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Arts & Entertainment

Film Documentary Guide: 6 Types of Documentaries

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 15, 2020 • 3 min read

Documentaries come in many formats and genres. This allows filmmakers to push traditional boundaries or mix elements from different modes to produce a unique and powerful film.

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What Are Documentary Modes?

In 1991, American film critic and theoretician Bill Nichols proposed that there were six different modes of documentary—poetic, expository, reflexive, observational, performative, and participatory—each containing its own specific characteristics. While some documentary films may have an overlap in traits, each mode is a category that can be boiled down to a few specific elements.

6 Types of Documentaries

Not all documentaries are the same, and different types of documentaries will require different documentary techniques from the cinematographer. There are six main types of documentary genres.

  1. Poetic mode: A poetic documentary eschews linear continuity in favor of mood, tone, or the juxtaposition of imagery. Since poetic documentaries often have little or no narrative content, the director of photography is often asked to capture highly composed, visually striking images that can tell a story without additional verbal context. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) is an example of a poetic documentary that focuses on visuals and artistic style to help reveal an inner truth.
  2. Expository mode: Expository documentaries set up a specific point of view or argument about a subject and often feature “voice of God” style voice-over. For expository documentaries, the cinematographer is responsible for collecting footage that supports and strengthens the spoken argument of the film, including stock footage, archival footage, b-roll, or re-enactments of historical events. The Dust Bowl (2012) is filmmaker Ken Burns’ historical account of the disastrous drought that occurred during the Great Depression. Burns uses photos and facts to supplement the causes and impact of one of the worst droughts to plague North American farmland.
  3. Participatory mode: Participatory documentaries are defined by the interaction between the documentary filmmakers and their subject. Therefore, a cinematographer is equally responsible for capturing the interviewer as he is the interviewee. Participatory documentaries, also known as interactive documentaries, often present the filmmaker’s version of the truth as “the” truth, focusing on direct engagement with subjects and capturing real emotional responses and interactions. Many of the interactions that are captured support the filmmaker’s point of view or prove the film’s intent. Many of Michael Moore’s documentaries, like Bowling for Columbine (2001), are participatory but also blend elements of observational and performative modes.
  4. Observational mode: A style of documentary embraced by the cinema verité movement, observational documentaries attempt to discover the ultimate truth of their subject by acting as a fly-on-the-wall—in other words, observing the subject’s real-life without interrupting. Cinematographers on observational documentaries will often be asked to be as unobtrusive as possible in order to capture their subjects in a raw, unguarded state. An example of this direct cinema type of documentary is Primary (1960), a film chronicling the Wisconsin primary between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey.
  5. Reflexive mode: Reflexive documentaries focus on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. Since the subject matter is often the process of documentary filmmaking itself, a cinematographer will shoot behind-the-scenes style footage of the entire film production process, including editing, interviewing, and post-production. Dziga Vertov’s reflexive documentary Man With a Movie Camera (1929) made history with its actor-less presentation of urban Soviet life.
  6. Performative mode: Performative documentaries focus on the filmmaker’s involvement with their subject, using his or her personal experience or relationship with the subject as a jumping-off point for exploring larger, subjective truths about politics, history, or groups of people. A cinematographer is often asked to capture the documentary production process, as well as intimate footage that illustrates the direct and often personal relationship between filmmaker and subject. Supersize Me (2004) by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock documents his experience eating only McDonald’s fast food for 30 days, chronicling the body issues, health problems, and the ensuing doctor’s visits in an attempt to question the food sold at the famous fast-food chain.
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