Alex Turner ©2010 Discuss Bruzzi’s notion of the ‘performative documentary’, with detailed reference to two documentaries.

The aim of this essay is to address the notion of the performative documentary mode as ‘a mode which emphasizes – and indeed constructs a film around – the often hidden aspect of performance, whether on the part of the documentary subjects or the filmmakers’ (Bruzzi, 2000: 153). Using Bruzzi’s article on the performative documentary, it will firstly give a brief explanation of the mode itself, how it is constructed and why – according to Bruzzi – it is an important part of the documentary canon. The essay will explore in detail the films Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 2003) and Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003) in order to demonstrate the various ways in which the performative documentary is constructed. Using Bruzzi’s article as a framework, the analysis of these two documentary films will attempt to provide an understanding of the mode, leading to the conclusion that, as Bruzzi notes, the performative documentary holds an important place in the history of documentary film because it acknowledges the intermediary function of the camera and crew as well as the subjective, inescapably biased nature of the medium (Bruzzi, 2000: 180).

In psychology, the term ‘reactivity’ refers to the common phenomenon that arises when an individual (or subject) adjusts their behaviour as a result of the knowledge that they are being observed. The importance and effect of reactivity is often taken into account during the analysis of any psychological study where it may be present. In short, it is acknowledged that by observing something, one undoubtedly changes it. In terms of the still image, Pierre Bourdieu noted a host of effects the camera has upon its subjects as


Alex Turner ©2010 they play out their archetypal roles (Bourdieu, 2007: 73-98). It seems conceivable that simply the presence of a camera documenting an event will alter the event itself. One of the adjustments in behaviour in the presence of a still camera that could be said to appear is the pose. In the presence of a constantly observing, constantly recording camera, a continuous version of the pose could be referred to as the performance.

Earlier forms of documentary film, such as cinéma vérité or direct cinema, held the concept of a single, objective truth as an ideal to be reached. In order to achieve this, these forms of cinema would attempt to collapse the boundary between subject and representation (Bruzzi, 2000: 68). In contrast, the performative documentary is partially defined by a direct reaction or opposition to these earlier aims of documentary. By the use of narrative and filmic techniques, performance of the filmmaker (as in the films of Nick Broomfield) or subjects and talking head interviews (as in Capturing the Friedmans) it highlights the constructed nature of the documentary by revealing the presence of the camera and its intrusion, marking a distinction between the unadulterated reality of the event or subject matter and the ‘reality’ of the documentary itself.

The performative documentary can be roughly broken down into two categories. Firstly, there is the documentary that focuses on the intrusive nature of the filmmaker and the process of making the documentary itself. Secondly, there is the documentary that focuses on the performance of the subjects it chooses to represent. Although there is often a certain amount of overlap between these two approaches (Bruzzi, 2000: 154) – no less in the two focus films of this essay - it is Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer that perhaps best demonstrates the first category.


Alex Turner ©2010

Firstly, it is important to note that Broomfield’s Life and Death was marketed alongside the fiction film Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003), a biography of Aileen Wuornos. There is a point to be made here regarding the relationship between reality and fiction; the crossmarketing of these films seems to have influenced the way audiences see Aileen Wuornos. Critics often considered the films as closely related or reviewed them alongside each other (Doherty, 2004); Monster was the fictionalised, dramatised companion to the truth of Life and Death, a reality that many deemed to be far more engaging than fiction (Horeck, 2007: 142). The close relationship between the marketing of drama and documentary seems to reflect the performance of Aileen herself, who is often clearly shown to be ‘acting up’ for the cameras, as well as the star director Broomfield, whose films are often noted for their acknowledgement of subjectivity.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer follows the story of Nick Broomfield as he returns to speak with Aileen shortly before her execution. As his first film about Aileen (Broomfield, 1992) argued that she had been exploited by almost everyone around her, Broomfield returns over a decade later to argue that the death penalty, when applied to the criminally insane, is an injustice.

Broomfield’s films focus on the documentary form itself and how it is constructed. They are often ‘built around the torturous chase after elusive subjects and the collapsed interview that sometimes fails to materialise’ (Bruzzi, 2000: 171). As a result of this, Broomfield himself often takes centre stage. The opening of Life and Death reflects this, as we are shown a point of view shot of from behind the windscreen of a car;


Alex Turner ©2010 Broomfield’s – and our – new journey has begun. The film’s narrative is structured accordingly; there are no observational sequences in which we are invited to simply watch the events unfolding onscreen and the story begins and ends when Broomfield himself deems it complete. Every scene that takes place is mediated by either a deadpan voiceover explaining the situation or by Broomfield himself stepping in front of the camera, physically leading us from one point to another.

In a sense, the success of Broomfield’s films and his onscreen presence signifies a conscious awareness of the filmmaking process and an end to the idealised truth documentaries try to capture (Bruzzi, 2000: 164) If one of the chief aims of the performative mode is to create awareness of the documentary process, Broomfield provides ample examples of this in Life and Death. One of the most notable instances of this is the scene in which he is called to testify in court regarding the authenticity of his previous documentary on Aileen some 11 years before. Here, several levels of reality seem to come to a confusing fore. Firstly, there are the three levels of reality which can be found in all forms of documentary: the putative (the unmediated reality which seems to exist only as an awareness and only in the sense that it is required to in order for other levels to follow), the profilmic (the mediated reality created by the presence of Broomfield and his crew) and the screened. In addition to this, the reality of his previous documentary exists, with its own putative and profilmic levels, all of which are being addressed during the filming of another documentary. When questioned as to the authenticity of this reality (specifically regarding a car journey in which the t-shirt of a character changes between shots) Broomfield replies ‘I don’t know about the pasting, but you certainly cut’. He goes on to defend the truth claims of his previous documentary in his trademark naïve manner, suggesting that he doesn’t recall the


Alex Turner ©2010 specifics, but if he were driving a car for a long period of time, he too would probably change his shirt. This scene appears to have little relevance to Broomfield’s argument regarding the injustices of the death penalty, but it does question – as many of his films do – the reality in front of the camera, highlighting the fact that Broomfield’s films exist as little more than one modified perspective of an event. By filming this scene and including it in the documentary, it seems that Broomfield the filmmaker is emphasising the ironic nature of his films being considered worthy of standing as evidence in court, thus highlighting the notion that a documentary is a subjective mediation – or form - of reality. The argument could be made that documentary has the power to create social or political change (Calhoun, 2003), but in order to do so, its limitations must be acknowledged. It is these limitations that the performative mode – and in particular the films of Broomfield – seem to emphasize.

Another aspect of Broomfield’s filming that could be deemed performative is the tension between the realities of the filmmaker/auteur Nick Broomfield and the subject ‘Nick Broomfield’ that appears as a character in the documentary with his trademark boom microphone and white shirt. (Bruzzi, 2000: 172). For example, Broomfield’s voiceover is notoriously absent of enthusiasm or emotion – an effect which seems to highlight the definite split between an omniscient filmmaker and an insistently playful, inquisitive character. If documentary is to enter a contract between filmmaker and spectator – a bond of trust (Beattie, 2004: 11) – then it seems that, by using somewhat discordant techniques of voiceover, director versus character and acknowledgement of various levels of reality in play, Broomfield the filmmaker is laying his cards down on the table.


Alex Turner ©2010 There is one final aspect of performance to be discussed in Life and Death, which is that of Aileen Wuornos herself. The main points of this category will be addressed further in Capturing the Friedmans, but as previously stated, there is often some degree of overlap between these two types of the performative mode.

The performance of Aileen herself is highlighted throughout the film; there are several scenes in which we see her preparing for the camera by arranging her hair or taking a moment to physically compose herself. Often, it appears as though she is reciting previously written lines that she has prepared before the interview or conversation takes place. In one particular scene (a clip of which is used for the trailer) she is seen reacting to Broomfield’s question regarding how her life would have turned out had she not needed to leave home and sleep in cars. Her monologue appears to be a recital, most obviously when she begins to reel off a list of career paths that would have been available to her, slipping up and asking ‘did I say archaeology?’ It seems no coincidence that this scene uses an extreme close-up on Aileen’s face to the point where it appears monstrous, detached and worn; the combination of Aileen’s own willingness to perform, coupled with the penchant of Broomfield’s camera for subjectivity creates ‘Aileen Wuornos’, the criminally insane serial killer who evokes both revulsion and sympathy from the spectator. Her monstrous face is the telltale sign of her trauma (Horeck, 2007: 144) and her words poorly hide an ulterior motive that helps support Broomfield’s argument.

The performance of Aileen in Life and Death is crucial to this argument but relies on a single scene of a more putative nature in which Churchill (Broomfield’s co-author for the film) continues to record as Aileen believes the camera to be turned off. Here, she


Alex Turner ©2010 offers a reason for her performance and, arguably, a more truthful insight into her beliefs; the conspiracies that she has constructed, along with her attempt to hide them, show us another disturbing side of Aileen that supports Broomfield’s claim. Interestingly, it is this scene in which the filmmaker maintains character and the subject is seen in a more candid light which seems to stress both the importance of the performance (without which we may simply see Aileen as insincere and lashing out) and the notion that truth can often be, even without the intermediary of the camera, subjective or elusive.

It is this subjective or elusive nature of truth that is found in Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003). In contrast to Life and Death, Jarecki’s film focuses much more on the performance of the subjects (often overtly), with only occasional direct interference from the director himself. The nature of the film itself seems to reflect the nature of the performative mode and the original intentions of Jarecki in this case seem irrelevant; the focus is on the finished piece, a documentary that emphasises the notion that a definitive, single truth is either rare or misleading (Hammond, 2003: A6).

Capturing the Friedmans is a combination of found footage (provided by the son, David Friedman), talking head interviews, as well as narrative and editing techniques including reconstructions that attempt to present a story to the audience which relies heavily on their own interpretation of the supposed facts. Cut together, the film tells the story of the Friedman family, the victims and the authorities involved after father and son, Arnold and Jesse, were arrested and charged for the molesting of children during computer classes held at the Friedman’s home.


Alex Turner ©2010 The most prevalent element of the performative mode in this film is the performance of the subjects themselves, to the extent that one critic stated ‘the Friedman family’s near pornographic obsession with home video suggests an onanistic existence in which the boundaries between performance and real life have simply ceased to exist’ (Kermode, 2004). One of the most notable examples of this appears later in the film; as the family begin arguing at the dinner table, the video camera continues to record, apparently having been given a seat of its own. Here, the presence of the camera has become so integral to the family that it is accepted into their daily rituals. The eccentric nature of Jesse as a young adult and of Arnold as his father seems to blur the line between documentary subject and fictional character; it becomes difficult for us to imagine how they would act off-screen.

Jarecki often emphasises the performative nature of these characters through a host of filmic techniques which thread the spectator into a narrative that seems to be driven by its desire for subjectivity. For example, toward the beginning of the film, we see a montage of establishing shots which show us a quiet suburban street cross fading into an old video journal of David Friedman in his bedroom. The effect of these establishing shots seems to emphasise the constructed nature of the documentary itself by being planted directly in between David as an adult interviewee and participant of the documentary and David as a member of the Friedman family during their crisis. For one of the few times in the entire film, Jarecki himself becomes an active participant in the interview by questioning David about his family and his past. This sequence appears crucial to the performative aspect of the film because it weaves both categories of the mode together. Firstly, Jarecki is established here, simply by this brief interjection during the interview, as the author of the perspective that the film is constructed around.


Alex Turner ©2010 The sequence also sets up David as a crucial character in this story by use of the montage that establishes a time and place that is the focus of the documentary. By appearing in his video journals shortly after he has referenced a time that he ‘doesn’t want to talk about’, David Friedman has become a main focus of the documentary and the audience creates the narrative link between these three short sequences.

David’s video journals provide further fuel for a narrative element to the documentary; his plea (‘if you’re not me then you really shouldn’t be watching this’) that addresses privacy and the spectator establishes a curiosity in the audience that later branches out to the ensemble of interviews which refuse to provide any hard evidence at all and are often edited to appear contradictory. For example, several shots or scenes that Jarecki deems key information (such as the sexuality of Arnold’s brother or the remarriage of Elaine to another man) are often kept back until the audience feels relatively comfortable with a certain position. Though this thematic ambiguity may appear frustrating and reflect Jarecki’s inability to maintain an argument or deal with the complexities of the material (Arthur, 2003) it does appear to highlight Bruzzi’s notion of documentary as ‘dialectical and open to reinterpretation’ (Bruzzi, 2000: 180).

Unlike Broomfield, Jarecki does not appear as a character in his film, though his presence is openly felt. As mediator, Jarecki includes a variety of filmic elements including the establishing of a white, middle-class suburbia through the use of metonymical shots of brilliant white picket fences and sprinklers in the garden. His inclusion of talking heads and interviews with the family and investigation teams, as well as non-diagetic music during the more distressing or emotive scenes and a brief, abstract reconstruction seem to emphasise the lack of objectivity available in the film.


Alex Turner ©2010 As everything contradicts the point that preceded it, effectively leaving the audience to decide, Capturing the Friedmans seems to play as a courtroom melodrama without entering the courtroom.

Like many true crime documentaries, Jarecki’s found footage, as well as the interviews and archival footage, become part of the pool of vehicles for confession that draw upon the iconography of fiction in order to dramatise the factual (Biressi, 2004: 412). Whether or not the documentary itself can be deemed entirely performative, the Friedman family – and perhaps our reaction to them - seem to demonstrate the idea that the intrusion of a camera inevitably alters the reality that existed before it. In not presenting itself as anything other than subjective, Captuing the Friedmans highlights one of the most important previously mentioned ideas of Bruzzi, that, in documentary, ‘a pursuit towards unadulterated actuality is futile’ (Bruzzi, 2000: 68).

Ultimately, it seems that both the films of Broomfield and Jarecki discussed contain elements that, together, provide an understanding of the performative documentary mode. Bruzzi often stresses the importance of acknowledging the bias of the film medium and remembering that it is only a construction of reality (Bruzzi, 2000: 180). If the performative documentary is built around the hidden aspect of performance then in the work of Broomfield, this is demonstrated through the multiple levels of reality that the character and filmmaker of Nick Broomfield bring into focus. In the case of Jarecki, it is the performance of the subjects themselves that make us ever more aware of the blurred line between reality and fiction.


Alex Turner ©2010


Alex Turner ©2010 Bibliography

Arthur, Paul (2003) ‘True Confessions, Sort of: Capturing the Friedmans and the Dilemma of Theatrical Documentary’ in Cineaste 28, 4 pp. 4-7

Beattie, Keith (2004) ‘’’Believe Me, I’m of the World”: Documentary Representation’ in Documentary Screens: Nonfiction Film and Television Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Biressi, Anita (2004) ‘Inside/out: private trauma and public knowledge in true crime documentary’ in Screen 45: 4 Winter

Bourdieu, Pierre (2007) Photography: A Middle-brow Art California: Stanford University Press

Bruzzi, Stella (2000) ‘The performative documentary: Barker, Dineen, Broomfield’ and ‘The legacy of direct cinema’ in New Documentary: A Critical Introduction London/New York: Routledge London/New York: Routledge

Calhoun, Dave (2003) ‘Camera, Lights, Justice’ in The Times London: 6. Academic OneFile. Gale. Anglia Ruskin University. 30 Oct. 2008

Doherty, Thomas (2004) ‘Aileen Wuornos Superstar’ in Cineaste 29.3: 3(3). Academic OneFile. Gale. Anglia Ruskin University. 30 Oct. 2008


Alex Turner ©2010 Hammond, Pete (2003) ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ in Daily Variety 281.49: A6(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Anglia Ruskin University. 30 Oct. 2008

Horeck, Tanya (2007) ‘From documentary to drama: capturing Aileen Wuornos’ in Screen 48:2 pp. 141-159

Kermode, Mark (2004) ‘Film: video nasty; A documentary of a family so dysfunctional you wouldn't believe it if it weren't true’ in New Statesman 133.4683: 45(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. Anglia Ruskin University. 30 Oct. 2008


Alex Turner ©2010 Filmography

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer Nick Broomfield (2003) UK/USA

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer Nick Broomfield (1992) UK

Capturing the Friedmans Andrew Jarecki (2003) USA

Monster Patty Jenkins (2003) USA


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