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The Different Styles of Documentary Storytelling

There are many ways to tell a story. Whether you are planning to participate in your documentary, motivate people to act on a cause, or merely allow your audience to observe an event unfold, we will show you how your approach can tell a story that will engage your audience.

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Video Transcript

Almost everyone has an author or movie director that they like best. The reason for this is due to their storytelling approach. Though there are literally an infinite number of approaches to choose from when making a documentary, knowing how most genres are commonly made can help you produce a documentary with an intriguing and unforgettable story.

Narration, actors doing recreations, and interviews are some of many different approaches to telling a documentary story. However, it can be difficult to know when to use them. As such, knowing how most poetic, expository, observational, and participatory documentaries are made can help you get your documentary started right.
Probably the rarest yet most unique documentary form is the Poetic documentary. A poetic documentary is a subjective exploration of objects or events. These types of documentaries are built around the internal rhythms of the subjects it follows rather than a traditional narrative. In fact, many poetic documentaries leave the story unfinished and instead try and evoke a feeling or emotion. In this style, the documentary Buena Vista Social Club, shows a guitarist named Ry Cooder gathering pre-revolutionary musicians to a social club. Throughout the film there are cutaways of people playing at the club but there is never any tension or resolution. Instead, it is just an interesting view into some almost-forgotten musician's music style. Overall, if you are doing this type of documentary it is usually best to have either the subjects narrate the film or have no narration at all.
Much like it's name implies, the expository documentary is a documentary in which social issues are presented in a way that builds a need for a solution. These films often try and persuade the viewer to act on a social issue in a positive way. As an example, in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car, the director Chris Paine shows the audience the problem of the car companies taking the electric cars back from their owners, then some possible reasons for the problem, and finally tries to convince you of the most likely reason for the problem in order to get you to act on a solution. In this regard, it is very common to see a third person or voice of God narration used with a bevy of supportive images. This can go a long way in proving to an audience member the merit of the social issue.
Another documentary approach which is close in form to the Poetic genre is the observational documentary. This documentary style is sometimes called the fly-on-the-wall approach as there are no interviews, no voiceovers and no direct acknowledgements that the camera is even there. Fredrick Wiseman's documentary called High School uses this method when following the typical day of a group of students at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. The film uses overheard dialog from the students to introduce the audience to the characters and to introduce tension. As such this kind of documentary relies on skillful editing to tell the story more than the other documentary approaches. It also makes it so that more footage is needed than usual in order to make a story using just the environment's natural sound.
Participatory - In the last documentary approach, the participatory documentary, we see a topic that is explored through the director's experience and point of view. Some great examples of this method is found in films from director Micheal Moore. Because of his strong and entertaining personality, Moore finds it useful to not only interview subjects for his film, but to be a part of his film as well. His films, like all participatory documentaries, also relies heavily on stock footage as well as shared experiences with the director. Unfortunately, being a part of the film means that the message is often met with more skepticism than usual due to the great potential for bias. However, these types of documentaries are almost always more entertaining due to the myriad of approaches that a director is able to take.
Smart technique is the building block to making any story both informative and entertaining. With knowledge of poetic, expository, observational, and participatory documentary genres, you can assure that your documentary has a riveting technique that keeps your audience emotionally involved.


Aredjet's picture

Fabulous video! Loved the scripting, shooting, sound/audio, and editing!! Thank you for not only showing us how to do video, but for showing us how to do video with the greatest impact!! Sincerely, Shawn