Based on comments made during the audio commentary for The Hole Story, I suspect that writer-director Alex Karpovsky might take issue with calling his film a mocumentary. I suppose in some cinematic circles there is a negative connotation to labeling a film "mocumentary," and indeed, the genre has been maligned, due in no small part to filmmakers attempting to craft fake documentaries, only to fail miserably. The fact of the matter is that true mocumentaries--films that appear to be documentaries, and are often perceived to be real, but are categorically not true--are very near impossible to pull off. So, while Karpovsky might not like The Hole Story being called a mocumentary, that's exactly what it is--and a brilliant one at that.
Karpovsky stars as Alex Karpovsky, a thinly veiled and slightly caricature-ish interpretation of himself as a filmmaker. Alex has traveled with a small crew to the tiny town of Brainerd, Minnesota, where he plans to shoot the pilot episode of Provincial Puzzlers, a television series that examines strange phenomenon. In Brainerd, the home of Paul Bunyon, the unexplainable mystery can be found on North Long Lake where, despite freezing temperatures that dip well-below zero, a large portion of the lake never freezes over. For Alex, who has much of his life and self-worth tied into Provincial Puzzlers, the large mass of unfrozen lake that defies the laws of nature is the perfect subject for his show. But when Alex and his crew arrive in Brainerd, ready to unlock the mystery of the lake that refuses to freeze over, the lake freezes over. Even with all of his dreams and ambitions literally frozen, Alex refuses to concede defeat, and the camera keeps rolling. But what was supposed to be a documentary about a lake that miraculously does not freeze during the winter, transforms into a Herzog-esque look a one man's descent into madness as he tries to figure out how to salvage his project, which ultimately serves as a metaphor for the rest of his crumbling life.
Calling The Hole Story brilliant might be an exaggeration, but only slightly. Karpovsky's film is amazingly executed and comically assured. As a filmmaker and as an actor, he never makes a wrong move, delivering a movie that is 100% convincing as a documentary, and equally as solid as a comedy. But where The Hole Story begins to venture into the realm of genius is in the way Karpovsky blurs the line between truth and fiction. There is, after all, a North Long Lake located in a Minnesota town called Brainerd (much of the Coen Brothers' Fargo takes place there), and the local residents who appear on camera are actually residents. And, as incredible as it may seem, there actually was a mysterious "black hole" of unfrozen water that appeared in the North Long lake in 2002 and 2003. Also true is that Karpovsky did take a crew to Brainerd to film Provinical Puzzlers, only to discover the lake had frozen over days before he arrived. Nearly everything after that, however, is up for debate in terms of being real or made-up, and the fact that you can pretty much never tell when Karpovsky is being honest, or when he is pulling your leg is what pushes The Hole Story toward brilliance.
There have been many fake documentaries over the years, ranging from Real Life to This is Spinal Tap to Incident at Loch Ness, that have been effectively entertaining. Most mocumentaries, however, either reveal themselves early on with recognizable actors, much like Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman, or are a bit to incredible to actually believe, like Blair Witch Project, Interview with the Assassin or The Wicksboro Incident. Where The Hole Story succeeds is in the fact that there are no recognizable stars, and even though the story is ridiculous, it comes across as being plausible, especially in a world or reality television programming. After watching documentaries like Lost in LaMancha, Burden of Dreams, American Movie and Overnight--movies that chronicle the real-life triumphs and failures of filmmakers--The Hole Story seems all the more real. In a pivotal scene where Karpovsky gives in to a sad act of desperation, it is no less believable than Francis Ford Coppola holding a gun to his head in Hearts of Darkness or the violence between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski in My Best Fiend. But Karpovsky is just making it up (at least this particular scenario).
I want to be careful to not build The Hole Story up to the point it lets some people down. The film will move too slow for some people; while others will find director of photography Robert Henry's long, lingering shots of the sub-zero Minnesota landscape to be beautiful. Likewise, Karpovksy's dry, self-deprecating sense of humor will be lost on those looking for more broad comedy, or expecting some sort of elaborate hoax like Borat. If anything, The Hole Story is the thinking-person's answer to Borat. A beautifully crafted, wonderfully executed, and absolutely hilarious film, The Hole Story is one of the best comedies in recent years.