Monday, July 23, 2012

The Ugly Truth: Performative Documentary

Over the years, cinema itself has begun to become more and more complex. From having multiple genres to advancements with audio and visuals, film has rose itself into an undeniable outlet of creativity, information, and showcase. Documentaries are perhaps one of the fastest growing film genre since the turn of the century. Yet, a special domain of documentaries has been ruled by box office success. It is here that performative documentaries stirred controversies and raised awareness to common issues often overlooked.

The question then becomes: what separates performative and traditional? Documentaries are primarily created in ways of raising awareness and informing the audience of a specific point of view. Like traditional, which strives to feature a point of view and typical chronological series of events, performative poses a problem and provides a solution. Unlike traditional documentary, performative challenges the audience to find meaning from the film. It gives information not with intent to inform, but to choose to agree or disagree.

Throwing away the order of events, credibility, and straight-face approach to a topic, performative adds emotion. It takes any instances of objection to subjective, allowing an aggressive teaching to turn into a passive suggestion. It is a way to approach an audience without coming off as too informative or too preachy.

Above all else, what makes performative documentary a unique mixing pot of information is the combination of resources and styles used. From re-enactment, found footage, recreation and animation, it is the audience’s attention span and interest that is kept in mind by the filmmaker. The tone and delivery of information varies from open voice, narrative, formal, and finally, humor. The notorious Michael Moore, the creator of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, is well-known for gapping the medium between delivery and receiving by using satire and humor to express what could be nearly shocking information.

Moore, with the help of controversial topics, has become a leading filmmaker that’s style is nearly mainstream. His involvement and on-camera time in his documentaries gives personal involvement and importance to the information provided. This is one of the many forms that delivery in performative documentaries takes. His involvement with the victims of the Columbine High School accident marked a change of involvement that many filmmakers did not approach. He had a personal stake, which was to raise awareness of the gun issues in America, and used that to drive and connect his message.

The combination of collages and interviews marks steps towards reflection. The techniques and their weaving into the root of the message. It’s main purpose is to find a way to invoke an emotion and demand we evaluate the knowledge given. It is here that the filmmaker edits content to convey the message they want, as opposed to strictly hard facts. What makes performative documentary unique is this viewpoint: it is an artist giving the option for those to understand, and it is up to the viewer to indulge.

Performative documentary often borders the same advancement as a narrative story. Proposed with a beginning question, the documentary will give details, opinions, and finally, a resolution. Following a sole person or group, audiences are given insight and opinions focused on a person’s struggles and growth, much like a narrative basic story.

With the storytelling process becoming more and more respected in cinema, the honest facts and plain delivery has often been a problem for conveying a message. Reality TV and drama-docs have blurred the line between staged and truth. Yet, performative documentary doesn’t shy away from the root of it’s message, regardless of how entertaining and outrageous the content may be.

Bill Nichols, an American film critic with strong opinions on the evolution of film spoke of how the traditional modes of documentary no longer fit, but performative pulls from those to have a unique flex.

At the end of the day, it is ultimately up to the audience on how successful the message is. Filmmakers use constant ever-changing tactics, modes, theories and ideology to help motivate an emotion. Whether that is negative or positive varies, but the filmmaker was still able to get the message across and digested. That is the ultimate, in my theory, definition of performative. If the documentary can hold attention, deliver information, and allow process, the documentary was a success, regardless of reception. To entertain is to maintain, to maintain entertainment is to inform.

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