There is a fine line to be trodden when it comes to making a found footage film, or in the case of Population Zero, a mock-documentary. Do you establish the premise that everything you are watching – bear with us – is true, and is really taken from that digital camera the police found out there in the woods? Or, do you forget all the inherent risks associated with providing an audience with convincing evidence and simply just set out to make the best film you can? The genesis of the modern found footage genre The Blair Witch Project succeeds in the former, while Ti West’s cult-inspired documentary The Sacrament adheres very much to the latter. It is a tough decision for aspiring filmmakers, and for his debut feature Julian T. Pinder has spiritually combined the two, with varying degrees of success.
There is a point in Population Zero when Pinder utters the line “It all adds up too well”, a sentiment that sums up both the good and the bad in his film. Based on an idea written about in Brian Kalt’s book The Perfect Crime, Pinder’s film explores the notion that there is a place in Yellowstone Park where murder can be gotten away with. The United States constitution states that a criminal must be tried by his peers drawn from the where the crime was committed, but if no-one lives there, how can that person be tried?
When three young men are murdered in the park there is no clear motive for the crimes. Strange then that a man immediately comes forward and confesses only for the loophole to be discovered setting the man free. Pinder begins his documentary after receiving an anonymous e-mail and sets out to uncover the truth.
For its first half Population Zero is an intriguing, often thought provoking investigation into a mystery that could so easily be very real. Pinder is an engaging, if occasionally misguided investigator and the subject is undoubtedly fascinating. It is in the second half that things begin to go awry, as the narrative direction becomes too structured and a host of interviewees come across as tightly scripted. All that initial good will begins to dissipate in scenes that are too framed and contrived as Pinder gets closer and closer to the “real” story.
With a final act that builds towards a rather traditional finale Population Zero edges towards disappointing its audience, but is interesting enough in its early stages to make it a worthwhile watch, and certainly one of the better mock-documentaries you will come across.
POPULATION ZERO / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ADAM LEVINS / SCREENPLAY: JEFF STARANCHUK / STARRING: JULIAN T PINDER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW