115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Performative Identity in Documentary Film

Jacob Murel, University of Memphis

I address performative identity theory in relation to cinema verité documentary films. With reference to philosophers like Nietzsche, Marx, and Roger Scruton, I review how identity is commonly understood throughout the humanities as a performace. With a look at Jim McBride’s mockumentary David Holzman’s Diary, I ask what this means for documentary films which hope to reveal individuals’ “real” identities to their audiences.


Viewers typically approach documentary films expecting to watch real people performing real actions and telling real stories. Ever since the cinema verité and direct cinema movements of the 1970s, however, the notion of "real" people has been called into question when discussing documentary footage. The issue is closely related to the concept of documentary as a "truth film," a topic addressed by critics such as Bill Nichols and Linda William—can documentary function as an objective take on truth, and related, is there an objective truth documentary can reveal? I carry this debate over documentary's potentiality, or lack thereof, toward truth into the realm of human identity. Documentary filmic criticism has thus far been somewhat silent concerning the theory of identity as performance at work throughout the humanities. Thus, my paper addresses documentary’s potentiality, or lack thereof, toward revealing identity when identity is understood as performative. In other words, if human identity is performative, can documentary films reveal "real people" to its audience. Direct cinema filmmakers, such as Robert Drew and Ricky Leacock, took measures to avoid their subjects peforming for the camera in the hopes of capturing some essential, core self. But according to the performative theory of human identity, no core self exists—there is only performance. Via an analysis of Jim McBride's mockumentary David Holzman's Diary, in dialogue with writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Roger Scruton, I address whether documentary film viewers can expect to see "real people" on the documentary screen. If there is no core self to illuminate as the peformative model suggests, what can documentary film reveal? If truth is “relative and contingent” as Linda Williams proposes in her writings on documentary, how can film, to echo Jean-Luc Godard, capture truth twenty-four times a second? What is the truth it captures? Can it even capture truth? Can documentary film actually reveal identity, as the main character of McBride's film hopes, when identity is simply a performance? My purpose is to propose and process these questions by pointing to the troubling reality that the performative identity theory creates for documentary filmmakers and viewers. I therefore hope to fill a gap in the field of documentary film studies by addressing its relation to the performative identity theory at work throughout the humanities, a theory which curiously seems to have as yet not entered discussions of documentary film.

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