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Documentary Modes

A brief overview of documentary modes as described by Bill Nichols

Ken McGill

on 15 January 2016

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Transcript of Documentary Modes

Ken McGill
Documentary Modes (or Codes and Conventions)

Bill Nichols in his "Introduction to Documentary" (2001) notes six modes or styles of documentary:

THE POETIC MODE – subjective, artistic expression.

The poetic mode of documentary moves away from the "objective" reality of a given situation or people to grasp at an inner "truth" that can only be expressed by poetical manipulation.

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

The Poetic tradition in documentary include: Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934), Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938) and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyannisqatsi (1982).
THE EXPOSITORY MODE - or voice of god.

This mode is what we most identify with the documentary - it "emphasizes verbal commentary and argumentative logic" often using a narrator.

Characterised by:

'Voice of God' narration directly addressing the viewer.

Direct relationship between images and voice-over.

Interviews used only in support of the film's argument.

A conventional narrative structure.

A narrator who also may appear as a 'character' in the film (such as David Attenborough or John Hurt)
THE OBSERVATIONAL MODE – window on the world.

Observational (objective) mode is best exemplified by the Cinema Verite or Direct Cinema movement which emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s - it attempted to capture (as accurately as possibly) objective reality with the filmmaker as neutral observer.

This mode uses the observations of an unobtrusive camera to create direct engagement with the everyday life of subjects.

Examples: Primary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Web Junkies, An Impossible Job.

The participatory mode welcomes direct engagement between filmmaker and subject(s) - the filmmaker becomes part of the events being recorded. The filmmakers impact on the events being recorded is acknowledged, indeed, it is often celebrated.

An example of this mode is Nick Broomfield's work, such as Kurt and Courtney (1998) and Driving me Crazy (1988).
THE REFLEXIVE MODE – awareness of the process

This mode, which includes the mockumentary format, calls attention to the assumptions and conventions that govern documentary filmmaking to increase our awareness of how films construct representations of reality.

Examples: Land Without Bread, The Man with a Movie Camera, This is Spinal Tap, F for Fake and The Thick of It
THE PERFORMATIVE MODE – filmmaker as participant

This 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 favour emotion.

Examples: The films of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore.

Should you use one mode of expression only?
Most documentaries use a combination of modes.

You need to work out how you want to express yourself
Can a documentary ever be "artistic"?
Yes. Poetic mode could be the whole film or just part.

It is possible to have factual works of art?

What mode, or combination of modes, would most suit
your production?
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