Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
FilmPart of Humanities

Performing Identity in Documentary Film Seminar

Centre for International Film Research
16:00 - 18:00
29 October 2019
Lecture Theatre B, Avenue Campus 65 Highfield Rd Southampton SO17 1BF

For more information regarding this seminar, please email Sofia Bull at .

Event details

Film Research Seminar Series, Autumn 2019


For decades, criticism has debated the fact/fiction, objective/subjective, imagination/belief binaries inherent to the documentary film form. Bill Nichols (1991), in Representing Reality, underlines documentary’s supposed aim at representing the ‘real’ world but notes that it uneasily sits alongside other so-called ‘discourses of sobriety’ because of the form’s association with the fiction film. Erik Barnouw (1993) similarly asserts that as soon as a documentary filmmaker chooses to frame a shot in a particular way or cut at a certain point, their subjectivity enters the fray and the film’s claims to objectivity are negated.

Other theorists, such as Michael Renov (1993) and Nichols’s later writing in Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (1994), choose to discuss documentary as a negotiation between fiction and nonfiction where certain creative techniques implemented by the filmmakers can result in differing levels of truth in the completed projects. However, for Stella Bruzzi (2006), this does not go far enough. Instead, she formulates a definition where all documentaries are performative in the sense that their relative ‘truths’, or depictions of the historical world, are brought into existence when they are being filmed.

It is this positioning of the documentary as performative that this paper will address. It will demonstrate how J. L. Austin’s (1970) use of the term in linguistics and Ilona Hongisto’s (2015) instrumental writing on the various ways documentary films frame the real to show its becoming can provide an innovative and persuasive framework to think through some of the pressing issues that face contemporary documentary cinema. In so doing, the proposed paper will draw on existing critical literature and instructive film examples in support of the argument put forward. It will pose and attempt to answer key questions such as: how does performativity form part of many documentaries’ address to the spectator? And how do the films define, construct and engage with their subjects’ identities where the films themselves (through cinematography, use of sound, animation, etc.) begin to perform the very identities they are depicting? Some examples from this research that will also inform the proposed paper include re-enactment and fictionalisations in Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013), the use of voice and voiceover in Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015), and how films like The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010) and Notes on Blindness (Peter Middleton & James Spinney) use lip synching devices to perform disabilities.

Through such debate, it is my contention and hope that viewing documentaries like these, and many others, with a performative lens will allow for more productive  examinations of the nonfiction form that evaluate how they relate to contemporary culture’s understanding of identity and move away from reductive ‘true/false’ arguments in terms of their authentic representation.


Dr Adam VaughanUniversity of Southampton

Privacy Settings