Performative Documentary

Performative documentary restores a sense of magnitude to the local, specific, and embodied. It animates the personal so that it may become our port of entry to the political.

— Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 2010. pp. 209.

What is Performative Documentary?

Nichols describes Performative Documentary as a form that seeks to “perform the demonstration or evocation” of knowledge, rather than to simply report on or outline that knowledge (2010, pp. 199 – 200). This is the major hallmark of Performative Documentary. The form’s focus on affective, embodied and situated communication is what distinguishes Performative Documentary from other documentary forms. For example, Observational Documentary may strive to present a world untouched, uninfluenced and ‘as it is’. Nichols argues that an Observational form seeks to inform audiences, imparting knowledge by presenting what appears to be fact (actual events, as they happen(ed) (2010, pp. 172 – 179). Performative Documentary seeks, instead, to conjure embodied knowledge via emotional evocation, affective impartment or a kind of artistic(ally charged) empathy. It does not necessarily attempt to provide historical timelines or oral histories, rather, emotional accounts of past events and embodied histories. These explanations and those provided by Nichols offer (perhaps) nicely-worded comparisons. I am interested, however, in how these comparisons hold up in practice. Nichols makes the claim that Performative Documentary sets out to “have us feel and experience the world in a particular way as vividly as possible” (2010, pp. 203). Sure. But don’t most forms of documentary attempt to do that? Is that not the goal of placing the audience

These explanations and those provided by Nichols offer (perhaps) nicely-worded comparisons. I am interested, however, in how these comparisons hold up in practice. Nichols makes the claim that Performative Documentary sets out to “have us feel and experience the world in a particular way as vividly as possible” (2010, pp. 203).

Sure. But don’t most forms of documentary attempt to do that? Is that not the goal of placing the audience in the un-tampered-with world of an Observational Documentary? Is that not a tactic of the visible, human interaction between filmmaker and participant/subject in a Participatory Documentary? Is it not what an intimate interview in Expository Documentary aims for?

That will be the discussion of this post. This discussion aims to arrive at an explanation of my attraction toward the Performative Documentary mode.

For clarity, it should be noted that Nichols, confusingly, chooses to distance Performative Documentary from J.L. Austin’s (1975) widely accepted definition of the performative. As a result, what Nichols refers to as performative is not in line with much of the scholarship on the topic. Performance academic Diana Taylor proposes the term ‘performatic’ as an alternative adjective for performance (2015, pp. 172). This is, perhaps, what Nichols should have used. Regardless, as this post is a response to Nichols’ writing, I will adhere to his use of performative.

To be evocative

The articulateness and emotional directness of those who speak gives films of testimony… a highly compelling quality.

— Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 2010. pp. 194.

This is Nichols speaking on Participatory Documentary. It seems to suggest evocation as a result of the human directness that can be present in participatory interviews.

Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team (2014) is an Expository Documentary that is made up, almost entirely, of straight interviews and archival footage of court proceedings.

The film’s main subject is a U.S. soldier named Adam Winfield, who saw major ethical breaches being played out by his military platoon in Afghanistan. Winfield recounts how those around him were ‘killing for sport’, his opposition to it and eventual victimisation by his peers. This, alone, is deeply emotional for the audience. Add to it the descriptions of mockery, bewilderment, enjoyment and the coupling of an admission of killing yet a non-admission of guilt, given by the proud, accused soldiers, and the audience is certainly left with an intensely visceral reaction. The verdict of the seemingly unjust military trial is (and was, in my own personal experience) enough to stir an audience into audible fury paired with gobsmacked disbelief. If this is not evocative documentary, I don’t know what is.

If [Performative Documentaries] set out to do something, it is to help us sense what a certain situation or experience feels like. They want us to feel on a visceral level more than understand on a conceptual level.

Performative documentaries intensify the rhetorical desire to be compelling and tie it less to a persuasive goal than an affective one—to have us feel or experience the world in a particular way as vividly as possible.

— Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 2010. pp. 203.

I’d suggest that most documentaries are performative in some sense of the word. That perhaps performativity is a scale, rather than a branding iron. It may be more difficult to see how an Expository nature doc is performative. But, are the beautiful birds-eye shots of natural wonder not intended to be evocative; visceral? Are the narratives of wildlife interaction not constructed? Is David Attenborough’s narration never poetic? Is any documentary free of the performative? The act of screening something purely Observational is performative. Voyeurism is evocative. Countless films can be identified as performative.’s Godfrey Chesire says of The Kill Team (2014):

…the people [the filmmakers] show us (and let us hear) are the case’s actual protagonists, which allows us to assay the truth of their accounts from the smallest details of their gestures, intonations and self-presentation.

— Chesire, Godfrey. Reviews: The Kill Team. 2014.

“Self-presentation”. That’s performance (read: The Performance of Self in Everyday Life (Goffman 1999)).

Performative Documentary is a documentary that acknowledges its subjectiveness and deliberately utilises performative technique to communicate this to the audience, allowing subjective meaning to reveal itself when evoked. As opposed to a documentary that includes performative elements, yet attempts to mask them or push them to the background, presenting information as objective fact. The Kill Team (2014) is not a Performative Documentary because it uses performativity as a tool rather than the mode.

Why Perform?

This is where I see the power of Performative Documentary. Using performance as a mode harnesses the power of story. I have discussed in other posts the human tendency to understand and order the world through distinct narratives. A contemporary example would be the mass humanitarian response to photographs of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee child whose drowned corpse provoked public empathy towards a crisis which is, and has been, ongoing indefinitely. Performative Documentary acknowledges the power of narrative then builds upon it with performance. It is, for example, the dramatisation of an essay: It is James Baldwin addressing the Letter to [his] Nephew (1962) rather than an academic audience. It is Ta-Nehisi Coates addressing Between the World and Me (2015) to his son. Art happens where connection does. It breeds in the realm of experience. Not fact. A focus on subjective realities that elicit visceral reactions and emotional connections, allow for an audience to comprehend information on a different level than simply the logical one. This is what Nichols refers to when discussing embodied knowledge (2010, pp. 201). Performative Documentary awakens that.

Let us turn to a performative example. That Sugar Film‘s (2014) Damon Gameau awakens a knowledge within us about our own addictions to sugar and the effects that it has on our everyday health. We join Gameau on his journey to completely cut sugar from his diet. As we see his health improve and witness him feel more lively, we understand what we would need to do to get there. Not from a list of facts or a diagram, not from a scientific authority. But from our witnessing of the subjective reality of Gameau’s quitting sugar and feeling better, coupled with our trust and inclination to believe him. This trust is likely a result of his generally affable character. Again, this is subjective. Some viewers may be inclined to discredit his experience as he comes across as a bit of a ‘lefty-hippie’. Besides, he has no general authority in the field and it is entirely possible that he is a once-off case or, simply, lying to us. The performative nature of this documentary allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions, based upon their own, embodied reaction.

Nichols says that “gaining knowledge and understanding” from a Performative Documentary requires a different form of engagement than what other modes ask of their audience (2010, pp. 206). That Sugar Film (2014) is an example of this. The audience is required to be active; to be a part of the journey; to draw their own conclusions from the filmmaker’s performance. Not to be a sponge that absorbs information, interview or testimony.

Passport, please

There is one more aspect of Performative Documentary that makes the mode unique. This is the most attractive aspect of Performative Documentary as a style for me.

This aspect is explained by Nichols in the quote that opened this post. I am referring to the port of entry that performance opens up. Objective forms of communication, expository modes or academic presentations risk esotericism. The Performative Documentary seeks to dismantle that. It is an active accessibility through experience. It is knowing through performance (Taylor 2015). It is a cross-cultural connectivity of embodied understanding. The borders are open.

As a filmmaker this is deeply exciting.


Performance is not judged in terms of true/false; being/pretending. Instead, the affective is the effective.

— Taylor, Diana. Performance. 2015.

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. (1975). How to Do Things With Words. Oxford University Press.

Baldwin, J. (1962). A letter to my nephew. Progressive, 19 – 20.

Cheshire, G. (2014, July 25). Review: The Kill Team. Retrieved from

Coates, T.-N. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Gameau, D. (Writer). (2015). That Sugar Film [Motion Picture].

Goffman, E. (1999). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Gloucester: Peter Smith Publisher, Incorporated.

Kingsley, P., & Timur, S. (2015, December 31). Stories of 2015: how Alan Kurdi’s death changed the world. Retrieved from The Guardian:

Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Taylor, D. (2015). Performance. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

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