Documentary of Lies

"The following tale of alien encounters is true, and by 'true,' I mean 'false.' It's all lies, but they're entertaining lies, and in the end isn't that the real truth? The answer... is no."

Normally, a documentary is supposed to be a movie or TV show about something true: it "documents" something that really happened. Not all documentaries actually succeed in portraying the truth, however. People make mistakes, and some documentary makers are trying to promote their point of view and, understandably, choose to gloss over things they don't consider important. Usually, a documentary filmmaker is expected to adhere to reasonable standards of journalistic integrity and remember to do the research.

Sometimes, though, a documentary filmmaker just doesn't care, and any attempt at accuracy or finding the truth goes out the window, but the result is still presented as non-fiction, oftentimes with quote-mining and Manipulative Editing. When this happens, you usually end up with a Documentary of Lies. For a succinct demonstration of just how truth is commonly manipulated check out Luke's Change: An Inside Job a satirical take on Star Wars in the style of Loose Change that uses pretty much every common technique found in this trope.

This is not a Mockumentary, which makes no secret of the fact that it was made up. In order to be guilty of being a Documentary of Lies, a documentary has to claim that something is actually true when any reasonable investigation should show otherwise. The filmmakers were either negligent, outright liars, or just plain crazy. Don't Shoot the Message becomes a common result.

Television networks that produce a Documentary of Lies usually justify it by saying — off camera — that the programs are entertainment only and the filmmakers have no more of a duty to reflect the truth than do the makers of The X-Files; if viewers mistake it for non-fiction, that's their problem. That defense might work if the programs themselves were actually presented as fiction...

Frequent topics of this sort of program include psychics, UFOs and alien abductions, conspiracy theories, ghosts and other supernatural entities, and objects with alleged religious significance.

Not to be confused with the Documentary Episode, the Faux Documentary, the Mockumentary, or the Faux to Guide. See also Twisting the Words, which is this trope applied to subjects who were telling the truth in the first place. If the news takes it utterly seriously, You Can Panic Now. Dan Browned is the related trope for a work of literature that claims to be based on facts and research but is in fact a near-complete work of fiction.

See also Based on a Great Big Lie. Lurid Tales of Doom is this trope applied to newspapers and news broadcasts.


In-Universe Examples Only:

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    Parodies 
  • The mockumentary The Dark Side of the Moon, made by French TV Channel Arte in 2002, is a grand spoof of these kind of works, right down to its crazily Troperiffic portrayal of a generic Apollo Moon Hoax. The movie is meant as a funny tribute to the late, great Stanley Kubrick — who appears in the movie as a key participant of the conspiracy, filming fake Moon walks. There are innumerable Lampshade Hangings and deliberately nonsensical or silly bits thrown in, yet the tone is constantly deadpan. The Twist Ending reveals the real nature of the movie. Pity that many conspiracy theorists still took it absolutely seriously...
    • Spanish TV broadcaster La Sexta developed a similar idea, based on the February 23rd 1981 coup d'etat. It puts Pedro Almodóvar as the supposed director of the coup, which would have been concieved to secure democracy in Spain and increase the King's popularity.
  • Maddox of The Best Page in the Universe fame created the YouTube vid Unfastened Coins: The Titanic Conspiracy, which parodies this trope and the 9-11 conspiracy film Loose Change for all it's worth (including parodies of "undeniable verification tests" done with a model of the Titanic in the author's bathtub).
  • Luke's Change, a parody of Loose Change listed above, presents a compelling case that the destruction of the first Death Star was an inside job set up by the Skywalker family.

    Fictional examples 

Anime and Manga

Film
  • The Last Broadcast. Almost the whole movie is this, but only in The Reveal do we get to know that the In-Universe documentary we've just been watching actually contradicts what had really happened. The director/narrator himself, David Leigh, is the murderer in the case he's been investigating, and he seeks to exonerate Jim Suerd due to his ego being unable to take the fact that his 'perfect crime' was being attributed to some random psycho. It's also insinuated that all documentaries are like this, subject to the biases of the people making them.
  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Alien Autopsy both have main characters that re-enact their exploits for cameras and then pass off the footage as legitimately fly-on-the-wall.

Live-Action TV
  • Babylon 5 had an example in the fourth season episode, appropriately named "The Illusion of Truth". Earth had fallen under control of a malevolent dictatorship, which controls the Inter Stellar News Network. The title station had broken free of Earth Control in protest of the President abusing his executive powers and bombing civilian targets on Mars. A group of reporters from the Inter Stellar News Network come to get the station's personal side of the story back home. They Lied. Every line and image was twisted and distorted to make the heroes, namely Captain John Sheridan, look like villains who bow down to alien pressure and commit human experimentation. The director responsible had earlier told Sheridan, however, that he always tried to tell as much of the truth as he could without getting in trouble. The near-total lack of truth in the final product is, in this interpretation, a dire warning to those on Babylon 5 watching the broadcast.
  • In Unreal Coleman is introduced in season 2 as an award-winning documentary filmmaker who's hired as the new producer of Everlasting. He spends much of his time railing on how horrible and manipulative reality TV is and ends up wanting to destroy the series totally. Rachel fights against him and works with Quinn to force Coleman out. When Coleman threatens to use information about the show's dark methods, Rachel counters by revealing what Coleman's ex-girlfriend had told her: Coleman had hired downtrodden extras to pose as "the sex slaves" in his "documentary," meaning Coleman is as much a fake as Quinn and Rachel are.

Video Games
  • This becomes one of the major reasons for the Abstergo Project created by the Templars in the Assassin's Creed franchise. By Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Abstergo successfully creates an industry where they use employees to uncover real history and twist the information they find to make historical, evil Templars look like heroes and the historical, heroic Assassins look like villains. Then they put the information out as movies, video games, television shows, and documentaries, claiming the consumer is experiencing real history.
  • In the "Lair of the Shadow Broker" DLC for Mass Effect 2, you can find in the Broker's information terminal purchase records from Admiral/Councilor Anderson, showing that he bought a documentary which portrays Saren Arterius, the primary antagonist of Mass Effect, as being a misunderstood hero... alongside a copious amount of alcohol.
  • Gerry Romero is working on one in Mega Man Star Force 2. He fakes a string of monster sightings using a submarine... then eventually becomes the monster thanks to EM Wave Changing and goes completely insane.

Western Animation
  • In the Simpsons episode "Homer Badman", Homer is accused of inappropriately groping a young female babysitter, when in fact he was just pulling a gummy Venus de Milo off her bum (she had sat on it). He gives an interview to Rock Bottom (an expy of the '90s tabloid news program Hard Copy), which they then air heavily edited to make it seem as though Homer admits guilt and then attacks the journalist in question (who is clearly outside while Homer is inside). It ends with the disclaimer "Dramatization may not have happened."

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