A pseudo-documentary is a film or video production that takes the form or style of a documentary film but does not portray real events. Rather, scripted and fictional elements are used to tell the story. The pseudo-documentary, unlike the related mockumentary, is not always intended as satire or humor. It may use documentary camera techniques but with fabricated sets, actors, or situations, and it may use digital effects to alter the filmed scene or even create a wholly synthetic scene.[1][2][3]


Orson Welles made use of pseudo-documentary elements in his work.

Orson Welles gained notoriety with his radio show and hoax War of the Worlds which fooled listeners into thinking the Earth was being invaded by Martians. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum says this is Welles' first pseudo-documentary.[4] Pseudo-documentary elements were subsequently used in his feature films. For instance, Welles created a pseudo-documentary newsreel which appeared within his 1941 film Citizen Kane, and he began his 1955 film, Mr. Arkadin, with a pseudo-documentary prologue.[5]

The film Mad Max 2 first frames the story by showing a staged documentary-style sequence of images designed to inform the viewer that what follows is the aftermath of an apocalyptic global war.[6]

The methods of pseudo-documentary have been sharply criticized in some cases, notably with the 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK, which mixes fact with fiction to advance Stone's point that John F. Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy.[7][8] The film cuts confusingly between actual footage of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and staged images of actor Gary Oldman who is playing Oswald.[6][9] The modern sequences are badly lit and they are artificially made grainy and scratched-looking so that they appear to be 1963-era 16 mm film.[10] Stone uses the pseudo-documentary format to influence the viewer by presenting the conspiracy theory in a scientific and authoritative manner.[7][8]


Related to, and in exact opposition to pseudo-documentary, is the notion of “fake-fiction”. A fake-fiction film takes the form of a staged, fictional movie, while actually portraying real, unscripted events.

The notion of fake-fiction was coined[11] by Pierre Bismuth to describe his 2016 film Where Is Rocky II?, which uses documentary method to tell a real, unscripted story, but is shot and edited to appear like a fiction film. The effect of this fictional aesthetic is precisely to cancel the sense of reality, making the real events appear as if they were staged or constructed.

Unlike mockumentary, fake-fiction does not focus on satire, and in distinction with docufiction, it does not re-stage fictional versions of real past events.

Another filmmaker whose work could be associated with the concept of fake-fiction is Gianfranco Rosi. For example, Below Sea Level[12] uses the language of fiction cinema in its rendering of unscripted, documentary material. Of his own work, Rosi said, "I don’t care if I'm making a fiction film or documentary — to me it's a film, it's a narrative thing."[13]

Found or discovered footage

The term found footage has sometimes been used to describe pseudo-documentaries where the plot involves the discovery of the film's footage. Found footage is originally the name of an entirely different genre, but the magazine Variety, for example, used the term "faux found-footage film" to describe the 2012 film Grave Encounters 2. The film scholar David Bordwell has criticized this recent use because of the confusion it creates, and instead prefers the term "discovered footage" for the narrative gimmick.[14]


Pseudo-documentary forms have appeared in television advertisements and campaign advertising. The "Revolving Door" ad used in the US presidential campaign of 1988 to attack candidate Michael Dukakis showed scripted scenes intended to look like documentary footage of men entering and exiting a prison through a revolving door.[15] Boston-based band the Del Fuegos appeared in a 1984 commercial for Miller beer, with scripted scenes shot in hand-held camera/pseudo-documentary style. The band was criticized for selling out and for the falseness of the commercial; founding member Warren Zanes said making the ad was a mistake, that their core audience turned away, and the larger audience gained by the exposure did not maintain interest for long.[16]

Peter Greenaway employed pseudo-documentary style in his French television production Death on the Seine in 1988. He used fabricated scenes to reconstruct a historic event that was otherwise impossible to shoot, and portrayed it as reality.[17]

Reality television has been described as a form of pseudo-documentary.[18] An early and influential example is 1992's The Real World by MTV, a scripted "reality" show bordering on soap opera.[19]

See also


  1. Jacobs, Delmar G. (2000). Revisioning film traditions: the pseudo-documentary and the neoWestern. Mellen Press. pp. 55–56. ISBN 0773476490.
  2. Jacobs, Delmar G. (2009). Interrogating the Image: Movies and the World of Film and Television. University Press of America. pp. 30, 188–194. ISBN 0761846328.
  3. Jacobs, Delmar G. (1997). Pseudo-documentary: Form and Application in Narrative Feature Film. University of South Florida.
  4. Rosenbaum, Jonathan (2007). Discovering Orson Welles: Jonathan Rosenbaum. University of California Press. p. 144. ISBN 0520247388.
  5. Rosenbaum 2007, p. 133
  6. 1 2 Bordwell, David; Thompson, Kristin (2004). Film art: an introduction (7 ed.). McGraw-Hill. p. 132. ISBN 0072484551.
  7. 1 2 Lin, Sylvia Li-Chun (2007). Representing Atrocity in Taiwan: The 2/28 Incident and White Terror in Fiction and Film. Global Chinese Culture. Columbia University Press. p. 131. ISBN 0231143605.
  8. 1 2 Theoharis, Athan G. (1999). The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 298. ISBN 089774991X.
  9. Landy, Marcia (2001). The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 327. ISBN 0485300966.
  10. Burgoyne, Robert (2003). "Memory, History, and Digital Imagery in Contemporary Film". In Paul Grainge. Memory and Popular Film. Inside Popular Film. Manchester University Press. pp. 231–232. ISBN 0719063752.
  11. Campion, Chris (2015-02-11). "Where is Rocky II? The 10-year desert hunt for Ed Ruscha's missing boulder". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-10-22.
  12. Below Sea Level
  13. Hynes, Eric (2016-10-24). "Fire at Sea's Gianfranco Rosi on the Art of Finding What Matters". LA Weekly. ISSN 0192-1940. Retrieved 2016-10-27.
  14. Bordwell, David (13 November 2012). "Return to Paranormalcy". Retrieved 24 May 2015.
  15. Jamieson, Kathleen Hall (1996). Packaging The Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising. 3. Oxford University Press. p. 521. ISBN 0199879869.
  16. Zanes, Warren (2007). "Video and the Theater of Purity". In Roger Beebe, Jason Middleton. Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones. Duke University Press. pp. 269–289. ISBN 0822341395.
  17. Grant, Barry Keith (1998). Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Contemporary approaches to film and television. 3. Wayne State University Press. p. 172. ISBN 0814326390.
  18. Elliott, Douglas Warren (1999). Reality-based Television as Pseudo-documentary. University of Minnesota.
  19. Calvert, Clay (2004). Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering Into Modern Culture. Critical Studies in Communication and in Cultural Industries. Basic Books. p. 214. ISBN 0786747757.
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