6 Famous Documentaries That Were Shockingly Full of Crap
On some level, we all know that almost everything we see at the movies is bullshit, from the amount of bullets a person can take without dying to what the job of pizza delivery boy actually entails. Except documentaries. Documentaries are where we turn off the snark and open our minds to learn about distant lands, alarming realities, and how much McDonald's a dude can eat.
However, it turns out that some of the most acclaimed documentaries ever are about as real as Borat.
Super Size Me -- Nobody Can Replicate the Results
This is the movie that made you swear you'd never set food in a McDonald's again (until the next time you drove by one). For 30 days, Morgan Spurlock decided he would only eat food sold by McDonald's. He had to eat everything on the menu at least once, had to have three meals a day, and would only Supersize when offered. He documented the bizarre and terrifying changes his body went through while eating what according to science is not actual food.
In one scene, this nice doctor tells Spurlock he's been eating an average of 5,000 calories a day, even though he only Supersized 9 in 30 meals. At the end of the documentary, Spurlock had not only gained a bunch of weight and seen his cholesterol go through the roof (as you'd expect), but also had severe liver damage, as well as mood swings and depression.
Here's the thing: No one has been able to replicate Spurlock's results, and even basic math disputes the claim that his McDiet consisted of 5,000 calories a day.
As Tom Naughton points out in his documentary, Fat Head, there's simply no way Spurlock could have been eating that much food if he was sticking to his own rules. A large Big Mac meal clocks in at "just" 1,450 calories, and it's by far one of the fattiest items on the menu. This means that even Supersizing lunch and dinner every day and adding dessert falls well short of the 5,000 calories a day Spurlock's nutritionist claims he was consuming. In an effort to find out just exactly what the hell, Naughton attempted to contact Spurlock to obtain his food log, but Spurlock (who makes a huge deal in his documentary about McDonald's never calling him back) never called him back.
Meanwhile, researchers from the Making Sure Movies Aren't Stupid department of Sweden's University of Linkoping tried to replicate Spurlock's experiment by tasking healthy college students with the challenge of eating 6,000 calories of fast food per day, inadvertently also answering the question "What's the easiest way to get guinea pigs ever?" At the end of the 30 days, the students had none of the liver or cholesterol troubles Spurlock reported. According to the guy in charge of the experiment (aka an actual scientist, not the guy who created MTV's I Bet You Will), the students' metabolism was able to adapt to the extra amount of food they were eating. They did feel more tired, but none of them experienced the mood swings and depression Spurlock claimed to have endured.
So either Spurlock slightly exaggerated his results, or he had an amphetamine addiction he left on the cutting room floor.
Waiting for "Superman" -- Charter Schools Kind of Suck, Too
Waiting for "Superman" is one of those documentaries that made everyone who watched it instantly call their friends and tell them they had to drop everything they're doing and see it right away. Even President Obama declared himself a huge fan.
According to this award-winning film, only 20 to 35 percent of eighth graders in the U.S. read at grade level, an alarming statistic that explains so much of the Internet. It follows a number of families as they try to get into charter schools, which offer a free alternative to the crushing bureaucracy that is killing our public education system. Tragically, not all of the families get in, damning those kids to schools where they'll hopefully at least be taught how to tell when their pimp is cutting their crack with too much baking soda.
Waiting for "Superman" was all about improving the country's education, but it's so poorly researched and one-sided that it might actually be making things worse.
Let's start with that "only 20 to 35 percent can read well" statistic: The real number is closer to about 75 percent. Also, you might remember a throwaway line about how only 1 in 5 charter schools performs better than public schools -- yeah, that's sort of a big deal, movie. Thirty-seven percent of charters actually perform worse.
Unfortunately the director went to a charter school, so math isn't his greatest strength.
The film focuses on the charters that perform better, of course, but at least one of those is achieving its results through fishy means. One of the administrators of a school shown in the film, the Harlem Children's Zone, expelled an entire class of children that he feared would throw off his glowing performance statistics. It turns out that when teacher pay and/or school funding is tied to student performance, a model that the film advocates, it opens the door for all kinds of shady shit, including flat-out expelling low-performing students the day before the test to boost their numbers.
In the movie, not getting into a charter school is the worst thing that can happen to a poor family, but studies have shown that school choice itself matters little to a student's success -- shockingly, it's more about how seriously the students themselves and their families take their education. And that ghetto public school might not actually be so bad: According to administrators from Woodside High School, which the film claims only sends a third of its students to college and only graduates 62 percent of them, the film excluded students who go to out-of-state colleges in their statistics, and their graduation rate is more like 92 percent. Shit, being left behind is starting to sound awesome.
Religulous -- The "Jesus Is Fake" Evidence Is Fake
In Religulous, Bill Maher sets out to make you question what you think you know about God, telling you everything church leaders don't want you to know. He interrogates everyone from truck stop parishioners to pious scientists to visitors of a holy amusement park, poking holes in their beliefs by pointing out things like how the original sin isn't mentioned in the Bible or how the Christ mythology is eerily similar to other ancient religions -- at one point, a Tumblr-ready slideshow informs us of the many similarities between Jesus and the Egyptian god Horus.
Man, that's some incriminating evidence right there. How come the entire Catholic church hasn't collapsed under the weight of this one documentary?
All this "Jesus was copied from earlier religions" stuff has been going around the Internet for a while, and it will make you look awesome if you post it on a Halo message board, but none of it is true. The Egyptian links have been debunked by actual Egyptologists.
Let's start with the "virgin births" part: You've gotta make some pretty big logical jumps to claim that any of those earlier gods were born from virgins, having come from a mother seven times over (Krishna), some freaky necrophilia (Horus), and a fucking rock (Mithras).
Then there's the resurrection thing. Contrary to Maher's claims, Mithras was never resurrected, and the older versions of the guy's story don't have any of the Jesus similarities -- those came about in the first or second century A.D. (that is, after Jesus was born). Horus, like Mithras, was also never resurrected, didn't have 12 apostles, and didn't raise Asar from the dead (which doesn't translate to "Lazarus" even a little bit). There isn't even any record of a figure call Anup the Baptizer; the closest we come is Anubis, the god of embalming, which astute readers will note is a leeeeeetle different from baptism.
Oh, by the way, original sin is totally in the Bible, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a scholar who disagrees with the overwhelming evidence that a person (not necessarily a divine being) matching Jesus' description existed during his purported lifetime. So where did Maher get all this crap? Probably from the viral "documentary" Zeitgeist (which doesn't cite any sources) or, and this is a serious possibility, the fucking Da Vinci Code (which is about as historically accurate as the movie Splash).
None of this means the Christian Bible is right or that it represents the one true religion. But if you think something is bullshit, the answer is not more bullshit.
Searching for Sugar Man -- Sugar Man Was Touring, Shooting Up the Charts in the '80s
Searching for Sugar Man is the tale of two South African music fans going on a quest to find a mysterious American singer called Rodriguez, who had become huge in their country but whose whereabouts were unknown. The story is that this musical genius had released two little-heard albums in the early '70s and then vanished (rumors swirled that he had long ago committed suicide onstage). He remained unknown until a sudden surge in popularity when his songs about poverty and urban decay made him an icon in apartheid-era South Africa. So the guy was a star, but nobody knew where he was or even if he was still alive.
Spoilers: The documentary discovers Rodriguez toiling in anonymity in his native Detroit, having no idea of his superstar status abroad. Thanks to the documentary, Rodriguez became the ultimate artist-you-probably-haven't-heard for hipsters everywhere, and he was even invited to play at some festivals.
The documentary tells us that Rodriguez is a guy who put out two extremely obscure albums in the '70s, had zero success, quit music, and became a regular Joe. That makes for a great story -- the idea that the guy threw the albums out there and dropped off the map, unaware that his work had become huge on the other side of the globe years later. Well, we don't know about you, but we haven't met any regular Joes who spent years touring Australia with bands like Men at Work and Midnight Oil.
Yep, Rodriguez was a huge sensation in Australia in the late '70s and early '80s, with his singles shooting up the charts for over a year. One of the fans from the documentary is a record shop owner and a massive Rodriguez nut -- surely he'd heard of his 1981 live in Australia album? Maybe he listened to it and figured the huge crowd cheering for the guy at the beginning was in some tiny Detroit cafe. Also, the name of the album is Rodriguez Alive, so maybe he should have taken it as a clue.
It's true that Rodriguez's work didn't catch on the U.S. before the film, and that he wasn't aware of his popularity in South Africa, but to paint him as a criminally ignored genius is absurd. He enjoyed a sterling career lasting over a decade before his 15 minutes were up and he was forced back into the real world, making his story about as remarkable as any '80s hair metal band (that is, if Blackie Lawless inexplicably became the poster boy for the Egyptian revolution, which -- can we make that happen?). That might explain why he seemed so underwhelmed when he met up with the filmmakers.
Winged Migration -- A Study of Editing Trickery and Trained Birds
This Oscar-nominated thrill ride captures the awe-inspiring movements of several different species of bird as they embark on the incredible journey to go fuck other birds or whatever. If it sounds boring, you haven't seen it -- it's full of heartbreaking scenes like this in which an injured bird is surrounded by crabs and, unable to fly away and escape, is eventually ganged up on and eaten.
Damn, that's one of the most disturbing things to happen to an innocent creature in a movie in recent years that wasn't made by Pixar.
Yeah, that scene is fake. To their credit as human beings, the filmmakers actually pulled the bird to safety before he could be attacked. And to their non-credit as documentarians, they left that part out and instead included a shot of the crabs eating some dead fish (which wasn't their friend, so they didn't save it). They just cleverly edited the clips together to make you think that poor little bird got the Hannibal treatment, because they feed on tears. There's also a scene where a goose steps into a puddle of oil in a factory -- that was shot in a studio, and the "oil" was actually milk and vegetable dye.
But who cares, right? All that matters is that the majestic movements of the birds are real. Or real-ish. Those amazing flock formations, the brilliant displays of instinct in which animals move together that humans can never attempt to emulate? All staged. Half of those aren't wild birds. They've been raised from the egg by the filmmakers, and what we're seeing is just trained animals following orders. The filmmakers aren't following the birds -- the birds are following them.
Don't get us wrong, it's still a breathtaking movie (especially if you like birds and/or drugs), but nominating it for Best Documentary is kinda like giving an MMA title to Hulk Hogan.
Nanook of the North -- An Amazing Achievement in Utter Bullshit
Nanook of the North not only is the granddaddy of documentaries (made back in 1922), but is widely considered a masterpiece of the documentary genre and one of the most influential movies ever made. Before Nanook, "documentaries" consisted of static shots of people walking near trains or boring shit like that (it was all Vines, basically). This was the first one that A) lasted more than a few minutes and B) showed something actually worth watching.
For Nanook, director Robert Flaherty went deep into the Alaskan wilderness to steal a glimpse inside the lives of the notoriously closed-off Inuit population. He follows a family headed by the titular Nanook and his two wives, Nyla and Cunayoo, as they build an igloo, hunt seals with spears, and become hilariously confused by modern technology, such as poor Nanook trying to eat a gramophone record.
The whole thing was almost completely made up. Robert Flaherty was the Michael Moore of the 1920s, only he left more illegitimate Inuit children in his wake.
First of all, "Nanook" was actually named Allakariallak, although we can kind of understand why they changed it. His "wives" were also not his wives, but the "common-law" wives of Flaherty (i.e., his ethnic trophies). They were also renamed: There's no record of Cunayoo's real name, but Nyla's was actually the much plainer "Alice." "Nyla" was suggested by the locals and supposedly meant "the smiling one," but unknown to Flaherty, it was actually a dirty word. (A quick Google search suggests it has something to do with farting.)
Of course, since Flaherty constructed the whole family from scratch, none of the events filmed were part of their actual lives, either. In order to show to the world how the Inuit really lived, Flaherty simply made them act out scenes from how everyone already thought they did. He asked them to hunt with spears instead of the guns they'd been using for decades, made them dress in furs, and had them build an igloo, even though they'd actually heard of houses by then. Allakariallak was also very familiar with modern technology and knew well not to eat gramophones. Notice how he spends half the movie looking at the camera and smiling?
You can read more from Amanda at Mannafesto or follow her on Twitter to find out just how much writing this article left her completely disillusioned with the world.
Related Reading: Still not full of things that are full of shit? Read our article on professions that are filled with lies. If you think wine tasters aren't lying their asses off, think again. For national stereotypes that are total B.S., take this article out for a spin. You'll learn that British dentistry is actually quite good. End your study in perfidy with this list of well-known dangers that are hugely overhyped.