Dark Side of the Moon (2002) is a French mockumentary which exposes the idea of the moon landing being filmed in a studio with the goal of invoking critical reflexivity to question the reliability of the presented discourse in media.
Directed by William Karel, Dark Side of the Moon depicts the moon landing being filmed in a studio by the Central Intelligence Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Stanley Kubrick. It tells a story of how the CIA recruited Stanley Kubrick to help Americans win the space race by using a fake montage of the moon landing. The mockumentary is presented in a truthful way, blurring the line between fiction and reality. The director left giveaways on purpose, such as wrong dates and facts in the film to make the viewer aware that it is not a documentary. For less suspectable viewers, bloopers are included at the end of the film and it is announced that it is, in fact, a mockumentary.
The film mixes real facts with misinformation to entertain the viewer but at the same time, it exposes that one should be aware of how manipulation of footage and facts can blur the line between truth and fiction, informing the viewer to always stay critical of what they see.
However, despite being a mockumentary, less knowing audiences and conspiracy theorists furthered the debate of the moon landing being fake. An edited mockumentary is floating around on the internet which lacks all the giveaways of suggesting that this is a mockumentary thereby making less critical viewers become victims of fake information.
In this paper, I am going to analyze what exactly is being parodied and satirized in the relatively new genre of the mockumentary. I will move onto exploring what makes this mockumentary truthful and construct an image of an intended viewer. I will analyzethe reality effects used in the film to create a “truthful”, realistic portrayal. Lastly, I will look into how it was received by the audience and how it has constructed alternative truths. Through this paper, I aim to answer the questions: how does Dark Side of the Moon address a knowing audience, and how was the mockumentary misappropriated?
Role of parody and satire in the mockumentary
The film mixes real facts with misinformation to entertain the viewer but at the same time it exposes that one should be aware of how manipulation of footage and facts can blur the line between truth and fiction, informing the viewer to always stay critical of what they see. According to Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe (2006) mockumentaries are intended to raise an issue of concern in media representation.
The way mockumentaries operate is through three modes: parody, critique and deconstruction (Lipkin, Paget, & Roscoe, 2006). The parody element in mockumentaries is used as a way to emphasize humor and mock documentary conventions. The use of parody in Dark Side of the Moon becomes gradually more evident throughout the movie. It begins by truthful facts such as the moon landing happening. However, the mockumentary gives their spin by NASA asking Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing footage, in the same set as he directed his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Parody is used as a way to mock conspiracy theorists who do not believe in the moon landing.
An evident example of parody can be found towards the end in a scene where people from the CIA who worked on faking the footage relocate to Indonesia. The scene includes a narrator describing that the CIA knew the local language and techniques for blending in. It is followed by interviews with local people who describe them as “not very discreet”, and say that “they had no respect for anything. We found empty beer cans and McDonald’s wrappers everywhere”. The scenes show the local atmosphere, and people living ordinary lives. These scenes give a type of realness as found in real documentaries. However, a scene with a skeleton of a CIA agent is followed up by a local person saying that he “killed himself cleaning his revolver. We kept the body for the kids to play with.” This makes the realness shift to absurdness.
Dark Side of the Moon fits in the second mode of a mockumentary as described by Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe, namely a critique, which “engage(s) more critically in the form’s inherent reflexivity towards factual discourse and raise(s) questions about both the documentary form and wider factual media practices” (Lipkin, Paget, & Roscoe, 2006, p. 16).
“Sometimes media takes something out of proportion in order to write a story” – Dark Side of the Moon, 2002
At the end of the Dark Side of the Moon bloopers there is a statement that reveals the main idea behind this mockumentary: "Sometimes media takes something out of proportion in order to write a story," Even though the movie came out 18 years ago, this remark is relevant nowadays when there is convergence in the media between the representation of reality and reality itself.
Through the use of parody and satire, the director critiques the gullibility of people who consume media without being critical and, at the same time, tries to entertain the viewer. The use of satire and parody are evident in the film. By using satire, the mockumentary intends to invoke self-reflexivity in the viewer and make them question the reliability of media discourse.
What makes the mockumentary truthful?
The final mode constituting a mockumentary, deconstruction, seeks to use the aesthetics of a documentary to create a fictional text, and, through deconstruction, develop a connection with an audience who is intelligent enough to notice the untruthfulness and use critical reflexivity. (Lipkin, Paget, & Roscoe, 2006) The way Dark Side of the Moon depicts reality depends upon the viewer . Truthfulness achieved in mockumentaries can be understood by applying the term coined by Roland Barthes (1968) - “Reality Effect” - which entails that signifiers affect how we see reality. Although it was initially used to literature by Barthes, it can be applied to film as well.
Dark Side of the Moon adopts certain elements of an expository mode of documentaries to create the “Reality Effect”. The narrator has a professional voice and uses the voice-of-God. The tone of the voice and commentary gives the mockumentary a sense of reliability, which is achieved through the neutrality and omniscience of the narrator (Nichols, 2001). At the beginning of the mockumentary, the voice-of-God commentary aligns with archival footage shown in the movie and only small details give away the unreliability of the documentary. However, as the movie continues, the images and the voice-over begin to mismatch.
The way Dark Side of the Moon depicts reality depends upon the viewer.
Another example on how editing is used to achieve the “Reality Effect” is a scene of Eve Kendall, a former secretary of Richard Nixon, giving an interview about moon landing plans to be filmed in a studio: “One of the presidential advisors said hesitantly, what if we film the first steps of the moon in a studio. Then if we fail, we can always show those pictures to the public”. The scene is followed up by another interview with Alexander Haig, Chief of Staff for Nixon: “The president was prepared to do so, and I was prepared to do so”. The scenes are edited in a way to decontextualize the real interviews. Editing is used “to make certain interview subjects sound as if they are talking about the moon hoax when, in fact, it is impossible to tell what they are referring to.” (Baron, 2013, p. 75)
It makes it seem as if these two interviews were shot on the same day and as if Eve Kendall and Alexander Haig are conversing with each other. However, the background of the interviews reveals that they are not actually doing so and the effect of conversation realness is achieved through editing. Borrowing from the documentary, the mockumentary, through the use of editing and realistic techniques, tries to trigger a level of belief and invoke the audience to accept what is shown.
At the end of the movie it is revealedthat Eve Kendall is only a substitute actor for the secretary. Eve Kendall is also a fictional name used from the 1959 movie North by Northwest directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This example shows how Dark Side of the Moon has used an element from the reflexive documentary.The director decontextualizes and twists the content to fit into the narrative of the mockumentary. The mockumentary relies on the trained actor, in this case the actor playing Eve Kendall, “to deliver the performances we initially believe to be the self-presentation” (Nichols, 2001, p. 127). The reflexive mode (Nichols, 2001), either through clues and hints, or at the end of the credits, reveals the deceptive nature of the mocumentary. In this case, the deception is revealed through the added bloopers at the end of the movie who show actors reading scripts and the credits.
An example of how small details signify unreliability can be seen in a scene of a Hollywood producer whose name is presented as Jack Torrance. The producer is describing how:
“NASA quickly realized that the race to the moon was really a war of images between the Russians and the United States because our facilities were pretty rudimentary, and the space centre was really laughable. The space race had to be turned into a pure Hollywood product".
As he is speaking his words are accompanied by the footage of a single rocket, which switches to another shot where a person with a jet pack flies above the mountains. Latter shots are followed up by extractions from movies, of people working on fixing the rocket. The viewer who uses critical reflexivity would understand that the space center is not made up of one rocket. Another clue is the name of the producer, whose name is taken from The Shining, a movie Stanley Kubrick directed. The footage shown represents generic images rather than matching the words of “Jack Torrannce” and showing the actual events of what was happening. The mockumentary assumes that the audience through hints such as using a fake name of a witness, and inappropriate footage “will be able to distinguish between fact and fiction in the media representation” (Lipkin, Paget, & Roscoe, 2006, p. 17.
The effect mockumentaries have on the public
Mockumentaries use a “call to play” technique to distract the viewer from the fact that the film is fictional or puts the observer in the position of continual assessment to distinguish what the real facts are and what is fiction (Hight, 2010).
This mockumentary invites the viewer to be an active watcher. Besides the mentioned hints that are giveaways that film is fiction, it has instances of using incorrect event dates and factual errors. The mockumentary is intended for a viewer who is intelligent enough to participate in the playfulness it. By combining the voice-of-God accompanied by both archival and new footage that does not always match the narrator's voice, using actors that resemble the real characters with fictional movie character names, and factual errors, the knowing audience can sense the parody and distinguish the truth from fiction.
A mockumentary, especially one on a conspiracy theory, can become a perfect tool for manipulation.
A mockumentary, especially one on a conspiracy theory as this one can become a perfect tool for manipulation. Through the “Reality Effect”, a less knowing audience can be fooled. The mockumentary includes interviews with real characters such as Christiane Kubrick (widow of Stanley Kubrick), Jan Harlan (executive producer of Stanley Kubrick), various politicians and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (astronaut). Montage techniques in Dark Side of the Moon are used to decontextualize their given interviews reframing what exactly they are referring to. The fragmented and already decontextualized mockumentary Dark Side of the Moon has been appropriated, by cutting out the bloopers and giveaway clues to construct an alternative truth to further conspiracy debates (Dark Side of the Moon, n.d.).
Dark Side of the Moon is a perfect example of a mockumentary using non-fictional documentary aesthetics to entertain the viewer by depicting fictional events. The combination of facts and real characters with a blend of fiction requires the viewer to have knowledge of films and factual information of events that have happened to form an engaging relationship with the mockumentary. While the mockumentary has furthered the existing conspiracy debates on Stanley Kubrick producing moon landing footage, the end goal of it is to also invoke critical reflexivity to question how reliable the presented discourse in media is.
Barthes, R. (1986). The Reality Effect. In The Rustle of Language trans. Richard Howard. University of Columbia Press.
Baron, J. (2013). The archive effect: Found footage and the audiovisual experience of history. Routledge.
Hight, C. (2010). Television mockumentary: Reflexivity, satire and a call to play. Manchester University Press.
Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Décis, V., Fage, E., & Llamazares, J.P. (Producers), & Karel, W. (Director). (2002). Dark Side of the Moon [Mockumentary]. France: Arte France.
Lipkin, S.N., D. Paget & J. Roscoe (2006). “Docudrama and Mock-Documentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons.” In Docufictions. Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. Jefferson and London: McFarland and Company, 11-26.