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Modes of Documentary Film

What is a documentary? Webster’s dictionary defines documentary as “consisting of documents: written down.” Wikipedia defines a documentary as “a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspects of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record.”

It also opens into the history of documentaries while referencing Bill Nichols‘classic text Introduction to Documentary, where he outlines the six modes of documentaries. While there’s a lot of variation within, these are the six main categories of the genre in which all documentary films can be cast. Nichols identifies six different documentary ‘modes’ in his schema:

 Poetic
 Expository
 Observational
 Participatory
 Reflexive
 Performative

While Nichols’ discussion of modes does progress chronologically with the order of their appearance in practice, documentary film often returns to themes and devices from previous modes. Therefore, it is inaccurate to think of modes as historical punctuation marks in an evolution towards an ultimate accepted documentary style. Also, modes are not mutually exclusive.There is often significant overlapping between modalities within individual documentary features. As Nichols points out, “the characteristics of a given mode function as a dominant in a given film…but they do not dictate or determine every aspect of its organization.

Poetic mode

First seen in the 1920s, Poetic Documentaries are very much what they sound like. They focus on experiences, images and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. Abstract and loose with narrative, the poetic sub-genre can be very unconventional and experimental in form and content. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than a truth.

The poetic mode of documentary film tends toward subjective interpretations of its subject(s). Light on rhetoric, documentaries in the poetic mode forsake traditional narrative content: individual characters and events remain undeveloped, in favor of creating a particular mood or tone.

This is particularly noticeable in the editing of poetic documentaries, where continuity is of virtually no consequence at all. Rather, poetic editing explores associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions. The poetic mode, consisting of unrelated shots linked together to illustrate a rain shower in Amsterdam. That the poetic mode illustrates subjective impressions with little or no rhetorical content.

Expository mode

Expository Documentaries are probably closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” A sharp contrast to poetic, expository documentaries aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration over footage devoid of ambiguous or poetic rhetoric. This mode includes the familiar Ken Burns and television (A&E, History Channel, etc…) styles.

The expositional mode diverges sharply from the poetic mode in terms of visual practice and story-telling devices, by virtue of its emphasis on rhetorical content, and its goals of information dissemination or persuasion.

Narration is a distinct innovation of the expositional mode of documentary. Initially manifesting as an omnipresent, omniscient, and objective voice intoned over footage, narration holds the weight of explaining and arguing a film’s rhetorical content. Where documentary in the poetic mode thrived on a filmmaker’s aesthetic and subjective visual interpretation of a subject, expositional mode collects footage that functions to strengthen the spoken narrative. It takescue from the commentary and understands the images as evidence or demonstration.

The engagement of rhetoric with supporting visual information founded in the expositional mode continues today and, indeed, makes up the bulk of documentary product. Film features, news stories, and various television programs lean heavily on its utility as a device for transferring information.

Participatory mode

Participatory Documentaries, while having elements of Observational and Expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. This could be as minor as the filmmaker’s voice being heard behind the camera, prodding subjects with questions or cues — all the way to the filmmaker directly influencing the major actions of the narrative.

In the participatory mode the filmmaker does interact with his or her subjects rather than unobtrusively observe them. This interaction is present within the film; the film makes explicit that meaning is created by the collaboration or confrontation between filmmaker and contributor. At its simplest this can mean the voice of the filmmaker(s) is heard within the film.

Observational mode

Observational Documentaries are exactly what they sound like — they aim to simply observe the world around them. Originating in the 1960s with the advances in portable film equipment, the cinémavérité style is much less pointed than the Expository. The style attempts to give voice to all sides of an issue by giving audiences first hand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments.

The observational mode of documentary developed in the wake of documentarians returning to Vertovian ideals of truth, along with the innovation and evolution of cinematic hardware in the 1960s.

Unlike the subjective content of poetic documentary, or the rhetorical insistence of expositional documentary, observational documentaries tend to simply observe,allowing viewers to reach whatever conclusions they may deduce.

Pure observational documentarians proceeded under some bylaws: no music, no interviews, no scene arrangement of any kind, and no narration. The fly-on-the-wall perspective is championed, while editing processes use long takes and few cuts.

Reflexive mode

Reflexive Documentaries are similar to Participatory in that they often include the filmmaker within the film — however, unlike Participatory, they make no attempts to explore an outside subject. Rather, they focus solely on themselves and the act of them making the film.

The reflexive mode considers the quality of documentary itself, de-mystifying its processes and considering its implications. It also includes filmmakers within the film. In DzigaVertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929,) for example, he features footage of his brother and wife in the process of shooting footage and editing, respectively.

The goal in including these images was to aid the audience in their understanding of the process of construction in film so that they could develop a sophisticated and critical attitude.

Performative mode

Performative Documentaries are an experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response to the world. They often connect personal accounts or experience juxtaposed with larger political or historical issues. This has sometimes been called the “Michael Moore” style, as he often uses his own personal stories as a way to construct social truths (without having to argue the validity of their experiences).

The performative mode is easily confused with the participatory mode, and Nichols remains somewhat nebulous about their distinctions. The crux of the difference seems to lie in the fact that where the participatory mode engages the filmmaker to the story but attempts to construct truths that should be self-evident to anyone, the performative mode engages the filmmaker to the story but constructs subjective truths that are significant to the filmmaker him or herself.

Deeply personal, the performative mode is particularly well-suited to telling the stories of filmmakers from marginalized social groups, offering the chance to air unique perspectives without having to argue the validity of their experiences, as in Marlon Riggs’ 1990 documentary Tongues Untied about his experiences as a gay black dancer in New York City. The departure from rhetoric of persuasion allows the performative film a great deal more room for creative freedom in terms of visual abstraction, narrative, etc.

By “performing” the point of view of the subjects, the performative documentaries put the audience in the positions of the subjects. Wang further distinguishes between “the empathetic performative mode,” which prompts audience identification with the subjects, and “the critical performative mode,” which provokes the audience to feel disgusted by, angry at, and critical about the subjects.

With the filmmaker visible to the viewer, and freed to openly discuss his or her perspective in regards to the film being made, rhetoric and argumentation return to the documentary film as the filmmaker clearly asserts a message. Perhaps the most famous filmmaker currently working in this documentary mode is Michael Moore.

In general, documentaries, especially educational documentaries are scripted such that the audience is persuaded to accept a specific lesson or message.

Documentary modes and narrative structure

In her book Looking Two Ways (1996), Toni de Bromheadcriticises Nichols for his focus on documentary as a rational discourse. She claims that documentary reaches for “hearts and souls not just minds” and that central to documentary story telling is “emotional response and empathy”. She contrasts Nichols’ rational journalistic view with what she refers to as the cinematic qualities of documentary.

For her, the cinematic is experiential, emotive, expressive and celebrates subjectivity. While the journalistic view focuses on analysis, learning, information and objectivity. The cinematic uses creative cinematic devices, values the expression of opinion, foregrounds the point of view of the filmmaker and creative treatment is expected. On the other hand the journalistic, rational approach is founded upon checkable facts, has recourse to experts and eye witness testimony, the validity of filmmakers opinion is questioned and creative treatment rejected.

De Bromhead wants to move away from problems of “objectivity and truth” and focus on issues of narrative and its “relationship to the represented”. She understands that documentary’s “claim to the real” is subjective i.e. that it can never be truly objective, that it is always mediated by the subjectivity of the filmmaker.

In doing so De Bromhead makes a case for a kind of documentary storytelling that cannot be constructed through words alone but weaves together image, sound, action and structure to produce meaning. She says that in contrast to Nichols, whose position appears to be that documentary is first and foremost informative; the real aim of documentary story telling is filmic pleasure.

The story for her is interplay between the filmic self and objective world as mediated by the filmmaker. De Bromhead presents her own ‘modes’ of documentary. Where Nichols concerns are broad and include history, style, technology & practice. Her concern is purely with properties of narrative structure. For example she states that; “observational is not a narrative form but a narrative style”.
Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_mode& www.premiumbeat.com/blog/6-types-of-documentary-film/

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