Documentary Modes

Bill Nichols’ documentary modes offer one of the most useful — and most debated — ways to group documentaries.

Nichols is a respected American documentary film theorist who developed these modes in several of his books, including Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary and Introduction to Documentary, now in its third edition.

This post summarizes each mode and suggests some sample documentaries for each one. Note that while modes might orginate during specific time periods, they provide no framework for charting documentary film history. Further, some documentaries might fit into more than one mode.

Poetic Mode

The poetic mode emerged during the late 1910s and into the 1920s. It began in reaction to the rise of narrative storytelling. This mode experiments with montage editing, which seeks to create meaning by pairing different images during the editing process. The meanings created prove more abstract, revealing patterns and themes.

Music plays an integral role in poetic documentaries, contributing to meaning creation, image interpretation, and rhythmic flow. For example, Dziga Vertov left specific notes about the music composition that should accompany his film The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). City symphonies, which pair urban images with symphonic compositions, often are considered poetic documentaries.

  • Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927
  • Rain, 1929
  • Man with a Movie Camera, 1929
  • Koyaanisqatsi, 1982

Expository Mode

An expository documentary asserts a strong rhetorical argument, and everything appearing within the documentary supports that argument. The film attempts to control the film’s interpretation by explaining the images shown. The explanation of the documentary’s argument is more an important than allowing the audience to think and decide for themselves.

Appearing with the developments of synchronous sound, voiceover narration is a hallmark of this mode. A deep male voice often speaks but almost never appears on screen, giving that voice a sense of omniscience. The voiceover explains in detail what the documentary makers believe audiences need to know.

This mode often is held up as most “neutral” in documentary representation. That supposed neutrality is a construct, just as all documentary representation is a construct. The key is to examine the argument being made and what evidence is provided to support that argument.

  • The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936
  • The River, 1938
  • Why We Fight Series, 1942-1945
  • The Civil War, 1990

Observational Mode

The observational mode emerged in reaction to the expository mode and to technology changes. Cameras became lighter and quieter, lenses became faster and more sensitive to low light, and sound recording went wireless. These equipment changes allowed smaller-sized crews, which could gain access to more intimate spaces and more spontaneous moments. Ultimately, observational documentary filmmakers sought to let life unfold before their cameras without their interference.

In its purest form, the observational mode involves no staged interviews, no music, and no voiceover narration. Long takes and sudden zooms ensure the camera captures (and the viewer sees) the action first hand. A wobbly image as the camera operator moves through a space is common, as is sometimes muffled sound.

  • Home for Life, 1966
  • Titicut Follies, 1967
  • Dont Look Back, 1967
  • Salesman, 1969
  • Armadillo, 2011

Participatory Mode

In the participatory mode the filmmaker participates in the production process. The filmmaker is actively engaged throughout the film, such as taking part in events or interviewing people, all while appearing on camera.

Within this active approach, the filmmaker maintains their point of view, but remains careful not to impose that point of view on participants or events. Ultimately, participants speak for themselves from their own points of view. The filmmaker might pose some difficult questions based on other perspectives, however.

The participatory mode aknowledges that the filmmaker’s presence influences the filmed happenings and offers some sense of how that influence appears.

  • Chronicle of a Summer, 1960
  • Sherman’s March, 1985
  • Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, 1992
  • Icarus, 2017

Reflexive Mode

Films in the reflexive mode call attention to themselves as documentary films. Instead of just using the usual documentary conventions to create their stories, these films skew the conventions in ways that challenge our assumptions about what a documentary actually is. For example, they might show a camera on screen or reveal the struggles behind an interview. For another example, they might present an event that seems to have happened when it is actually recreated.

Reflexive documentaries eschew the sense that films offer a window to the world. They attempt to “make strange” what might seem normal or real, forcing audiences to question what they see.

  • Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, 1933
  • “The Spaghetti Story,” 1957
  • Wedding Camels, 1980
  • This is Spinal Tap, 1984
  • Surname Viet Given Name Nam, 1989
  • Exit Through The Gift Shop, 2010

Performative Mode

The performative mode draws on the filmmaker’s personal experience as a gateway toward understanding a larger social or political issue. This mode thus focuses on subjective experience over objective reality.

This subjectivity allows movement beyond rhetorical arguments toward the emotional journey of the filmmaker’s life and struggles. This emphaiss on subjectivity encourages a greater range of expression than found in other modes. To highlight those emotional aspects, the performative mode might manipulate documentary conventions, such as staging reenactments or even staging interviews. Either way, a performative documentary shows what an experience feels like.

  • Roger and Me, 1989
  • Tongues Untied, 1989
  • Catfish, 2010

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