Crossing boundaries with Mockumentary

by Takuro Kotaka

Mockumentry is a visual expression that some attribute to Orson Welles’ radio drama The War of the Worlds (1938) as its origin. However, it became widely recognized much later with films like Mondo Cane (1962) from Italy and more recently by works such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) from the U.S. and The Troll Hunter (2010) from Norway.

Mockumentary as a film genre eventually tapered, but similar methods became utilized in regular films and television programs. With the widespread use of the Internet after the 2000s, we see the mockumentary form often on YouTube. When I started to collaborate with artists from Southeast Asia, I began implementing mockumentary methods out of a certain necessity.

Many artists and musicians from Southeast Asian countries live everyday under censorship from the government or military. In order to present their work, they have to jump over various hurdles such as censorship and regulation. This situation gave birth to works that are conceptually multi-layered.

Generally, an artwork is built around a singular concept. However, these artists implement multiple concepts in a singular artwork. They taught me that it was necessary to create these layers of ideas from the earliest stage of production so that the concept that is submitted to the government and the concept that they intend to convey to the audience in the final work both ring true.

In 2017, I was invited to participate in the Oku-Noto Triennale hosted by Suzu city in Ishikawa, Japan. Suzu is located in a beautiful area between mountains and sea but it suffers from a declining population. Additionally, the shrinking local community is traumatized by a dark past where they were divided over the bidding for the construction of a nuclear plant.

I was advised by the art festival that this was a very sensitive issue, but I wanted a better understanding of the situation, so I rented a car and started by visiting local people and having conversations. Through these discussions, I started to realize that most of the people who were against the nuclear plant had left the region, and the majority of the current residents were either eager to build the plant or who were apathetic to the issue.

The one exception was an old man named Maedon who lived in a crumbling shack. He was the only resident who chose to stay while continuing to voice his opposition to nuclear energy. This was not an easy path for him – he lost work, was ignored, and eventually became an outcast from his own community. He told me: “I want people to understand how dangerous the nuclear plant is. It will destroy nature and our community. Both will not return once they are gone – we must stop the bid for the nuclear plant.”

Through my interactions with Maedon, I decided to make a work that would deliver his message. This work was titled The Village’s Bid for UFO (2017). A straightforward documentary would have been the conventional way of conveying his message to the public but the festival would not screen this and it could also jeopardize his residence in the region. The word “Genpatsu” (nuclear plant) resonated differently in regional cities of Japan. In larger cities like Tokyo or Osaka, anti-nuclear protests take place regularly and being against nuclear energy is not a problematic topic when having a drink among my friends.

This gave me the idea to replace the word “nuclear plant” with “UFO” and shoot an unscripted documentary. Everything other than replacing that word would be Maedon’s own words. We had the same conversation as before on camera but it came out like this: “I want people to understand how dangerous the UFO is. It will destroy nature and our community. Both will not return once they are gone – we must stop the bid for the UFO.” It was comedic, and we both laughed when we were going over the footage.

In another scene, I interviewed the municipal administrative staff who was in charge of the nuclear plant bid asking him to also replace the word. His statement was: “We are bidding for the giant UFO to visit our city so that it will revitalize the local economy.” I asked the local elderly community, who were apathetic to the issue, to act in the film as if they were witnessing a natural phenomena like a shooting star or fireflies instead of a UFO. The film ends with all of the residents calling for the arrival of a giant UFO together.

My film was shown at the festival without any controversy and has been invited to many international film festivals. I continue to keep in touch with the local community and we are on good terms.

Mockumentary for me is a way to avoid risk and conflict for my cast members and supporters who are usually local residents. At the same time, it is a strategic tool for me to embed the real intention of the work so that it can bypass censorship and regulations. By layering multiple concepts in the work, as the Southeast Asian artists taught me, its effect is amplified. As the travel of information increases through social media, people already view mockumentary as a form of fiction. I see it as a way to cross boundaries and convey a critical truth.

– Jan, 2023