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Arts & Entertainment

Film 101: Understanding Expository Documentary Mode

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 11, 2020 • 2 min read

There are six different modes of documentary, each with their own style and filmmaking characteristics. American film critic Bill Nichols defined these documentary types as expository, participatory, observational, performative, poetic, and reflexive. Expository documentaries, the most commonly produced type of documentary, use a spoken narrative to inform the audience on a specific subject matter.

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What Is an Expository Documentary?

Expository documentaries set up a specific point of view or argument about a subject and a narrator often speaks directly to the viewer, emphasizing the relationship between the images presented on-screen and offering verbal commentary. Expository documentaries include footage that supports and strengthens the spoken argument of the film, including stock footage, archival footage, b-roll, or re-enactments of historical events.

Expository documentaries are heavily researched and constructed to inform and persuade. Unlike poetic documentary or observational documentary modes, the goal of the expository mode is to present a strong argument to the audience, convincing them to believe in or agree with a certain point of view.

What Are the Characteristics of an Expository Documentary?

The expository mode of documentary filmmaking has a few distinct characteristics, such as:

  • Omniscient voice-over. One characteristic of expository documentaries is the “voice of God” narration. This authoritative voice accompanies the documentary’s images, defining the visuals for the audience, and explaining rhetorical content to help make the film’s case. The voice-over conveys information and does not provide personal accounts or subjective experiences to share a narrative.
  • A “right” answer. Expository documentaries don’t leave much to subjectivity—they want the audience to feel a certain way about the content they are seeing. Rhetorical questions, recounts of history, and interviews are often presented to support the film’s claims, along with any other relevant evidence.
  • Evidentiary editing. While visuals in the poetic mode documentaries are meant for emotional or artistic purposes, expository filmmakers use images as a means to support their claims. Images on-screen are explained or supported by captions or commentary. This kind of editing style is also used for news broadcasts.
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3 Examples of Expository Documentary

There are many different types of documentary films. Filmmaker Michael Moore is known for his blend of participatory mode and performative documentaries, while Dziga Vertov’s reflexive documentary Man With a Movie Camera (1929) made history with its actor-less presentation of urban Soviet life. Some examples of expository documentaries include:

  1. The Dust Bowl (2012). Ken Burns’ historical account of this disastrous drought during the Great Depression uses photos and facts to supplement the causes and impact of one of the worst droughts to plague North American farmland.
  2. The Blue Planet (2001). David Attenborough’s knowledgeable and authoritative voice, along with his years of nature experience, gives credence to his scientific narration in this documentary series exploring the history and current environment of our planet’s oceans. The film attempts to unravel some of the mystery behind these giant bodies of water that cover two-thirds of the earth, along with its inhabitants. Attenborough also draws attention to mankind’s destruction of this natural habitat, and how our daily activities impact marine life.
  3. Nanook of the North (1922). Robert Flaherty’s silent film presents a glimpse into the life of Nanook, an Inuk, and his family. Title cards serve as the “voice of God,” providing context to viewers about particular scenes. While some small details were changed to enhance the entertainment value of the film, it keeps with most conventions of expository filmmaking and is largely educational.

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