After my previous post about how The Blair Witch Project, The Curse of the Blair Witch, and The WNUF Halloween Special succeed and fail at achieving verisimilitude, it may as well be asked, why? Why does it matter whether a found footage film appears totally authentic or not? Why can’t the technique just be used for stylistic reasons without necessarily going out of its way to deceive an audience about its legitimacy? And these are all fair questions, so I will give them all a fair answer: because it’s fun.
Found footage films, by employing that great deceit of authenticity, do something no other style of film does. To be truly fooled by a found footage film is to be told that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are real again: that something larger than life really isn’t too large after all. That’s why the style lends itself so well to horror films in particular, because we’ve been telling each other stories of monsters and boogeymen for ages and that frisson of “what if?” never gets old. Sometimes, the technique is just a unique storytelling tool, like in the epistolary novels of old, but a good found footage film will, at the very least, have us playing along and enjoying the possibility of “if it happened, this is what it would look like.” A great found footage film, on the other hand, is one that’s so convincing, you’re not even sure if it’s a matter of “would.” A great found footage film tells you, “this is what it looks like,” and has you watching with too little evidence to argue otherwise.
Furthermore, as the old adage goes, “seeing is believing,” but the advent of film confronted us with whether or not watching is believing as well. Photography and film wield a power that makes us simultaneously reject a film as objective reality while recognizing it as representing our reality. Should a film appear, for all intents and purposes, credible and authentic, then the only thing preventing us from believing it to be so would be our own media literacy, our own awareness of the nature of film production and perhaps the history of the specific film in question. The less that we know, the more faith we’re forced to put into a film, and found footage films exploit that faith to the point where it doesn’t matter what our response is. We can scoff and say that it couldn’t possibly be real, but if it could be, then it very well may be, and being stubborn won’t change that.
This is why The Blair Witch Project was able to command so much attention, because it came out of nowhere with a fabricated mythology to support it and no semblance of Hollywood professionalism or special effects to give it away. It was just three kids lost in the woods – that already happens all the time, these ones just happened to have a camera. There’s a paradox at play in found footage films where the more we’re reminded that we’re watching a movie (through unstaged cinematography, amateurish aesthetics, diegetic references to or appearances by the camera, etc.) the more willing we are to believe it’s a real document, since in “movie reality,” all those things are cleaned up and scrubbed off by the editors. However, I covered in my previous post on found footage that The Blair Witch Project couldn’t escape the trappings of professionalism entirely, which is why its illusion is internally unstable.
So why does this verisimilitude in found footage matter? Well, why don’t we have to bring found footage filmmakers to court anymore to prove that they didn’t kill their actors, like we did with Snuff (1976) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980)? Ultimately, it’s because audiences are just too smart now, and the style’s ubiquity has killed all of its mystique. Found footage films have just become films like any other.
But if realism is “the story of resemblance,” as famed film theorist André Bazin says, then I argue that found footage film is its apex. It paradoxically presents itself as not a “real film” but “filmed reality,” and we as viewers will accept it as long as it can hold under scrutiny. Credulousness is an innate part of the film viewing experience, one that allows us to get invested and empathize with the characters, but even just the nature of film production, distribution, and exhibition can be enough to dash our naiveté.
So the success of a found footage film’s verisimilitude is rooted in the audience’s participation; its plausibility is externally dependent on how much or how little the viewer in question knows about it – or thinks they know about it. That’s why it’s films like The Blair Witch Project and The WNUF Halloween Special, films that do more than just resemble reality but construct and appropriate reality around them, make us believe in them a little more.
The art of cinema is inherently deceptive. A projected film is just light on a wall, not a tangible world playing out before you. Editing and other work is a deceit that betrays the authenticity of raw footage. CGI and other special effects are great, spectacular forgeries. Watchers of film have since, over generations, become accustomed to these lies and now they don’t even phase us, but found footage film is the one style that still has that power to potentially trick and deceive. The creativity and audacity of The Blair Witch Project, The WNUF Halloween Special, and all of their controversial predecessors are celebrations of cinema’s historic relationship with deception, and found footage films, for as long as they aim for verisimilitude, will throw into relief our still-incomplete understanding of whether what we see on film is real, “real,” or something else.