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Arts & Entertainment

Film 101: Understanding Reflexive Documentary Mode

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 15, 2020 • 2 min read

There are six different types of documentaries, each with their own style and filmmaking characteristics. American film critic Bill Nichols defined the different types of documentaries as expository mode, participatory mode, performative mode, poetic mode, reflexive mode, and observational documentary mode. The reflexive documentary shines a spotlight on the process of making a documentary.

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What Is Reflexive Documentary?

The reflexive documentary mode focuses on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience, pushing viewers to reflect on their perceptions and re-analyze their notions of truth. Unlike the expository documentary, the reflexive mode does not examine outside subject matter—it exposes the documentary-making process.

The reflexive documentary does not attempt to provoke intense emotional responses from the audience but encourages thoughtful consideration of the material. 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.

What Are the Characteristics of a Reflexive Documentary?

The reflexive documentary mode is similar to the participatory documentary mode (also known as an interactive documentary) in that they both show involvement of the filmmaker, and usually make the cameraman and camera part of the film. The reflexive documentary mode presents questions and approaches topics with uncertainty, presenting a version of truth within a non-fiction format.

Reflexive documentaries will often show the camera or production crew to call attention to the conventions of filmmaking, and present self-awareness to eliminate biases about the film’s content or agenda.

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3 Examples of Reflexive Documentary

Some examples of reflexive documentary include:

  1. Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Dziga Vertov’s reflexive documentary made history with its actor-less presentation of ordinary Soviet life. The documentary calls attention to the many different aspects of filmmaking, like shots, cuts, and angles, which become part of the narrative itself. This display of self-awareness is designed to lead the audience to question the process and how it influences their feelings about the film overall.
  2. Chronicle of a Summer (1961). This French film (Chronique d'un été) by filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, documents real-life individuals over a summer as they discuss their viewpoints on happiness and French society within the working class. At the beginning of the film, the filmmakers discuss their planning process with their subject, which makes viewers question which moments are truly organic, and which are all part of a film’s construction. The audience is left to decide their own conclusions regarding the way documentary footage is put together, and how honest it can be.
  3. Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends (1998). This documentary series showcases documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux traveling to different places while chronicling his experiences encountering “weird” events—interactions with subcultures or groups that some viewers may not typically encounter in their everyday lives. The series features interactions with religious extremists, infomercial stars, survivalists, separatists, and swingers. Theroux spotlights these subjects to challenge the audience’s preconceived notions of these groups, presenting fuller context to how these people live their lives by explaining their beliefs and behaviors.

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