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How a New Wave of Found Footage Films Are Tackling Truth

With three big titles in found footage coming soon, the format is more important than ever in interrogating our understanding of truth.
Found Footage and Truth: Dashcam
By  · Published on September 23rd, 2021

Entering the Discourse is a thrice-weekly column where we dig into who is saying what about new releases and upcoming projects. Today, we look at a trend emerging in the horror space around found footage and the controversy around Rob Savage’s new film DASHCAM.

Last year, there was an influx of screen-life horror films or films that used digital interfaces as a setting for terror. Think Rob Savage’s Host, which made Zoom calls, the one tenuous connection we had to the world, horrific. Now, found footage in its more traditional form is on the rise, with the upcoming release of V/H/S/94 and Paranormal Activity: Next Of Kin, as well as the discourse surrounding Savage’s latest film DASHCAM.

Savage’s DASHCAM made quite a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival. Some critics raved about his latest film, but much of the discussion arose around the casting of his main character. Annie Hardy plays the film’s dashcam operator who sits in her car and spouts anti-mask rhetoric that is unfortunately all too real in this day and age. But Hardy is not playing a character; she is playing herself.

Hardy has her own show, called Band Car, where she drives around and live streams her thoughts, which include rants denying the existence of COVID-19. When asked about his choice to cast Hardy in a post-screening Q&A, Savage said: 

“I just think there’s no harm in spending time with people who don’t have the same opinion as you, and I think that at some point in the very near future, we’re gonna hit a wall where there’s gonna be a certain chunk of the population that aren’t gonna get vaccinated and we’re gonna have to live shoulder to shoulder with people who demonstrably don’t share our values, live in a reality that is slightly off from our own. And also, Annie’s playing a much more cartoonish version of herself in this movie. She’s got a genius mind that was key in the same way as on Host; we had this group of friends who had this really nice, natural, easy chemistry that I relied on so much day in, day out when I was shaping the film. Working with Annie, relying on her wit and her spontaneity and her creativity was huge and essential and we wouldn’t have been able to make this film in the way that we did without her. It’s important to talk about Annie I think as a collaborator on this movie and not the subject of this movie. We’re not making a documentary about Annie. She’s a much less abrasive character in real life than she is in the movie.”

This brings up a fascinating issue with found footage, which only grows with our dependence on the internet. This technique has always manipulated the truth, aiming to trick viewers into thinking the cinematic horrors actually happened. DASHCAM blurs that boundary even more with this casting choice, calling into question the responsibility of the filmmaker in letting a person play themselves under the guise that it’s a character. 

Running parallel to this discussion are the upcoming releases of Paranormal Activity 7 and V/H/S/94. Both are the newest entries in their respective beloved horror franchises and while not much is known about their plots, seem more conventional in the story. And yet, there is still that thread of questioning authenticity that flows through them. While these two films may not feature an angry COVID denier spewing vitriol online, they still address the construction, and deconstruction, of truth just through their format alone. Truth is a hot button issue now more than ever, so found footage inherently lends itself to a discussion of what the concept even means.

Yes, we know it’s a movie. But the footage is so raw, so unprofessional. Maybe it could be real? That question nags at the back of our brains, even if we don’t want to admit it, just as we constantly question the validity of anything we read online. Found footage holds up a mirror to how we interact with the world and exposes potentially horrific truths about the ways of the world. V/H/S/94 plays into that with its story about a cult whose collection of horrific tapes expose a conspiracy. It imagines the inner workings of some clandestine machine with sinister intentions for the rest of the world, a similar theory recited by paranoid Twitter users and alt-right pundits.

These films are indicative of the reemergence of found footage as a way to interpret our own cultural anxieties. Just as it was used post-9/11 to process societal fears about invasion and familial destruction — see Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity — it’s now being used to express anxieties around deception. So as you watch that shaky-cam footage and terror in night vision, look beyond the images on screen and into your own subconscious. That film may be scaring you more than you care to admit.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)