The performative documentary is a play of reality that is often self-reflexive, in contrast to straightforward reports, facts, and observations. By operating in between fact and fiction, I create an awareness for constructing cinematic reality through the performative act, which in turn creates different narrative structures compared to the traditionally defined cinematic terms such as scenes, characters, and plots.
The performative refers to a certain mode in documentary filmmaking, in which situations are acted out, re-enacted, or played to represent reality. As opposed to fiction filmmaking, these performances are based on real events or observations and serve as a form of storytelling which often condenses and enriches the film with a sense of reality. It is a playful, often self-reflexive method of telling the real, the truth, or facts. Most importantly, this filmmaking is always aware of its own makings. One can claim that, in one way or another, all documentary films are manipulated, because images are created through composition and montage. The question of how reality can be represented in filmmaking has been a constant debate within documentary filmmaking since early cinema, and thus the history of the documentary film can be studied from a performative perspective. From the first films produced by the Lumière Brothers (1895), which they called ‘actuality films’, to Robert J. Flaherty’s first docudrama Nanook of the North (1922), situations have been staged not only for the representation of reality but for dramatization in storytelling. John Grierson coined the word ‘documentary’ as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ (1966, 145), which highlights the fact that despite the documentary’s claim to truth, reality, and facts, a film needs to be created and thus manipulated. The performance in documentary films is essential, not to falsify the reality, but as a self-reflexive tool to understand the politics of image-making. In this sense, the performative documentary serves as a model of thought in which facts, analyses, references, and interpretations can be combined into polyphonic narratives.
Of Haunted Spaces reveals the process of filmmaking while researching China’s new ghost cities. The film is a visually poetic tableau of urban landscapes and an experiment in narration through the self-reflexivity of filmmaking. Scenarios are staged to tell of the reality, and reality on the other hand turns out to be scripted by the media society. The spectre is not only found in places haunted by capitalism, but also by its representation in images.