Comedy is part of our current cultural landscape today like never before. Next to live performances, film, and TV, the online industry provides us with similar content through platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Consumers have more and more options to explore if they need to have a laugh, and one of them is 7 Days in Hell on HBO.
Inspired by the longest tennis match in history, 7 Days in Hell (2015) is a mockumentary that combines ridiculous elements with reality, functioning as a parody of sports documentaries. Directed by Jake Szymanski and written by Murray Miller, this forty-five-minute film, which tells the story of the (fictional) longest tennis match ever, is shot from the perspective of a serious HBO Sports documentary and plays with the familiar tropes of sports docs. But how exactly does 7 Days in Hell as a parody comment on and mock the reality of tennis documentaries?
What is a mockumentary?
In the twentieth century, the documentary film enjoyed a status of moral superiority in "high culture" since it was prized as unproblematically worthy and truth-telling. It differed from the structures and economics of Hollywood films, and it therefore carried a form of artistic purity. However, this changed with the increasing power of television as a mass medium and the continued convergence between the two separate industries of film and television (Rhodes & Springer, 2006).
The mockumentary as a genre emerged as a response to the popularity of documentaries. It uses the narrative style of the documentary to produce an entirely fictional work with an edgy twist of humor. The connections between the worlds of fiction and nonfiction and the way documentary aesthetics transferred to fiction film were already seen in the famous Citizen Kane (1941) and can be detected later in elements of the voiceover in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), the on-camera interviews in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), and many more precursors. Gary D. Rhodes and John Parris Springer argue that “docufictions stand, then, at the blurred boundary between fictions and documentary, questioning the possibility of a clear distinction (…) between the codified but increasingly outmoded idea of a stable division between fiction and nonfiction in film and media” (Rhodes & Springer, 2006). As fictional works increasingly use elements that create a sense of reality, the distinction between fact and fiction gradually fades away.
7 Days in Hell appropriates the aesthetics of documentaries in order to create its own fictional world.
Until recently, the mockumentary, also known as mock-documentary, was only a part of “art-house” cinema at the margins of culture. However, nowadays the mockumentary is both thriving in television and cinema as it moved from “high culture” to being part of popular culture. A mockumentary functions to appropriate the aesthetics of a documentary in order to create a fictional world. Mockumentaries make documentary as a screen form, documentary practitioners, and cultural, social and political icons their object of parody; they thereby seek to develop and maintain a relationship with viewers who are in on the joke and can appreciate both the humor and the critical point of the text (Rhodes & Springer, 2006). Through these functions, the mockumentary genre holds a mirror in front of its audience, and discomfort is central to its goals. Through discomfort, people as both the audience and the subject reflect on their norms, values, ideologies, and ways of being (Miller, 2012).
The story of Aaron Williams and Charles Poole
7 Days in Hell is a mockumentary inspired by a real event, a tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut in the Wimbledon 2010 tournament. This tennis match has gone down as the longest in history as the opponents played for three days with a total of 183 games. The mockumentary shows the story of two completely different tennis players, named Aaron Williams and Charles Poole.
As a child, Aaron was adopted by Richard Williams, a man who raised him together with his daughters, Venus and Serena, after Aaron’s mother left him on the street. He quickly became one of the top tennis players, but ever since he became famous, partying and drinking became an important part of his personal life. Williams vanished after an incident where he killed a line judge and pushed the Duke of Kent; he then resurfaced in Sweden, where he eventually ended up in prison.
Charles Poole is a British child prodigy forced into a tennis career by his mother, and the pressure for him to win Wimbledon for his country is high. The public compares the careers of Poole and Williams, and when Poole speaks out saying that he believes he is the better player of the two, Williams escapes from Swedish prison to return to the tennis field in time for Wimbledon. They face each other in the first round of Wimbledon 2001, and it is the start of the so-called 7 days in hell.
Realism in 7 Days in Hell
7 Days in Hell functions as a mockumentary in a variety of ways, next to using documentary codes and conventions. First of all, 7 Days in Hell appropriates the aesthetics of documentaries in order to create its own fictional world. Documentaries use these to present a narrative that looks and feels "organic" and which signifies reality. Roland Barthes calls this the "reality effect". It functions partially because of the small details that signify reality. In narrative film, this could be details such as shaky cameras or amateur qualities. However, the documentary form also has multiple aesthetics that add to the feeling of reality, and these are used by mockumentaries to create the same effect. As Gary D. Rhodes and John Parris Springer state, “realist techniques and the conventions of documentary presentation try to persuade audiences to accept what is presented as a genuine pro-filmic reality” (Rhodes & Springer, 2006). One important documentary convention used in the mockumentary is one-on-one interviews with the people who were involved with Williams, Poole, or Wimbledon.
What is interesting is that the mockumentary combines fictional characters with real people. Serena Williams, former number one in women’s tennis, is one of the people who gets interviewed throughout the mockumentary. She is one of the most famous tennis players out there, but in the mockumentary, she only gets portrayed as Aaron’s sister. The mockumentary thus plays with a sense of reality not only through using the documentary code of one-on-one interviews, but also through using famous people that are not particularly known as actors.
7 Days in Hell does not only feature Serena Williams as far as real celebrities go, but also Soledad O’Brien, who has produced award-winning, record-breaking and critically acclaimed documentaries on the most important stories facing the world today. Illusionist David Copperfield also plays a role as himself as he magically appears on Poole’s shoulders to try and help Williams win the match, and John McEnroe and Chris Evert, two famous tennis players, both get interviewed about Williams and Poole. These one-on-one interviews provide the information given in the mockumentary with a source. The people who were interviewed tell their stories, and with that, they claim to be a part of what has happened. The interview thus acts as "evidence" and therefore adds to the feeling of reality for the audience.
The mockumentary also uses newsreel footage that adds to its realism. Especially when it comes to Aaron Williams’ actions, the mockumentary shows newspaper headlines from The New York Times and footage of newsreaders all over the world when Williams pushes the Duke of Kent and disappears. This footage makes it seem that this was an internationally known scandal.
Voiceover commentary is also an element that gives the audience a feeling of this being a documentary. This holds not only for the commentary on the tennis match but also for when the audio of the interviews is played while we see footage of Williams and Poole in- and outside of the match. This footage contains historical videos and interviews of the two players, which helps build a fictional world that looks very realistic, yet is quite ridiculous.
Another important element relating to the second function of 7 Days in Hell as a mockumentary, is the way in which it parodies the documentary genre in sports. It does not so much take on a political or critical stance against the sports world, but it mocks the stereotypical situations that occur within normal sports documentaries. The documentary aesthetics are appropriated for stylistic and comical reasons, and nothing more.
The mockumentary places the viewer in an empowered position in which they are enabled to recognize the constructed nature of the mockumentary.
One tennis documentary we can compare 7 Days in Hell to, is Strokes of Genius (2018), a documentary about the 2008 Wimbledon Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Lasting almost five hours, the match became the longest Wimbledon Final ever played, and it is seen as one of the best. Here we already see one comparison between the two: both portray a historical and memorable tennis event. Strokes of Genius also includes one-on-one interviews with people who were involved and other experts, and in fact, John McEnroe and Chris Evert are among them. This makes 7 Days in Hell even more interesting as a parody, since the people who participate in it seem to be mocking the genre they are a part of.
Next to that, an important part of the tennis documentary is, of course, footage from the tennis match itself, along with occasionally showing the current score and the visible tension of people in the crowd that are known to the tennis players. The same thing happens in 7 Days in Hell, it portrays reality as if an actual match has been played. Shots of the tennis match are spread throughout both the mockumentary and Strokes of Genius. However, the seriousness and the focus of Nadal and Federer in Strokes of Genius is mocked through the ridiculous events that happen during the match in 7 Days in Hell. The Queen of England beating up Poole, Williams having sex with a streaker on the court, and David Copperfield magically appearing on Poole’s shoulders are all unrealistic events shown and portrayed in a realistic but comical way. This is not a direct way of mocking, as the mockumentary is about a fictional match in history, but it makes fun of sports documentaries in general.
Another interesting comparison is the way that Charles Poole is seen as a child prodigy next to the historical footage of Nadal as a child playing tennis. In Strokes of Genius, Nadal is portrayed as a hard-working child who is already fond of tennis in his younger years. However, 7 Days in Hell plays with this, as it shows Charles Poole on the tennis court as a child who is forced by his mother to play professionally while he himself does not even like tennis. Also, in both Strokes of Genius and 7 Days in Hell, footage is shown where the young, potential tennis players are being interviewed.
The third function of the mockumentary is the development of a relationship with its viewers. 7 Days in Hell talks to a “knowing” audience. According to Thomas Doherty (2003), the mockumentary places the viewer in an empowered position in which they are enabled to recognize the constructed nature of the mockumentary, and it is therefore reassuring as it plays on the knowledge that the audience has when it comes to media viewing. The audience is rewarded for their cultural knowledge of what the mockumentary wants to do, but without knowledge of the typical codes within sports documentaries, or even knowledge of tennis in general, it might be difficult for the audience to distinguish between fact and fiction in the mockumentary. Therefore, participating in the playfulness of the mockumentary requires more than just watching it. Charles Poole and Aaron Williams are played by two famous actors, Andy Samberg and Kit Harington. Both are known for a popular TV series they play in, but if a viewer of 7 Days in Hell is not aware of this or knows little about the game of tennis, the mockumentary and its usage of documentary codes might cause the audience to actually believe in what is being said and might, therefore, provide a warped view on reality.
The figure above shows some questions that arise when conducting a Google search on 7 Days in Hell. Three of these questions show the confusion about the reality of the mockumentary. Since 7 Days in Hell is not meant to make a political or critical statement or to extremely ridicule any culture or ethnicity, it is not faced with a lot of controversies. However, in other cases, the ethics of irony might play a bigger role.
All in all, the mockumentary 7 Days in Hell fulfills multiple functions and features elements that make it an excellent example of a fictional work parodying the game of tennis and relevant documentaries. It uses documentary conventions and codes like one-on-one interviews, newsreel footage, and voiceover commentary to give its audience a sense of looking at a true documentary, and therefore at reality. The mockumentary also carries the function of parodying the sports genre in documentaries. By comparing it to another tennis documentary, Strokes of Genius, we see that they both focus on a historical event in tennis while interviewing experts on the field and showing footage of the match and its players, but the ridiculous events in 7 Days in Hell mock the seriousness of the match in Strokes of Genius. Next to that, the mockumentary has the function of constructing a relationship with its viewers. An audience that enjoys tennis and watches other sports documentaries probably understands and knows the goal of the mockumentary, and they are therefore rewarded for their knowledge through reassurance. Without any of this knowledge, it might be difficult for the audience to draw a line between fact and fiction and to see the distinction. The events that happen during the match might seem unrealistic, but other elements like the characters and the length of the match are important to the film’s realism. Aaron Williams and Charles Poole might not be real, but 7 Days in Hell at least gives you something to laugh about.
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Douglas, A. (2018). Strokes of Genius. Tennis Channel.
McGarry, C. J. (2019) Visual Characteristics of the Mockumentary Format. University Honors Theses. Paper 688.
Miller, C. J. (2012). Too bold for the box office: the mockumentary from big screen to small. Scarecrow Press
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