Documentary Modes

As documentary films span a wide range of styles, a broad range of definitions have been created in order to specifically define what a documentary is. Perhaps the simplest and most effective of these is from American documentarian Pare Lorentz, who defined a documentary as being “a factual film which is dramatic.”

While documentary films are often regarded to be more factual and objective than their fictional peers, it is important to remember that documentarians are just as likely to have a specific purpose behind the creation of a documentary film. Some documentarians will certainly begin a project with the aim of seeking out the objective “truth” about a particular issue or event – almost in the form of journalism – while others will create their film with the aim of advocating for a certain issue or expressing their personal opinions in a persuasive fashion.

By presenting their ideas in the form of a documentary, filmmakers have the ability to make the concepts they present appear as being objectively truthful. Viewers are perhaps less likely to keep in mind that a documentary, like any other form of media, is simply one representation of an idea, issue, person, group, or event.

In his book Introduction to Documentary, Bill Nichols defined six different modes of documentaries. With thanks to Nichols, Childress, No Film School, and Wiki, these are explained below. It’s important to remember, of course, that some documentaries can incorporate aspects of more than one of these modes.


Expository mode

An exposition is a description and explanation of an idea or theory, so the purpose of an expository documentary is usually to create an argument. Such films usually position their audience to support the opinion that the filmmaker is expressing.

Expository documentaries often use statistics or historical documents in order to lend credibility to their argument. Many of them also use narration to present the film’s perspective while utilising images to provide the “objective” evidence that is again designed to enhance the credibility of the claims being made by the narrator.

       Example: Blackfish

Blackfish was a particularly effective expository documentary. It told the story of SeaWorld’s treatment of its orcas who were trained to participate in shows. The documentary argued that the orcas were mistreated and highly stressed while in captivity, and implying that people should not support SeaWorld’s orca breeding and training program by attending its shows. Soon after the film’s premiere, a number of individuals and organisations displayed public support for the film, and four years after its release, SeaWorld announced that it would stop breeding orcas and making them perform tricks.

Observational mode

Observational documentaries are films that make audiences feel like they are a ‘fly on the wall’ while things are unfolding around them. As noted by SBS, “This is the style of film that has truly given documentary its claim on ‘reality’ and ‘authenticity.’” Observational documentaries draw “as little attention to the filmmaking process as possible”, often not including a narrative voiceover or other non-diegetic sound and even avoiding interviews.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the film is a “realistic” portrayal of events, as observational documentaries have still been edited together from a great deal of source footage. When analysing such a film, you should focus closely on thinking about which events have been shown, which have been left out, and the order in which events are presented to the audience.

Usually, these films aim to present a sense of authenticity, intimacy and immediacy.

       Example: Hoop Dreams

One of the most revered sports documentaries of all-time, Hoop Dreams presents the lives of two African-American teenagers who attend a basketball high school in America with the dream of reaching the NBA. The filmmakers spent time with the protagonists during each of their years at high school, presenting their story in an observational style, with only minimal narration provided to explain what is happening at the start of a scene if the audience might need a little context to understand the scene.

Participatory mode

Nichols describes participatory documentaries as being films in which encounters “between filmmaker and subject is recorded and the filmmaker actively engages with the situation they are documenting.”

Wiki adds that “not only is the filmmaker part of the film, we also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by their presence.”

Unlike other documentaries that often only incorporate the subjects’ answers to interview questions, the participatory mode will often show both the questions and answers in interviews and the interviewer could easily show that they are asking particularly pointed or provocative questions.

When analysing a participatory documentary, it is important to consider the relationship between the filmmaker and the subjects of the documentary – how has this relationship influenced the film’s tone and message?

       Example: The work of Michael Moore

Peter Biesterfield explains on Video Maker that Michael Moore’s films such as Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 911 are participatory documentaries. These films are “primarily vehicles for his social commentary,” and Moore emphasises this through his use of “a dynamic shooting style that captures ‘man in the street’ interviews as well as ambush grillings of the powerful, staged sequences featuring the director and mostly one-sided narration.”

This enables Moore to present his political messages through his work, such as his strong belief in the need for gun control that he expresses in Bowling for Columbine.

Reflexive mode

A reflexive documentary brings the audience’s attention to the way that the film has been made. It can do this in any number of ways, including: showing shots or interviews being designed and set-up, explaining the editing process of the documentary, or incorporating the filmmaker’s thoughts regarding the documentary itself.

Reflexive documentaries often increase the audience’s awareness as to the fact that the documentary isn’t an objectively truthful representation, but rather just one representation of reality. Nichols writes that these films often “question the authenticity of documentary in general.”

This mode is often referred to as “Brechtian”, after the playwright Bertolt Brecht. This is because in his plays, Brecht would often use techniques that would remind the audience that they were watching a play rather than letting the audience escape into the story. For example, Brecht would have people re-arrange the set on stage in full view of the audience rather than turning down the lights when sets are changed. Or an actor might play a range of different characters within the play.  Reflexive documentaries are similar, using techniques that continuously remind the audience that they are watching a film rather than experiencing reality.

       Example: Stories We Tell

In Stories We Tell, filmmaker Sarah Polley interviews a number of her relatives and people who are close to her family. Throughout the process, she often shows herself setting up shots or interviews, and asks her narrator to repeat a line with a slightly different tone or emphasis.

Her interviewees also comment on the nature of her film, such as when Michael says “You realize, when you’ve finished all this, you’ve got about six hours of stuff, and you’ll decide what you want out of it. It’ll be exactly like the story. Each one of us will pick out… If any one of us were trying to edit it and decide what we wanted to keep, it would be the same farcical kind of theatrical exercise that we’re all involved in. “Oh, I want to keep that.” “Oh, that’s rubbish.” That’s an enormously different thing from simply doing an interview straight and never doing any editing of it whatsoever, but letting it run as it is. That would have been at least as close to truth as you can get, whereas your editing of this will turn this into something completely different.”

Poetic mode

Poetic documentaries don’t include a traditional story structure, but rather they combine a range of footage, associating images through tone, rhythm and form. Such films often feel quite abstract in their approach as they rarely include a narrative or a traditional character arc. Instead, striking images are used to create what is referred to as visual poetry.

This abstract approach to documentary filmmaking emphasizes visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, description, and form. These films often bear a close resemblance to experimental and avant-garde film.

       Examples: Rain and Samsara

Perhaps the only way to truly understand what a poetic documentary feels like is to experience one. Try Joris Iven’s Rain (1929) below, or a clip from Samsara (2011).


Performative mode

Very few films that you are likely to study at school are performative documentaries – or, at least, very few are clearly performative and not also regarded as being participatory. As such, we won’t worry about them here.

As a brief definition, Childress summarises Nichols by saying that “This final mode highlights the subjective or expressive aspect of the filmmaker’s own involvement with a subject to heighten the audience’s responsiveness to the subject and to this involvement. These films reject objectivity and favor emotion.”