What is Mondo?
'What is Mondo?' asks the titular presenter of Mr Mike's Mondo Video, (Saturday Night Live alumni Mike O'Donoghue, who also directed and co-wrote this 1979 parody of the Mondo genre). It's a good question and one that we'll probably not answer here, but as I've decided that we're having a 'Schlock' week here at Sleaze Diary, it seems appropriate to take a look at this schlockiest of movie genres. To start at the beginning, the whole Mondo genre takes its name from 1962's Mondo Cane, an Italian documentary which purported to show footage of unusual rituals and social/sexual practices from around the world, be that man hunting women in New Guinea, German drunks, cross dressing Gurkhas or Cargo Cults. There is a particular emphasis upon animal cruelty, with sequences involving the force feeding of geese to produce foie gras, the eating of dogs in Taiwan and shark hunting in Malaysia, and rituals surrounding the dead and dying. The film was a surprise global hit and, consequently, spawned an entire genre. The subsequent Mondos included a direct sequel to Mondo Cane (composed mainly of unused footage from the first), and numerous imitators, often focusing on a single theme, such as Women of the World or Sweden: Heaven and Hell. Although the genre eventually encompassed films made in the US and Germany, it remained an essentially Italian phenomena.
Clearly designed to shock, the Mondo movies existed to provide forbidden thrills to cinemagoers, showing them stuff they couldn't see either on TV or in 'legitimate' documentaries. Tabloid film-making, in essence. Although often described a 'shockumentaries', Mondo films are probably more accurately described as 'exploitation documentaries', sharing their sensationalist tone and subject matter with more conventional exploitation movies. The problem, as far as many critics were concerned, wasn't so much the exploitation element to the films' subject matter, (although, particularly in the UK there was much objection to the scenes of animal cruelty), but the fact that they presented it as being factual. The accusation leveled at them was that much of the footage was faked by the film makers. And, indeed, some of it was, particularly in the later movies where, on occaision, you can even recognise some of the actors pretending to be real people. However, the makers of Mondo Cane always maintained that none of their footage was faked. Which, I suspect, was technically true: I don't doubt that the bizarre (to westerners, at least) rituals they showed were based on real rituals and the participants genuine locals, but I strongly suspect that they have been recreated for the cameras, rather than the crew simply turning up, fortuitously, at exactly the right time to film the real thing.
But does it matter whether the 'documentary' footage presented by Mondo movies is real or not? Whilst a handful of Mondos might claim to have some serious purpose - Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom come to mind -but most present themselves simply as entertainment. Besides, to criticize the Mondo genre for blurring the line between fact and fiction seems somewhat hypocritical from the standpoint of the twenty first century, where such techniques have become the norm, not just in so-called reality TV, but also documentaries. Remember the short lived furore when it ws revealed that an Arctic sequence involving polar bear cubs in a BBC David Atte borough documentary had been recreated for the benefit of the cameras? If even our most revered documentary makers think such techniques are OK then Mondo has clearly become mainstream. But it is in 'reality' TV that we see the true legacy of Mondo movies, with shows like Made in Chelsea purporting to show the 'real lives' of their subjects, but simultaneously admitting that some scenes have been 'restaged' for TV. But artifice has always been a significant part of supposedly legitimate factual TV. A friend of mine once appeared in an episode of one of those Great Train Journeys series with Micheal Portillo and described to me how all of his scenes were filmed in one take, with Portillo's questions and reactions filmed seperately, the whole thing spliced together in the editing suite to make it appear that they were actually having a conversation. In fact, at least one of the cutaways to Portillo supposedly reacting to something my friend said was taken from a completely different sequence and his reaction is actually to something completely different.
The truth is that no matter how spontaneous much factual TV might appear, in reality, quite a bit of it has been rehearsed. Even something like Shed and Buried, which regulars here will know is a particular favourite of mine when it comes to such shows. Shocking though it might seem, when we see Henry and Sam rock up to someone's barn or shed for a rummage, the fact is that this isn't the first time they've met the owner of the premises - this is all being restaged for the benefit of the cameras (which, amazingly, weren't just there to capture their arrival from the right angle by coincidence), But does it lessen my enjoyment of the programme? Of course not. It makes for a far more polished production. The same is true of all those programmes where reporters knock on an interviewees door and it is immediately opened by the later, who warmly greets the reporter - trust me, that's been carefully rehearsed. They aren't really meeting for the first time. But it doesn't matter, as it is a convention we've come to accept. Just like Mondo movies - we know that, at least in part, they aren't real. That's the accepted convention of the genre. But, to get back to the original point and to try and answer the question 'What is Mondo?', these days we'd have to say that it is mainstream TV, where reality is what we choose to believe it to be.