Louis Theroux has built a formidable career of performing the naive investigator, groping his way earnestly through highly charged situations. This performance as an interested observer – an investigative journalist at arm’s length from the world being filmed – both distances and insulates him from the highly charged situations he enters into. He may walk the halls of maximum security prisons, have dinner with “the most hated family in America”, or pound the streets of Johannesburg, but Theroux’s presence is overwhelmingly performative in the sense Stella Bruzzi describes – alienating the viewer from direct identification and deflecting engagement back onto the issues and social actors being considered, rather than encouraging empathy with his own experience. In other words, identification with Theroux’s experience as a subject is resisted by his self-conscious performance of “being a filmmaker”.
Even when under the knife undergoing liposuction, he uses the camera and his role as the committed filmmaker as the framework to make sense of the moment, locating himself as a proxy for the audience. In this way, despite the sense that we “know” Theroux through his on-screen involvement, and despite the emotionality of the situations he enters and creates through his interactions, the affective dimension of his presence tends to come second to the broader epistemological arguments his films explore.
But this distanciating performativity also serves to bring into sharper relief moments when Theroux-as-filmmaker finds himself out of control of the situation unfolding. These moments punctuate Theroux’s films and emphasise the affective dimension of the process of filmmaking. Louis and The Nazis (2003) features a telling scene where the subjects being filmed turn on the filmmaker; a group of liquored-up neo-Nazis telling Theroux to “turn off the camera for a second” so they can ask him more pointedly about their suspicion that he is Jewish. Theroux looks at the camera nervously and asks “what for?”. This moment of vulnerability is powerfully affective in showing Theroux’s vulnerability and personal investment in the moment of filming, which in turn positions Theroux as an empathetic subject rather than as a performative filmmaker using the camera as a buffer from the world represented. Empathy as this kind of intersubjective function (to borrow Belinda Smaill’s term) highlights the affective aspect of documentary film making, as well as the ways in which documentary can impact viewers and communicate meaningfully beyond the communication of reliable and authentic knowledge.