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Films and TV
|— Secret Mysteries of America's Beginnings Volume 1: The New Atlantis|
Schlockumentary (also shlockumentary), a portmanteau formed from slang schlock, rubbish (ultimately perhaps from Yiddish שלאַק, "stroke" or "aneurysm," but likely from a Yiddish cognate of German Schlacke, "waste products", cognate with English "slag") and documentary, is a film or TV show purporting to be a documentary, but which inclines toward conspiracy theory; religious propaganda; nationalist historical revisionism, or other pseudohistory; wild, unsubstantiated speculative questioning; xenophobia or racialism, often subtly invoked; or other characteristics that fail the "documenting" test of a documentary.
While fiction sometimes claims to be "based on a true story,"[note 1] schlockumentary is something which poses as a true story, but is based on manipulation, bait and switch, bias, fringe beliefs, strawman attacks, or pure bullshit.
A schlockumentary is a subset of the pseudo-documentary. It can be schlock because it fails to present things as they happened; because the documentary directors, writers, or producers themselves lack critical distance from the subject; because of selective filming or editing; because it is the equivalent of clickbait; because its creators are cynical propagandists, or are merely unhinged; or for a number of other reasons.
While science fiction asks "What if," then delivers a work of fiction, a schlockumentary asks the same question then acts as if its answers are, or could be, fact. If sci-fi is a mentalist, then schlockumentaries are a psychic.
A fair proportion of YouTube that is not about cute animals, politics, fixing or buying stuff, or gaming is schlockumentary. The Netflix documentary subcategory also has a disturbing number of schlockumentaries, as do those of other streaming services such as Amazon Prime.
- 1 History and social context
- 2 There's history, then there's the History Channel
- 3 Types of schlockumentary
- 3.1 Aliens
- 3.2 Animals
- 3.3 Anthropology
- 3.4 Antisemitic
- 3.5 Anti-vaccination
- 3.6 Archaeology
- 3.7 Celebrities
- 3.8 Creationism
- 3.9 Climate change
- 3.10 Crime and pseudolaw
- 3.11 Cryptozoology
- 3.12 Dietary, exercise, and fitness
- 3.13 Electricity
- 3.14 Flat Earth
- 3.15 Gender and sexuality
- 3.16 Government coverups
- 3.17 History (not the channel, the thing, dammit)
- 3.18 Islamophobic
- 3.19 Moonbat
- 3.20 Moon landing and space travel
- 3.21 Nostradamus
- 3.22 Paranormal
- 3.23 Religious
- 3.24 Self help
- 3.25 US dollar
- 3.26 Wingnut
- 3.27 Woo
- 3.28 Omnibus conspiracies
- 3.29 Other
- 4 What schlockumentaries aren't
- 5 How to spot a schlockumentary
- 6 External links
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
The schlockumentary genre has roots at least as far back as the 1930s (for example, in drug scare films like Reefer Madness), but appears to have expanded with the New Age movement in the 1970s, with shows such as the Erich von Däniken-inspired In Search Of… television series. Popularity might have had something to do with a combination of paranoia, fantasy, distrust of government, and curiosity arising from the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the race to the Moon, the Watergate scandal, and psychedelic drug use. Discordianism may also have played a role.
The genre went through something of a stagnation through the 1980s and 1990s, with right-wing shows like Cops, left-wing films by Michael Moore, and non-partisan flakery like Unsolved Mysteries filling a small if steady role. This makes some sense from an anthropological perspective, since trust in government institutions in the US rose notably from 1981 to 1991.
Like conspiracy theory in general, though, schlockumentaries returned with a vengeance after Y2K fears, Millennialism, and 9/11, with Ghost hunting TV shows, among others, and saw a proliferation roughly corresponding to a period of declining trust in American public institutions. They now seem to occupy a place vacated by the decline of their print media versions such as the Weekly World News.
There's history, then there's the History Channel
In America, the History Channel often shows such programming, and is now probably the best-known purveyor of schlockumentaries of the ancient aliens and other didit fallacy varieties, the classic example being Giorgio Tsoukalos' show, with other entries such as UFO Hunters in the mix.
Even the National Geographic Channel and the
Shark Discovery Channel, both of which really ought to know better, sometimes air or produce schlockumentaries. One might say the nascence of reality TV was also the birth of unreality TV.
Types of schlockumentary
The History Channel's foray into aliens spawned too many imitators to cover here, such as:
- Above Majestic: Apparently, a secret branch of the US government is reverse-engineering alien tech. Could that be where the Baconator originated?
- Alien Messiah: Who done the Bible? Aliensdidit!
- Aliens in Egypt: Because humans couldn't have built pyramids.
- Alien Agenda Planet Earth: Rulers of Time and Space: NORAD exists, therefore aliens exist.
- Ancient Alien America: European colonialism wasn't so bad because the aliens did it first.
- The British UFO Files: "If any of them alien geezers comes round, luv, make 'em a cup of tea." This one predates Ancient Aliens, though.
- Unsealed: Alien Files: This series links MUFON with Nazis, but not the way you'd expect.
There is an entire genre of pseudoanthropology schlockumentary called the mondo film that flourished in the 1960s and '70s, the term coming from the 1962 Italian documentary Mondo Cane. Such films were typically orientalist, racialist, generally exploitative, or even the closest thing to a real life snuff film (such as the Faces of Death series), any stated educational intent being just a veneer for the real purpose of these films: to display "shocking" carnage, brutality, and nudity for Western audiences in grindhouse theaters.
The controversial 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust, an important progenitor to the "found footage" subgenre of horror films, can be read as a satire of mondo films. The "protagonists", an American film crew shooting a documentary about cannibal tribes in the Amazon, stage horrific abuses against the natives for the purpose of getting more exciting footage, which ultimately gets them killed when the natives respond in kind. Director Ruggero Deodato said that he got the idea for the film when talking to his son about the Italian news media's coverage of the Red Brigades during Italy's "years of lead" in the 1970s, which he felt was focused on showcasing sensationalized graphic violence with little regard for journalistic integrity. Many crewmembers on the film were also veterans of the mondo genre.
None of the many schlockumentary films aimed to incite panic about cultural Marxism, the NWO, bankers and the Federal Reserve, Freemasons, and the Illuminati could be antisemitic in their intent, could they?
Anti-vaccination movement schlockos tend to rely heavily on the fraudulent and discredited work of delicensed medical doctor Andrew Wakefield, such as Del Bigtree's film Vaxxed, or feed off this, as in The Pathological Optimist, an imbalanced documentary that places Wakefield in an unduly positive light.
Archaeology is first and foremost used to speculate about aliens, because of course, ancient aliens. It is also often shoehorned into justifying religious beliefs, as discussed below. Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has faced accusations of being a schlockumentarian of this type, though this is debatable, because while Jacobovici does appear to seek a certain outcome, and is not a trained archaeologist, he does interview relevant experts.
A celebrity, especially a dead one — because libel in Common Law countries does not apply to the dead — can make a great topic for a schlockumentary. "Did Marilyn Monroe kill Hitler, then get killed by JFK, who was then killed by Elvis? This astonishing documentary will make you rethink history!"
Celebrity films can rope in the paranormal, too, because can you prove Karl Malden's ghost isn't showing up on Hollywood sets and making small, helpful suggestions on scripts while nobody is looking? No? Then "some people will continue to ask important questions about spirits and the afterlife."
Many have called the film Leaving Neverland, which makes unverified claims that deceased pop singer Michael Jackson was guilty of child abuse, a schlockumentary. It is unclear whether the film deserves that epithet. The accusations seem to come mainly from his diehard fans, but there has also been no conclusive evidence of Jackson being an abuser outside hearsay.
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a schlockumentary fabricating a false narrative of Christian repression and the "scientific validity" of intelligent design. Darwin's Deadly Legacy attacks Darwin by (hold on to your Godwin's Law, folks) claiming Darwin was responsible for the Holocaust, thus managing to achieve crank magnetism between anti-semitism and evolution conspiracy.
Climate denial schlockumentaries are most likely to be short propaganda pieces from think tanks or Astroturf groups. The most well known is likely The Great Global Warming Swindle, though Michael Moore's 2020 Planet of the Humans is another notable example.
Crime and pseudolaw
Crime schlocko films are often "false true crime," in that they make unsubstantiated claims, usually about murders or kidnappings, or claim that accidental deaths or suicides such as that of Seth Rich were murders that They covered up. Famous criminals, especially unidentified ones such as Jack the Ripper, are a staple of schlockumentaries.
The obverse is denialism, as when a film purporting to be non-fiction engages in the denial of crimes, or their false attribution. Oil, Smoke & Mirrors, for example, alleges 9/11 was an inside job. Loose Change similarly speculates that the 2001 attacks were a false flag operation orchestrated by George W. Bush so he could provoke war in Iraq.
Pseudolaw is another fruitful topic for schlockumentaries, because if you're not a citizen but a person, you can say or do whatever you want in a film or on the street, as long as you're not tried in an admiralty court.Do You Believe That?
Not to be outdone by the History Channel, the channel Animal Planet ran Mermaids: The Body Found, and their own Sasquatch-themed show, Finding Bigfoot. Other Yeti-esque examples exist, such as Bigfoot: The Evidence Files and Bigfoot in Europe: Sasquatch Encounters Abroad. Of course, there is no limit to the number of cryptids out there, as American Monsters: Werewolves, Wildmen and Sea Creatures and Alaska Monsters "prove."
Dietary, exercise, and fitness
- Cholésterol, le grand bluff ("Cholesterol: The Great Bluff")
- Codex Alimentarius, a paranoid exploration into how the Codex Alimentarius is a New World Order plot to eradicate organic food
- Food, Inc
- Forks Over Knives
- GMO OMG
Whether it's a "documentary" about how Nikola Tesla was murdered to keep his free energy system under wraps, or a piece of bad science about microwaves like Is Your Cell Phone Killing You?, if it goes zap, it can be schlocked.
Flat Earth schlockumentaries are too stupid even for most schlockumentarians with a budget, so you will find most of this on YouTube.
Gender and sexuality
Typically these films use misleading claims about gender and sexuality, such as starting from a transphobic position, or present other fringe positions as fact. In some cases, such as The Red Pill, films may whitewash the men's rights movement.
Many a schlockumentary presupposes a government coverup, but sometimes this is the main or only topic. Typical subjects are the CIA, John F. Kennedy, and the usual suspects, though the Secret Mysteries of America's Beginnings series proposes that the juicy coverups were from mainly about 1600 to 1780 or so.
History (not the channel, the thing, dammit)
- Adolph Hitler's Great Escape "Did Hitler survive the war and escape to Argentina
then use alien technology to travel back in time and become Napoleon so he could attack Russia again?" (Spoiler: No.)
- Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Poor Leonardo, it was bad enough when Dan Brown dug up the artist's bones for his schlockudramatic novel and roped the Knights Templar into it — along comes this schlockumentary like a hyena to devour those bones.
Tankie and other moonbat schlockumentaries seem rare in English, but are likely to be common in other languages. For example, Russia's second-largest political party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, is known for its Stalin apologetics, something Vladimir Putin has also been engaged in.
Moon landing and space travel
The granddaddy of Moon landing hoax schlockumentaries is Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? but many others in the same vein exist. Some go so far as to deny space travel, though some, of course, maintain that NASA's job "really" is to cover up the presence of aliens.
Any alleged non-fiction show or film with a non-neutral or non-skeptic position on ghosts, ESP, etc., will fit this mould. One of the better known examples is Paranormal Witness. People in the UK are likely to be more familiar with Derek Acorah bumbling around while Yvette from Blue Peter worked herself into an absolute panic. Sadly, almost every nation seems to have one of these, such as Åndenes Makt ("Power of the Spirits") in Norway.
In English, these appear to be aired primarily to Christian viewers, but films in other languages may cater to other faiths.
- Angels in Disguise: the disguises were so good, no critics were aware the TV show existed
- A Race of Giants: Our Forbidden History: cue the Nephilim theme music
- Beasts of the Bible: Was the Leviathan a chicken? Who can say for certain?
- Bible Prophecies: where the hell are those Ezekiel chariots?
- Bible Revelations: The Sacred Codes: because gematria needed another documentary
- The Coming Convergence: "Through newly discovered geological and statistical patterns, many believe it can be proven that the Tribulation is about to begin!"
- The Evidence for Heaven, an attempt to use Near-death experience to prove the existence of Heaven
- NephilimFree's YouTube channel, combining young Earth creationism with aliens
- Patterns of Evidence: Exodus: there are pyramids, and there is a Red Sea, so I guess the Bible is true?
- Seven Signs of Christ's Return: since this is from 1997, either the filmamkers or Jesus dropped the ball on the imminent Rapture thing
- The Witnessing of Angels: lots of people claim to have seen angels, so they must exist
In some cases, they rope in one or more of the above to promote a strange sect, such as ProphecyFilm.com.
Yes, the bloody US dollar bill. Um, Freemasons and the Federal Reserve, or something? It's all speculated on in Secret Mysteries of America's Beginnings Volume 3: Eye of the Phoenix - Secrets of the Dollar Bill. The other episodes in the series are similarly obsessed with Masons.
Anything by Dinesh D'Souza can safely be called schlockumentary, though perhaps "schlockaganda" is more appropriate.
Any time a broadcaster devotes an extended piece of airtime to the likes of Rupert Sheldrake, Eckhart Tolle, or Deepak Chopra (ahem, Decoding Deepak), without allowing a scientist to rebut the nonsense afterwards, a baby goat is murdered.[citation NOT needed] A particularly well-known example is What the Bleep Do We Know – that alleges profoundly absurd and pseudo-scientific statements about quantum mechanics and consciousness. Other examples are The Secret and The Moses Code, which manages to combine the Bible, self help, and woo into one casserole.
“”Water...defies the basic laws of physics... Known to ancients as a transmitter to and from the higher realms, water retains memory and conveys information to DNA. However, water can die if treated poorly. Water's arrangement of molecules can be influenced by such factors as sound, thoughts, intention, and prayer...
|—Secret of Water (Note that literally every one of these claims is false)|
In the not even wrong department, films offer astonishing Gish gallops between and among conspiracies, often mutually exclusive or self-contradictory examples of fractal wrongness. They could be considered either failed or nascent Unified conspiracy theories, depending upon whether they become popular. Some examples:
- Alien Contact: Nazi UFOs
- Conspiracy Chronicles: 9/11, Aliens and the Illuminati
- Conspiracy of Lies: Flight 370 to 911: invokes the New World Order, eminently suitable for fans of QAnon
- The Hidden Hand: Alien Contact and the Government Cover-Up
This list is far from exhaustive. Something akin to Rule 34 exists for schlockumentaries, in that if you have heard an urban legend or your crazy aunt or uncle sent you some weird misinformation from Alex Jones — narrator of the crackpot schlockumentary The Obama Deception — there is an excellent chance that a schlockumentary on it exists.
What schlockumentaries aren't
Schlockumentaries do not include outright fiction, hybrid fiction/non-fiction (such as docudramas or docutainment), documentaries believed correct at the time but later disproven, mockumentaries, documentaries where an interviewee simply lies, or documentaries that are controversial but factually correct. Also, a few small or coincidental errors do not make a documentary a schlockumentary: a schlockumentary starts with an essentially flawed and often sensationalistic premise or perspective, and seeks to present as fact that which is not.
Nor are all pseudo-documentaries concerning hoaxes schlockumentaries. The excellent Opération lune (English title: Dark Side of the Moon) is a hilarious parody of schlockumentaries.
How to spot a schlockumentary
First, this will be a film or show that claims to be a documentary, but either deals with a subject for which no documentary proof exists (as with aliens, religion, etc.), or takes a position contrary to scientific consensus or mainstream historical or other evidence.
The poster or promotional material may be lurid, the film low-budget, and one has probably never heard of any of the producers, director, or other parties involved, unless in a bad context.
For the most part, there will be few or no credited actors, other than a narrator or people appearing as themselves. If you do see anyone well-known, they will be used in an appeal to celebrity, or they are a professor of nothing.
As the film opens, there will usually be a sort of quack Miranda warning one could call a "conspira-Miranda," such as this:
“”The views expressed in this film are not necessarily the views of One Media, nor any of its subsidiaries, affiliations or any other person involved in the making of this video program. One Media does not warrant the accuracy, reliability or completeness of those views or statements and does not accept any legal liability whatsoever arising from any reliance on the views, statements and subject matter thereof.
|—American Illuminati 2018|
Caveat visor![note 2]
Often the programme will begin by just asking questions about whether, say, it's possible Nibiru exists and all astronomy has failed to notice it. Sometimes the entire runtime will be used up before the narrator says "No, it's not possible."
Otherwise, a film may take a position not grounded in skepticism and go to town with fallacy upon fallacy, or flatly assert the film's premise without providing evidence.
Often, these will exist in a series, such as the Beyond the Spectrum series (no, not about autism):
Even reputable media outlets can sometimes run these, but they are more often found on speciality TV channels; streaming services: YouTube or Vimeo; for sale via Apple Store or Google Play; or on sites associated with groups which seek to promote the film's views, sometimes free.
- Tim Callahan, "Unsubstantiated: A new Netflix documentary purporting to provide proof of alien visitation fails to deliver," Skeptic, accessed Oct. 12, 2019.
- AJ Dellinger, "Oh cool, Amazon is peddling conspiracy theories now," Gizmodo, Jun. 17, 2018, accessed Aug. 16, 2018.
- oracknows, "After Vaxxed, here comes another antivaccine 'documentary,'" Insolence, Science Blogs, Apr. 21, 2016, accessed Oct. 26, 2017.
- Wiktionary list of word usage
- America Under Siege
- Balance fallacy
- Best Evidence: Top 10 UFO Sightings
- Jason Colavito whose blog keeps track of some of these schlockumentaries (mainly of the pseudohistorical variety)
- List of conspiracy theories#Films on conspiracy theories
- Fake news
- Magical thinking
- The Mysterious Origins of Man
- Stan Romanek
- TED Talks
- Oprah Winfrey
- The Star Wars series is by this test also "based on a true story": a long time ago, there indeed were galaxies far away from Earth.
- "Let the viewer beware" in Latin, based on the more usual caveat emptor formulation.
- Promotional material for Secret Mysteries of America's Beginnings Volume 1: The New Atlantis, accessed Feb. 11, 2017.
- Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th Ed., Vol. 2, p. 2693
- Dan Mahafee, The Kennedy files in an era of American conspiracy theories," The Hill, Oct. 24, 2017, accessed Oct. 27, 2017.
- David Brian Robertson, Loss of confidence: Politics and policy in the 1970s. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, passim.
- Kenneth Newton and Pippa Norris, "Confidence in public institutions: Faith, culture or performance?" Paper, Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Atlanta, Sep. 1999.
- Confidence in Institutions, Gallup Polls, archived Oct. 3, 2019.
- IMDb: Mondo Cane (1962)
- IMDb: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
- Orac, "The L.A. Times: Painfully false balance on antivax pediatrician Dr Bob Sears," Respectful Insolence, Sep. 4, 2019, accessed Sep. 6, 2019.
- essemee, "Pimp my tomb," Swallowing the Camel, Mar. 1, 2007, accessed Oct. 12, 2019.
- Duncan Walker, "Can you say anything about the dead?" BBC, Jun. 28, 2005, accessed Apr. 3, 2019.
- Oliver Milman, "Climate experts call for 'dangerous' Michael Moore film to be taken down," The Guardian, 28 Apr. 2020, as displayed 08 May 2020.
- Hannah Knowles, "Notorious gangster John Dillinger will be exhumed from his grave," The Washington Post, Jul. 31, 2019, accessed Aug. 7, 2019.
- Peter Rutland and Neil Shimmield, "Putin’s dangerous campaign to rehabilitate Stalin,' The Washington Post, Jun. 13, 2019, accessed Aug. 21, 2019.
- Jeannette Catsoulis, "Review: Tony Robbins: I am not your guru depicts a self-help prophet," The New York Times, Jul. 12, 2016, as accessed Jul. 12, 2019.
- Secret of Water plot summary, Internet Movie Database
- American Illuminati 2018, Timestamp 0:03