “Borat the Trickster: Folklore and the Media, Folklore in the Media,”12 present Borat as a quintessential trickster, a persona well known in the literature and art of Slavic nations.

Narcisz Fejes, on the other hand, treats Borat as a Dracula-like character who, on his way of discovery of customs and mores of America, tries to colonize the land and impose his atavistic and primitive values on the land of “the civilized.” In his essay “Feared Intrusions,” Fejes concludes his intricate and meticulous analysis with the declaration that Borat, in fact, exposed American quasi-values to a greater degree than he showed his lack of manners and understanding in a civilized world. As Fejes states,

Borat’s ability to expose what hides behind the American characters’ teaching fervor as well as a veneer of multiculturalism and liberalism can make the Western audience somewhat unsettled and feel prompted to prepare for Borat’s – or, Sacha Baron Cohen’s – next trick and uncanny performance.13

In both cases, of Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen, we deal with explosive authorial personae, each of which are realized in a different way, and impose their own interpretation on the presented reality. While Moore is highly critical of the actors in his documentary dramas, Sacha Baron Cohen wants to amuse people in a sarcastic and abusive way. In both cases of authorial creativity, they disrupt order and subvert decency in a carnival’s way presenting subjects as totally ridiculous.

In the introduction to Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin voices one of the most important statements that has defined his career as one of the most important theoreticians of the twentieth century:

As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed. ← 217 | 218 →

The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of particular significance. Rank was especially evident during official feasts; everyone was expected to appear in the full regalia of his calling, rank, and merits and to take the place corresponding to his position. It was a consecration of inequality. On the contrary, all were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. The hierarchical background and the extreme corporative and caste divisions of the medieval social order were exceptionally strong. Therefore, such free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations.14

We find here a characteristic logic, the peculiar logic of the “inside out,” of the “turnabout,” of a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, and of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, and comic crownings and uncrownings. A second life, a second world of folk culture is thus constructed: it is to a certain extent a parody of the extra carnival life, a “world inside out.”15

Both Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen respond to these characteristics. They uncrown figures of authority, and the arrogance of the United States (supposedly “the best country in the world”). They tear their subjects’ self-assuredness to shreds by exposing their weaknesses and lack of logical argument. They turn into self-reflective fools pretending to know nothing but in fact performing their mockumentary personae to leave audiences shaken to the core.

Bibliography

Bakhtin, Mikhael. Rabelais and His World. Transl. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Fejes, Narcisz. “Feared Intrusions: A Comparative Reading of Borat and Dracula.” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 5, 2011, pp. 992–1009.

Fleischmann, Aloys. “The Rhetorical Function of Comedy in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.” Mosaic, Vol. 40, No. 4, 2007, p. 69+. Academic OneFile http://www.umanitoba.ca.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/mosaic/ (Accessed 11 October 2017).

Porton, Richard. “Weapon of Mass Instruction: Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.” Cineaste, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 2004, pp. 3–7. ← 218 | 219 →

Rascaroli, Laura. “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments.” Framework, Vol. 49, No. 2, Fall 2008, pp. 24–47.

Natalie Kononenko and Svitlana Kukharenko. Borat the Trickster: Folklore and the Media, Folklore in the Media in “Borat”: Selves and Others. Slavic Review, Vol. 67, No. 1 Spring 2008. Published by: Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; Cambridge University Press., pp.8–18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27652761 (Accessed 09 October 2017)

Spence, Louise (with Vinicius Navarro). “Working-Class Hero: Michael Moore’s Authorial Voice and Persona.” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2010, pp.368–380.

Toplin, Robert Brent. “The Long Battle Over Fahrenheit 9/11: A Matter of Politics, Not Aesthetics.” Film and History, Vol. 35, No. 2, 2005, pp. 8–10. (Accessed 11 October 2017).

Internet sources

Hitchens, Christopher. “Unfairenheit 9–11: The Lies of Michael Moore,” Slate, Vol. 21 June 2004. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2004/06/unfairenheit_911.html (Accessed 16 September 2004)

McKibbin, Tony. “The Thickening Centre: Fahrenheit 9/11.” Senses of Cinema, October 2004, No. 33. http://sensesofcinema.com/?s=The+Thickening+Centre (Accessed 10 June 2016)

Rotten Tomatoes (2006). “Borat Film Review.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com (Accessed 10 October 2016) ← 219 | 220 →


1 Timothy Corrigan, The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 33.

2 Laura Rascaroli, “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments,” Framework, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 24–38.

3 Corrigan, Essay Film, p. 173.

4 Tony McKibbin, The Thickening Centre: Fahrenheit 9/11, Senses of Cinema, No. 33 (October 2004), accessed 10 June 2016, http://sensesofcinema.com/?s=The+Thickening+Centre.

5 McKibbin, The Thickening Centre.

6 Christopher Hitchens, “Unfairenheit 9–11: The Lies of Michael Moore,” Slate (21 June 2004), accessed 16 September 2004, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2004/06/unfairenheit_911.html.

7 Robert Brent Toplin, “The Long Battle Over Fahrenheit 9/11: A Matter of Politics, Not Aesthetics,” Film and History, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2005), p. 8.

8 Louise Spence (with Vinicius Navarro), “Working-Class Hero: Michael Moore’s Authorial Voice and Persona,” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 43, No. 2 (2010), pp. 368–380.

9 Spence, “Working-Class Hero,” p. 368.

10 Spence, “Working-Class Hero,” p. 371.

11 Rotten Tomatoes, “Borat Film Review,” accessed 10 Oct 2016, https://www.rottentomatoes.com.

12 Natalie Kononenko and Svitlana Kukharenko, “Borat the Trickster: Folklore and the Media, Folklore in the Media,” Slavic Review, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 8–18, accessed 09 September 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27652761.

13 Narcisz Fejes, “Feared Intrusions: A Comparative Reading of Borat and Dracula,” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 5 (2011), p. 1007.

14 Mikhael Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, transl. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 10.

15 Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 11.