Bill Nichols' Observation of Documentary Filmmaking

Categories: Fiction

Throughout film history, documentary and fiction films have denoted the polar opposites of film form with each representing two distinct and separate traditions, the cinema of reality and the cinema of fiction (Doherty 16). However what was once a clear distinction has become blurred as the increasing popularity of mockumentary continues to weaken the assumed boundaries between fact and fiction (Sicinski). Prior to this ‘blurring of the lines’ the documentary genre enjoyed a privileged position amongst screen forms due its ‘the truth claim’ (Glick).

Reflecting Bill Nichols’ observation that documentary employs the ‘discourse of sobriety’ (3), the truth claim is based upon the conception that documentary represents a more sophisticated screen form due to its exploration of real events and tendency to depict the world as it is (Nichols 3). Conversely, mockumentary films mix fact with fiction as the aesthetics of documentary, including hand-hand camera techniques, voice-over narration and interviews are manipulated to satirize cultural events, as well as to critique and deconstruct the principles of documentary form and technique (Davis).

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This has had a notable impact on film forms, as the aesthetics of documentary have begun to seep into the fabric of fiction filmmaking (Davis). Such an idea becomes particularly apparent when considering films such as Michael Winterbottom’s biopic 24 Hour Party People (2002) that challenge the traditional distinctions between fiction and reality by using the “stylistic tropes of the documentary toolbox” (Akoglu 23) to explore absurd and exaggerated stories within sober forms.

In addition to illustrating how both fiction and mockumentary films continue to depart from Nichol’s notion of sobriety while still attempting to address ‘the real’, films such as 24 Hour Party People, Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys (2011), Remy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog (1992) and Larry Charles’ Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) effectively illustrate the critical purpose of mockumentary and its ability to both entertain and provide audiences with valuable social insight and covert social commentary.

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In exploring whether fiction films such as Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Party People retain any trace of Nichols’ notion of sobriety, the stylistic qualities of the documentary form must first be examined. Largely influenced by the work of Nichols, documentary is generally perceived as being a factual form of narrative that has a direct relationship with the actual world (Glick). Specifically, Nichols argues that documentary retains traces of the discourse of sobriety in that it tends to be grounded in more strictly innovative and socially responsible motives (Nichols 4).

Furthermore, Nichols’ conception of the discourse of sobriety and its relation to the documentary genre effectively illustrates a hidden assumption upon which society’s understanding of the documentary genre is based, namely that documentary films are more about content, subject matter and information than form, style or entertainment (Ward 42). However it remains to be seen that the use of documentary conventions does not necessarily provide a film with a greater sense of sobriety.

This is particularly relevant as the stylistic conventions of documentary are often employed in mockumentary films however few of these retain any trace of sobriety. This can be seen in films such as 24 Hour Party People, which tend to be less concerned with using documentary conventions to represent the world as it is, and more concerned with employing them for stylistic and comedic purposes.

Set against the backdrop of Manchester’s emerging music scene during the late 1980s, 24 hour Party People follows the life of journalist, record tycoon and club owner Tony Wilson and his establishment of Factory Records, a British record label which launched the careers of bands including Joy Division, New Order and Happy Monday.

Given the consistent use of hand held camera techniques, archival footage, interviews and voice-over narration throughout the film, 24 hour Party People effectively illustrates how the use of documentary conventions to blend reality with fiction has become a popular technique employed by a multitude of filmmakers and applied to a wide variety of film genres.

Despite multiple documentary conventions being incorporated throughout the film, 24 hour Party People retains little trace of sobriety as Winterbottom’s use of interviews, direct address, archival footage and narration aims to portray a predominantly fictional world as an actual real world, rather than depicting the world as it is. Although real archival footage of Joy Division performing at Wilson’s club, as well as ctual footage of Wilson’s television show Granada Tonight is used throughout the film, Winterbottom ensures that such footage is subtly interwoven within sequences of fictional events thus eliminating any trace of sobriety that the use of real footage may have allowed for. Furthermore it can be argued that 24 hour Party People retains little evidence of Bill Nichols’ observation that documentary employs the ‘discourse of sobriety’, as a number of incidents are exaggerated throughout the film.

For example, following a scene in which Wilson’s wife is shown ‘getting close’ with musician Howard Devoto, the cleaner present in the scene faces the camera, reveals himself as the real Howard Devoto and states that he has no recollection of the incident involving Wilson’s wife ever taking place. Therefore it can be seen that although any exaggeration or untruthfulness is made explicit throughout the film, the very inclusion of false events automatically removes any semblance of sobriety.

Finally, it can be seen that 24 hour Party People fails to reflect Nichols’ concept of sobriety due to its use and manipulation of popular screen aesthetics. According to Nichols the main difference between realism in documentary and fiction film is their source (7). For example, mainstream fiction films aim to represent imaginary worlds as if they are real, while documentary aims to maintain the real event. In this context while the construction of realism in fiction film is based on highly developed screen aesthetics such as special effects, in documentary the realism constructs itself on the raw material (Sicinski).

In relation to the use of aesthetics and the construction of realism, film theorist Grierson argues that the use of aesthetics effectively compromises a films’ sobriety as rather than revealing social reality aesthetics work to construct a polished, idealized version of the truth (Grierson 55). This is evident in 24 hour Party People as Winterbottom makes use of mise en scene, cinematography, special effects, as well as set and costume design to give the film a more stylized effect.

The use of these aforementioned aesthetics adds further weight to the claim that 24 hour Party People fails to reflect the discourse of sobriety as, according to Grierson, a film’s sobriety is largely dependent upon the filmmaker abandoning screen aesthetics in favour of revealing, rather than constructing, social reality (Grierson 56). Therefore it can be concluded that while the film incorporates multiple documentary conventions, it retains very little trace of Bill Nichols’ observation that documentary employs the ‘discourse of sobriety’.

Although compromising their sobriety, the critical purpose of mockumentary films is not limited by their tendency to represent exaggerated stories using sober forms, but rather it is their lack of sobriety and capacity to blur fact with fiction that effectively extends the critical purpose of mockumentary beyond that of mere entertainment (Helke). Mockumentary is characterized by a number of different formations, with each addressing documentary in a unique manner (Akoglu 33).

Specifically, film theorists Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight classify mockumentary according to the three degrees of mockumentary, “a model that approaches mock-documentaries according to the intersection between the intention of the filmmaker, the nature and degree of the text’s appropriation of documentary codes and conventions, and the degree of reflexivity consequently encouraged for their audience” (Roscoe and Hight 65). It is through assessing each of these degrees of mockumentary that the critical purpose of this genre can best be understood.

Degree one comprises of films that largely focus on satirizing popular cultural events, public figures or institutions (Roscoe and Hight 42). In this degree filmmakers use documentary conventions not to directly satirize documentary codes, but rather to deal with popular cultural events through the “modes of expositional, interactive and observational subgenres of documentary” (Roscoe and Hight 56). The parody in these kinds of mockumentary films emerges from the exploration of absurd and exaggerated stories within a sober form.

Eric Idle and Gary Weis’ mockumentary The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978) is an example of a first-degree mockumentary as the film explores the outrageous lives of fictitious British Rock group ‘The Rutles’ in order to satirize the rise of The Beatles as a popular cultural event. Although the film’s use of interviews, direct address, voice over and hand held camera techniques represents an explicit parody of the documentary form, it remains clear that the filmmakers’ ntended to use these conventions not only to address the sobriety of documentary, but also to simply parody a specific cultural phenomenon in a way that is amusing to audiences. As such, it can be concluded that first-degree mockumentaries and their satirical exploration of cultural subjects tends to lack depth of critique, thus indicating that rather informing or provoking thought amongst audiences the critical purpose of first-degree mockumentaries is to entertain.

Although the critical purpose of mockumentary films that satirize cultural events, figures or institutions is generally thought to be limited to entertainment, it remains to be seen that, in some cases, first-degree mockumentaries can exceed their function to entertain and can instead provide audiences with valuable social insights, and impart social messages in ways that are more accessible to audiences.

The insightful nature of mockumentaries becomes particularly apparent when considering texts such as Chris Lilley’s television-mockumentary Angry Boys as the series blends documentary techniques with satire in order to disarm audiences. Specifically, Lilly uses documentary conventions to blur the lines between reality and fiction in order to encourage audiences to recognize the flaws of each of his outrageously provocative characters. In addition to this recognition, Lilly’s work challenges audiences to take a critical look at society and the issues raised implicitly throughout the series.

Characters such as the overtly violent character of Nathan and the over-bearing Japanese Tiger Mum Jen Okasak for example, are strangely shocking and exaggerated. Whilst these exaggerated personas often surprise, shock and make audiences cringe, they are often a closer representation of reality than society as a whole might like to admit (Davis), thus providing audiences with valuable social insights and encouraging further consideration of issues from a range of perspectives.

Similarly, mockumentary-style films such as Larry Charles’ Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which use a unique and humorous blend of fact and fiction, effectively use provocative and exaggerated characters in order to force audiences to confront prejudices that exist in contemporary society, whilst also critiquing the documentary form.

Given its tendency to satirize both its subjects and the conventions of documentary, films such as Borat are classified as second-degree mockumentaries as they tend to adopt a more critical approach towards their subjects, while also explicitly addressing the conventions of documentary and how they work to manipulate both the subjects within the film and audiences (Akoglu 43). Furthermore, in this degree the “institutionalized formation of documentary that claims to represent detached, truthful representation of the world is satirized” (Steinberg, 35).

This is particularly evident in mockumentary films such as Borat that use interviews, staged encounters, and provocations to subtly challenge the authoritative voice of the documentary, which figures for most film theorists as a “discourse of sobriety” (Ward 52). Throughout the film, Borat’s unconventional interview style dispels any air of sobriety and instead draws attention to the limits of documentary interviews as a source of knowledge and truth by highlighting that they are merely “a function of the person holding the microphone” (Torchin 55).

For example during an interview with a group of American feminists, Borat refuses to listen to the women’s notions of equality which, in turn, effectively prevents him from participating in his own interview. Borat’s refusal to participate in the interview offers a subtle, yet effective critique of the ‘truth claim’ that supposedly underpins the documentary genre by illustrating how the direction and content of interviews, which are supposedly incorporated to help reveal the world as it is, are ultimately influenced by the interviewer/filmmaker.

Furthermore, Borat’s obsession with Pamela Anderson which leads his ‘documentary’ on an spontaneous cross-country expedition, functions both as a traditional plot device and as meta-narrative critique of the vagaries and vices behind documentary production. Therefore, whilst mockumentary films do aim to entertain audiences, their critical purpose goes beyond that of mere entertainment and focuses on providing a subtle critique of the supposed factual discourse of documentary form. Finally it can be seen that mockumentary has a critical purpose beyond entertainment as films such as Remy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog work to econstruct the documentary form.

The deconstruction of documentary form represents the third degree of mockumentary and refers to films that directly address the codes of documentary (Roscoe 28). Their main distinguishing feature is that although exploring other subjects the primary intention of these films is to “engage in a sustained critique of the set of assumptions and expectations which support the classic modes of documentary” (Roscoe and Hight 81). This can be seen in Man Bites Dog as the film explores the highly ethical story of a group of filmmakers attempting to make a documentary about a serial killer.

Specifically, the film offers a highly ethical, critical and indeed hostile appropriation of documentary codes and conventions by calling into question the supposed truthfulness of the documentary form. This hostile appropriation is achieved throughout Man Bites Dog as documentary aesthetics are employed to undermine and deconstruct the very foundations of the documentary form. Unlike first and second-degree mockumentaries, humor is often underplayed in favor of representations that seek to create ‘ethical unease’ that will lead to critique (Roscoe 29).

In short, the critical purpose of third degree mockumentaries such as Man Bites Dog is to bring to light an explicit critique of documentary form. The rise of mockumentary has had a significant impact on traditional film forms, blurring the distinctions between reality and fiction. Although documentary aesthetics have been appropriated largely by the mockumentary genre the use of interviews, hand held camera techniques, archival footage and voice overs have also been employed in films such as 24 hour Party People for both stylistic purposes and to emphasize humour.

Although using documentary codes and conventions to blend fact with fiction has effectively compromised any trace of sobriety in these films, they still retain a critical purpose beyond that of mere entertainment. Specifically, is through using documentary aesthetics to present absurd and exaggerated stories that mockumentaries such as Angry Boys are able to provide important social insights in a way that is more accessible to audiences.

Furthermore, it can be seen that mockumentary films have surpassed their function to entertain audiences as films such as Borat and Man Bites Dog use documentary form in order to provide valuable critiques and deconstructions of the factual discourse of documentary. Therefore it can be seen that whilst mockumentary films retain little trace of Nichol’s observation that documentary employs the ‘discourse of sobriety’ they do still have a significant critical purpose.

Works Cited

  1. Angry Boys. Dir. Chris. Lilley. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 2011. DVD. Akoglu, Ozge. “Mock-Documentary: Questioning the Factual Discourse of Documentary.” Diss. Middle East Technical U, 2010. Print.
  2. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Dir. Larry Charles. Everyman Pictures, 2006. DVD.
  3. Davis, Wendy. “Mockumentary’s ‘beautiful confusion’ animates Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys.” The Conversation, 2011. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.
  4. Doherty, Timothy. “The Sincerest form of flattery: a brief history of the mockumentary.” Journal of Film and Television 28.4 (2010): 22-4. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
  5. Glick, Josh. “Documentary Appreciation Salon Wrap-Up and Reflections Mockumentary v. Documentary.” Docs in Progress. N.p., 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. <>.
  6. Grierson, John. “The Documentary Idea.” Sight & Sound Magazine 30 September 1951: 55-56.
  7. Helke, Susanna. “Reality Replayed: Documentary filmmaking and documentary value.” Cineaste. N.p., 2009. Web. 30 Oct. 2012. <>. 24 Hour Party People. Dir. Michael Winterbottom. Revolution Films, 2002. DVD.
  8. Man Bites Dog. Dir. Remy Belvaux. Les Artistes Anonymes, 1992. DVD.
  9. Nichols, Bill. “The Domain of Documentary.” Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999. Print.
  10. Roscoe, Jane and Craig Hight. “Faking It: Mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality.” Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
  11. Roscoe, Jane. “Man Bites Dog: deconstructing the documentary look.” Journal of Film and Cultural Studies 13.1 (2007): 7-12. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
  12. The Rutles: All You Need is Cash. Dir. Eric Idle and Gary Weis. Above Average Productions Inc.,1978. DVD.
  13. Sicinski, Michael. “F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing.” Cinema Online. N.p., 12 Nov. 2007. Web. 19 Oct 2012. <>.
  14. Steinberg, Susan. “Looking at Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” The Journal of Culture and Education 9.1 (2007): 22-38. Print.
  15. Torchin, Leshu. “Cultural Learnings of Borat Make for Benefit Glorious Study of Documentary.” Journal of Film and History 38.1 (2011): 53-62. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
  16. Ward, Paul. “Documentary: The Margins of Reality.” London: Wallflower Press, 2005: 42-144. Print.
Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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Bill Nichols' Observation of Documentary Filmmaking. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Bill Nichols' Observation of Documentary Filmmaking essay
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