Fake documentaries mimic documentary genre expectations, unraveling the documentary’s authority and dismantling understandings of identity, history, and nation. The interdisciplinary essays in F Is for Phony discuss a broad scope of works and explore issues raised by “fake docs” such as the fiction/documentary divide, the ethics of reality-based manipulation, and whether documentariness derives from form or reception. Defining the borderline between fact and fiction, the contributors reveal what fake documentaries imply and usually make explicit: that many documentaries lie to tell the truth, and that the truth is relative.
Integrating archival sources with pseudo-documentary fabrications, Jesse Lerner’s work delves into the tangled legacies of Mesoamerican antiquarianism, revealing how archaeologists, art historians, and museum curators have, for centuries, fashioned various theories about pre-Columbian civilizations from the stuff of colonialist fantasies and ingenious forgeries. Structured around five key vignettes in this history, Lerner’s films combine travelogues, newsreels, and educational films to examine the claims of various experts like early-20th century “dean of the Mayanists” Sylvanus G. Morley and archaeologist Michael Coe, longtime curator of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. As is the case with so much of what takes place in the shady world of forgers, it’s difficult to know how to evaluate the statements that Lara makes.” Lerner’s work retains an aggressively hybrid nature, shuttling between collage animations, talking-head interviews with both real and imaginary experts, and hand-processed images. Bits of found footage, Lerner has explained, “have been taken from their original context and used to create a new narrative. About half of the images and audio are mine. Like the forger, I have attempted to artificially induce the illusion of age onto the surface of some of these original materials to match the visual quality of the archival materials.” Lerner thereby comments on the nature of documentary itself, and our desire to believe the inventions of an artist as historical fact.