Compared to other modes, performative mode films are more stylised and have a central concept. The director turns the entire movie into a show. In many cases, the presenter has a personal connection to the topic at hand.
The filmmaker’s personal experience or relationship with the subject serves as a springboard for probing wider, subjective truths about politics, history, or groups of people in performative documentaries.
Filmmakers frequently want cinematographers to record candid moments between themselves and their subjects and behind-the-scenes action. Read on to discover the history of the performative mode, films to watch, and some notable filmmakers.
At A Glance
- The History
- An Example of the Performative Mode
- Performative Mode vs other Modes
- Performance Mode – Ones To Watch
- Notable Filmmakers
Nichols remains fairly hazy in terms of distinguishing between the performative and the participatory modes. The difference appears to boil down to whether the filmmaker is actively involved in the making of the film or not; the participatory style involves the filmmaker in the plot, but it also strives to establish truths that should be obvious to anybody.
Likewise, the performative style immerses the director in the narrative while simultaneously having them build truths that are only meaningful to them.
Tongues Untied, a documentary by Marlon Riggs from 1990, is a great example of the performative mode. His life as a gay, black dancer in New York City was the subject. Because it is not attempting to persuade its audience, a performative film has much more leeway in terms of visual abstraction, storyline, etc.
Understanding the performative style from the perspective of many filmmakers is essential. Stella Bruzzi, for instance, has a more expansive understanding of the performative mode. Since documentaries are “inevitably the product of the entrance of the filmmaker onto the scenario being filmed,” according to Bruzzi, they must necessarily be performative. More so, Hongjian Wang included the “performing camera” in his expansion of Nichols’ and Bruzzi’s concept of the performative mode.
An Example of the Performative Mode
Performative mode documentaries present an exaggerated version of the world, society, or event they depict. Nick Broomfield is arguably the most well-known practitioner of the performative mode/participatory mode documentary technique.
English director Broomfield uses only himself and another cameraman on set. He also serves as the film’s primary protagonist. Broomfield’s films are as much about making a documentary as they are about the main story, offering onscreen reality that is small-scale and seemingly honest but always entertaining. This is especially true of Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, in which Broomfield includes footage that other directors would have left on the cutting floor.
Performative Mode vs other Modes
Although there may be some crossover between the various documentary filming styles, each has its own unique qualities. The filmmaker will likely get closer to the subject matter when making a documentary through a performative lens. The truth is often presented as relative in performative documentary techniques because they share the sensations and emotions of the filmmaker with the audience.
In many documentary films, the filmmaker is front and center, directing the action, interacting with the subjects, and providing insightful commentary. The director draws on their own life experiences and emotions to strike a chord with viewers and propel the story forward.
Performance Mode – Ones To Watch
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
In this documentary, filmmaker Michael Moore weaves together factual analysis with strong emotional undercurrents, combining fury and fear with building a narrative that successfully moves audiences deeply. During the film, Moore is often seen conducting “man on the street” interviews with various characters to gather information. He then draws his own conclusions on the course of events in the Iraq war and the American response to it.
Supersize Me (2004)
In an effort to demonstrate that the food sold at the well-known restaurant is unhealthy, Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s fast food for 30 days and documents the resulting physical problems, health issues, and doctor’s appointments. Spurlock’s health decline raises questions about the company’s ethics.
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1994)
Nick Broomfield looks into the charges against and prosecution of convicted felon Aileen Wuornos, filming his interviews with Wuornos to show that she was not the evil she was portrayed as being. Through Broomfield’s narration, the spectator learns about Wuornos’ killings and Broomfield’s attempts to shed light on corruption and influence inside the court system.
Tongues Untied (1989)
Marlon Riggs’ documentary examines the lives of gay African American males, using footage from his own life to explore issues of class, religion, and politics. The film centers on Riggs; through his eyes, we see his life and hear his story.
Our Planet (2019)
David Attenborough hosts this documentary series. From the frozen tundra of the Arctic to the depths of the ocean to the enormous expanses of Africa and the varied rainforests of South America, the book covers the whole gamut of the world’s habitat diversity.
March of the Penguins (2005)
The film follows a group of Antarctic emperor penguins on their yearly migration. All adult penguins (those 5 years or older) leave the ocean in the fall to make the long trek inland to their traditional nesting sites.
The Dust Bowl (2012)
The Dust Bowl is a historical account of the environmental disaster that hit the Great Plains in the 1930s, transforming fertile farmland into a barren desert and setting off a series of catastrophic dust storms that seemed to portend the world’s end to many.
- Nick Broomfield
- Morgan Spurlock
- Davis Guggenheim
- Ken Burns
- Luc Jacquet
- David Attenborough
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