Is It Real? The Mike Z Story By Skizz Cyzyk. “Is it real? Where did they find this footage?” Those are the questions asked by the audience. At least, those are the questions the filmmaker hopes that the audience is asking...

“Is it real? Where did they find this footage?” Those are the questions asked by the audience. At least, those are the questions the filmmaker hopes that the audience is asking. Of course, the filmmaker knows it’s not real and that the footage was faked, but if the audience is unsure, the filmmaker has done a good job.

The popularity of the “Is it real?” genre of independent film has grown considerably in recent years. The reasons are simple. So many people have decided to become filmmakers. Not all of these filmmakers have the resources to make a “traditional film,” therefore many of them choose to make documentaries, while many more choose to make fake documentaries (fiction presented in a documentary style) or mockumentaries (parodies of reality). After all, neither the documentary nor the mockumentary has to have good lighting, camerawork, sound, or acting so anyone with access to a camera can make one.

Reality is rarely shot on 35mm film, or even on 16mm. It is, however, shot all the time on videotape, and audiences are hungry for it—otherwise shows like "America’s Funniest Home Videos", “COPS” or “Scariest Police Chases” would never last several seasons. One thing to consider, though, is that as long as those shows edit all that ‘real’ footage down to fit the time constraints of a weekly TV show, they aren’t exactly showing the audience ‘reality’.

Home video cameras capture reality. Average people with average video equipment shoot other average people in settings that look familiar to the average person. Millions of hours of unremarkable reality are captured on videotape each year. What if something remarkable were to happen during reality while a video camera was rolling? What if that tape made it’s way to the public for viewing? The public would love it.

Not everyone is lucky enough to capture remarkable moments on his or her home video camera. So the resource challenged filmmaker desiring to be original takes plays on an audience’s voyeuristic interests by making something that looks as realistic as possible.

Enter The Blair Witch Project, a film shot mostly on videotape, that convinced moviegoers in 1999 that three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods, leaving behind only the footage they shot. The idea of making a film that appears to be found footage when it is not, is in no way a new idea. (In fact, even the storyline of TBWP has been used similarly in the past.) Nor is the idea of making a film that gives the impression it was never meant to be seen by audiences a new idea. A good example is the short film, No Lies (1973, 18 minutes) by Mitchell W. Block, in which a cameraman burning off a roll of film for the heck of it, follows his female friend around her apartment while she gets ready to go out for the evening. During the conversation, she casually describes her recent rape, which prompts concern from the cameraman. Eventually she faces up to the severity of the incident. The audience is completely unaware until the closing credits, that the cameraman and the woman are both actors playing parts, and what looked like a test roll of film never meant for the public’s eyes, was actually a prank being played on whoever sees it.

But No Lies is a short film and not the sort of thing audiences see in movie theaters. Thanks to The Blair Witch Project, the concept of video footage of questionable origin has reached the mainstream, opening up the minds of audiences to suspend their disbelief and adjust their eyes to watching low-quality, handheld home video on the same screens they’re used to seeing big-budget Hollywood movies on.

While The Blair Witch Project showed filmmakers how easy it is to pull one over on audiences, the recent renewed interest in “fooled you” funnyman, Andy Kaufman (brought on by the release of bio-pic Man on the Moon), showed them how much fun it can be. Hoaxes & pranks aimed at mainstream audiences have come into fashion to some extent, and home video technology paired with the internet are helping to pave the way for any filmmaker anxious to exploit the idea.

Though film festivals have seen their share of fake found footage films at this point, few of those films live up to the work of Mike Z. Mike Z is a master of the current “Is it real?” genre of independent filmmaking. Z’s work is filled with harsh realities that moviegoers may be familiar with, but most would be unaccustomed to the degree of reality Z incorporates.

“I call what I do ‘Experiential Filmmaking,’” he says, “because I am trying to allow the audience the opportunity to go through an experience that they can participate in without the distancing effects of self-referential irony or passive detachment. That in itself can be threatening to people that are used to being in control of their relationship to the viewing experience.” To achieve that, Z always makes the cameraman an important character within the piece—often times the only character. He thus puts the viewer in the shoes of the cameraman, seeing and hearing what the cameraman sees or hears, and most of all, experiencing what the cameraman experiences and eliminating control over the situation. “I only enjoy art that confronts the audience by breaking the fourth wall, because of the thrill of feeling like a participant in the work that I am viewing.”

Just as reality isn’t neatly edited into a compact piece of entertainment, neither are Z’s works. His projects have running times between 6 minutes to 2 hours. He often includes long, imperfect, sometimes boring moments that take away from the entertainment value of the work, but make it all the more “real.” “I think most people have lost the ability to surrender to the experience of watching a movie. We’ve been taught that it’s not cool to give in to the willing suspension of disbelief that is necessary to lose yourself in a story. Most of the audience is alienated from this media culture. Some filmmakers think that the audience will only enjoy new films as they relate to films that they’ve already seen or experienced. I’m just not interested in paying homage or goofing on old formats. I’m interested in making something new.”

In his 1998, two hour video, Homeless Guy Steals a Camera and Kills Someone, the first half-hour-or-so is comprised of an Asian family on vacation; the father videotaping his wife and child. The shots go on for what seem like an eternity, as does the sequence. Finally, during one shot, the camera begins shaking violently as you hear the cameraman struggling with an off-camera attacker intent on stealing the camera. Most of the rest of the piece consists of an unseen cameraman ranting and raving while running around highway underpasses. At one point, he attacks and kills somebody. Eventually the tape runs out. That’s it: no beginning or ending credits, no editing, nothing but a tape that any person could pop into their VCR and wonder where it came from and whether or not it’s real.

“I wanted to use the camera in ways that it had never been used before. I wanted to subvert the way that the medium is used by avoiding the usual visual framing and narrative conventions.” One element that Z incorporated into Homeless Guy and his next video, Don’t Watch This Until I’m Dead (23 minutes, 1998), was the abusive treatment of the camera. At first, he considered making that a trademark of his work, until he busted up his Hi-8 camera and reconsidered. However, he kept another trademark element: “snuff” death.

In Don’t Watch This, the cameraman gets in front of the camera this time, to deliver a farewell before committing suicide, like a serious version of Karl Slovin’s Parting Words. Again, the lengths of the takes and the lack of editing make the video seem more like a real incident captured on videotape versus entertainment made for an audiences amusement. In fact, it looked real enough to attract the attention of San Diego authorities. “I gave a friend a dub, and on his way home from work he mistakenly dropped it in the return box at [a video store]. When he got home and realized his mistake, he called the store to tell them what had happened. By the time he got there, the store clerks had watched the tape, believed it to be real, and had shown it to the police. My friend got to the store, asked for the tape, and the cops swooped in the door.” After hours of questioning, the friend led the police to Z’s home to have a look around. Though the police were skeptical, Z was eventually able to convince them the video was fake by offering proof that he had entered it in MicroCineFest. “At the time, I thought it was a great moment for me, and proof that I was on the right track,” he says despite the video being rejected by MicroCineFest for being “too creepy.”

Z was on the right track though. A year later, MicroCineFest screened his next video, How to Start a Revolution in America (1999, 30 minutes), marking Z’s first festival screening, and the beginning of festivals approaching him with inquiries about his work.

Revolution is an instructional how-to video work-in-progress being made in front of our eyes by three revolutionaries (or so Z would have us believe), complete with a manifesto, instructions on how to kill someone with your bare hands, simple ways to screw up “the system”, and instructions on how to build bombs with household materials (Z says, “During the production I was worrying about whether or not the pipe bomb recipes were actually dangerous. The Navy Seal that had told me how to make the bombs was pretty convincing. After all, what if some kid watched my tape?!”). The idea of Revolution in itself is interesting enough, but on top of it, Z adds in conflicts between the three characters, an unexpected murder, an attempted rape, and plenty of racist, sexist, and generally frightening & offensive rants from one of the characters, all of which make asking, “Is this for real?” all the more uncomfortable. “The three actors that I chose [from those that responded to an ad] all revealed that they were initially afraid I was actually planning on killing them in the course of filming, and the lead actress had to call her boyfriend every three hours on the first day of filming.” All three actors give such exceptional, realistic performances that for the first time Z includes credits at the end of the piece. “None of my other tapes carry credits because I don’t like the letdown when you find out ‘it’s only a movie.’”

“It’s only a movie” was certainly not on the minds of the Federal Bureau of Investigations when they stumbled upon Z’s next work, Military Takeover of New York City (1999, 6 minutes). In the midst of 1999’s Y2K hysteria, Z was experiencing a moment of fame thanks to various media outlets sending visitors to his website to view Takeover. On the site, visitors were greeted by the heading, “Is there going to be a Military Takeover of New York City on New Years Eve 1999?” followed by the explanation, “I don’t know too much about this tape you are about to see. I got it from my cousin Steve who’s in the army. He said that copies of this tape are floating around the base, and nobody knows who made it. If it’s fake, then there’s nothing to worry about. If it’s real, then we’re in really big trouble.” The video consists of an unseen cameraman, supposedly a military authority, showing locations in Times Square while explaining a plan to start a race riot during the New Years Eve celebration so that the military can move in and wreak havoc. He shows a location and gives the orders of who will be in that spot at what time and what they should be doing.

Takeover is, of course, a fake, and anyone who bothered to click on “is this real?” link on the website would have seen Z’s explanation. “The video that you see on this site was created by Mike Z. It is presented to the viewer without the usual disclaimers of conventional fiction so that the viewer can experience the information directly.” It encourages the discussion of, among other things, the distrust that many Americans feel about their Government and the use of racial hatred to manipulate the American people. Z goes on to explain, “As a filmmaker, I was concerned that these issues were not being addressed in the mainstream culture. I made the tape so that the situation could be looked at and discussed. I have no specific political agenda, though I do hope that the New Year brings us closer to a better future.”

Despite Z’s disclaimer, the FBI showed up on his doorstep wanting to discuss the content of his website and how they could keep people from seeing it. Z told them to talk to his lawyer. Instead, they talked to his web host, who promptly pulled the site. By this time, enough mirror sites had popped up that the FBI would not be able to extinguish Takeover from public accessibility. Z’s web host, swamped with complaints over the decision to pull Z’s website, reconsidered and put the website back up when he realized the FBI could not legally make him take it down. After news of Z’s FBI run-in made the national news, the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to represent him in a case against Janet Reno, the Justice Department and the FBI. (The suit is still pending as of this writing.) In the meantime, more than 225,000 people accessed Z’s website to watch Takeover. Only 10,500 bothered to read the disclaimer, and not only that, New Year’s Eve came and went without a military takeover of New York.

Nevertheless, Z’s fifteen minutes of notoriety brought him closer to success. He attracted the interest of a CEO from an internet start-up company. The two met and discussed creating short web movies, which Z would introduce, similar to Rod Serling from “The Twilight Zone.” Z was skeptical about the arrangement but was excited about the possibility of stepping away from making self-financed work for a change. Unfortunately, when the company finally saw some of Z’s work, they realized he might be a little too cutting edge for what they had in mind, and they began to lose interest.

In an effort to keep the deal on the table, Z quickly made a new video to send to them. My Left Nut (2000, 10 minutes) stars Z as himself, sitting in a chair next to a VCR draped with a plastic drop cloth and speaking directly into the camera. He is personally addressing the internet company, explaining to them how anxious he is to work for them. “I am willing to give my left nut to show you how serious I am,” he says in the video, “I’ve had it on ice for a few hours and I’ve wrapped a rubber band around it to cut off the circulation.” He goes on to explain that between the time he calls 911 and the paramedics arrive, he has two minutes to remove his testicle and place it in the pre-addressed mailer along with the videotape from the VCR his camera is connected to, recording the entire incident. Then it’s just a matter of dropping the mailer in the mailbox as he’s being carried out. He calls 911 and says he’s castrated himself. Then he proceeds to sterilize a pair of scissors and begins operating on himself. Despite his wincing from pain, things are going as planned until he accidentally drops his freshly removed testicle and the paramedics arrive early. With extreme agony on his face and blood all over his hands, the piece ends with Z reaching under the plastic drop cloth to push the stop button on the VCR. The screen goes blue.

Z mailed them a copy of My Left Nut in a blood stained envelope. “They passed on the deal,” he says. Nut went on to be the main event at Park City, Utah’s inaugural Sundress Film Festival, garnering a small cult following and plenty of word-of-mouth on the underground film circuit. Besides Nut being his most painfully disgusting work of dark humor, it turns out to be one of his most entertaining too. It is the sort of video that is likely to be bootlegged and circulated, becoming the source of an urban legend about the guy who cut off his testicle on camera in order to get a job.

Self-mutilation, race riots, murder, suicide, destruction, etc. When asked how far is too far, Z replies, “I’m interested in all aspects of human behavior. I’m mostly interested in sex and death, although sex with the dead doesn’t do a thing for me. Since I’m not trying to shock people, I don’t need to create new ways to expand the range of human perversity. I just read the Times, or any interesting non-fiction book.” He continues, “I think I enjoy reading about people that behave badly, because it makes me feel like I’m doing okay.”

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