The six primary types of documentaries

In 2010’s “Introduction to Documentary,” film educator and documentary consultant Bill Nichols distilled the types of documentaries down to six styles.

In this article, we will discuss the six styles or modes Nichols wrote able. However, lets first define what a documentary actually is before we get into the types of documentaries.

What is a documentary?

Webster defines documentary as “a movie or television program that tells the facts about actual people and events.” The conventional thinking about documentaries is that they document reality. Also, conventional thinking suggests they represent the objective truth and do not include fictional elements.

Certainly, these are some of the qualities we expect from journalistically driven current affairs docs made for TV where the editorial impetus is to strive for factual and balanced presentations.

But the documentary form has been shifting its shape ever since the earliest days of cinema. The Scottish documentary trailblazer John Grierson first coined the term documentary in 1926. He defined it as “A creative treatment of actuality.” Commenting on Robert Flaherty’s early anthropological films (Nanook of the North 1922; Moana 1926), which were more docufiction than documentation, Grierson anticipated that documentary is as much about making art as it is about presenting facts.

If you’re an emerging doc maker, you should be watching as many documentaries as you can. Study documentaries of all styles and genres to inspire your own work as non-fiction storyteller. Also, read up on what film scholars and movie critics have to say about how these films are constructed.

The six primary types of documentaries

The Expository Mode

The expository mode is the most familiar of the six types of documentaries. Expository docs are heavily researched and are sometimes referred to as essay films because they aim to educate and explain things — events, issues, ways of life, worlds and exotic settings we know little about. Typical production elements include interviews, illustrative visuals, some actuality, perhaps some graphics and photos and a ‘voice of God’ narration track. Scripted narration connects the story elements and often unpacks a thesis or an argument.

Expository docs are heavily researched and are sometimes referred to as essay films because they aim to educate and explain things — events, issues, ways of life, worlds and exotic settings we know little about.

The “Why We Fight” (1942-43) series of propaganda films were commissioned by the government. Their purpose were to explain U.S. involvement in World War II. They were made in classic expository style. Other examples include current affairs docs made for “60 Minutes,” History Channel programs, and nature films such as “The Blue Planet.” The sweeping historical documentaries of Ken Burns (“Mark Twain,” 2001; “The Dust Bowl,” 2012) fall into the expository category.

Image from Why We Fight” (1942-43) propaganda series
The “Why We Fight” (1942-43) propaganda series of the World War II era follows the expository mode of documentary, most notably in its voice of God narration.

Suggested Viewing

“The Plow That Broke the Plains” Pare Lorentz 1936; “City of Gold” NFB 1949; “The Civil War” Ken Burns 1990;

The Observational Mode

Observational documentary is probably the most analyzed mode of all the types of documentaries. The form is also referred to as cinema verité, direct cinema or fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Observational docs strive for cinematic realism. The gritty realism produced by actuality filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s was achieved through technological advances made ten years earlier. Faster lenses for shooting in low light conditions and smaller cameras that could now be handheld. So, they were no longer tethered to a sound recorder with an audio sync cable. An unobtrusive crew of two could shoot almost anywhere with available light and follow actuality as it unfolded. Up until then, bulky film production gear required finicky technical setups and careful staging of the action.

Frederick Wiseman: the master of observational cinema

Boston director Frederick Wiseman, considered to be the master of observational cinema, is known for his groundbreaking studies of institutions and big social issues (“High School,” 1968; “Public Housing,” 1997). Wiseman resists categorization of his work: “Cinema verité is just a pompous French word.”

Image from Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary High School as an example of Observational Mode for the types of documentaries
In Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary “High School,” fly-on-the-wall observational style filmmaking offers a candid peek inside a Philadelphia public high school.

In Wiseman’s films, carefully edited and arranged actuality scenes speak for themselves. There is no intervention by the filmmaker, no interview questions, no commentary to camera, no narration. Also, on location, Wiseman records the sound and handles the microphone. Freed from looking through the viewfinder, the director is able to pay better attention to what’s going on around him and anticipate the action. Wiseman communicates with his cameraperson through pre-arranged hand signals and directs by pointing his microphone at what he wants filmed.

“Fly-on-the-wall is the most demeaning [term],” Wiseman tells POV magazine. “None of the flies I know are conscious.” Although not fond of fancy film terms, the curmudgeonly octogenarian is considered to be the most authentic maker of observational documentaries.

Suggested Viewing

“Primary Drew Associates” 1960; “Don’t Look Back” D.A. Pennebaker, 1967; “Salesmen” Albert and David Maysles, 1969

The Participatory Mode

In “Introduction to Documentary,” Bill Nichols describes participatory documentary as “[when] the encounter between filmmaker and subject is recorded and the filmmaker actively engages with the situation they are documenting.”

The participatory mode aims for immediacy. Also, it often presents the filmmaker’s point of view.

Michael Moore’s documentaries are primarily vehicles for his social commentary. 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 are trademarks of Moore’s point of view docs, including “Sicko” – slamming the health care system — and “Bowling for Columbine” — lobbying for gun control.

Image from Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper
In “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Broomfield again becomes part of the story as he investigates the LA serial killer.

Also, the investigative work of filmmaker Nick Bloomfield also falls into the participatory mode (“Kurt and Courtney,” 1998; “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” 2014). Bloomfield shoots with a skeletal crew handling audio mixer and boom mic himself. He often rolls camera on the way to the next location and gives anticipatory commentary to camera when he’s not conducting gun and run interviews.

Image from Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney
Initially taking an investigative approach to the controversy surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death, “Kurt & Courtney” falls into the participatory mode as the filmmaker, Nick Broomfield, becomes more involved in the story.

Suggested Viewing

“Chronicle of a Summer” Jean Rouche 1960; “Sherman’s March” Ross McElwee 1986;  “Supersize Me” Morgan Spurlock 2004; “Approaching the Elephant” Amanda Wilder 2014

The Reflexive Mode

Documentaries made in reflexive mode provoke audiences to “question the authenticity of documentary in general,” writes Bill Nichols. Reflexive docs challenge assumptions and expectations about the form itself.

Dziga Vertov, the Russian film pioneer makes it clear in “The Man With A Movie Camera” that what the audience is watching is not reality but rather a construction of reality. The film is silent and contains no interstitial titles. Ostensibly a ‘city documentary’ that chronicles a day in the life of a metropolis, the 1929 avant-garde classic includes scenes of the film’s cameraman and how he went about getting his shots. Also intercut with scenes of factories, trains and crowded streets are short sequences of a diligent film editor working with individual frames from the film. By clever juxtaposition of scenes and images, Vertov gives us a sense that the film we are watching is being assembled right before our eyes.

Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap,” a ‘mockumentary’ about a fictional heavy metal band in decline. That mockumentary also falls into the reflexive mode. Fake interviews, fake concert clips, improvised dialogue and a ‘shaky cam’ shooting style are Reiner’s devices for taking satirical pokes both at heavy metal culture and at rock documentary conventions. Additionally, in Reiner’s well-observed 1985 cult classic, audiences recognize the trademarks of the ‘rockumentary’ genre — intra-band conflict, decline in popularity, the band clawing their way back to the top and the final concert.

Image from the rockumentary This is Spinal Tap.
The mocumentary “This is Spinal Tap” is an example of the reflexive mode of documentary filmmaking, calling attention to the tropes and motifs common to the rockumentary genre.

Suggested Viewing

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” Banksy 2010; “The Spaghetti Story” BBC 1957

The Poetic Mode

Webster defines poetry as “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.”

You can apply this definition almost perfectly to many documentaries created in the poetic mode. The aim is to create an impression or a mood rather than argue a point. The poetic form also referred to as abstract or avant-garde can be traced back to the popular City Symphony film movement of the 1920s. Such classics as Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” (1927) came from that period.

Also, filmmakers operating in the poetic mode typically emphasize cinematic values over content to create visual poetry. Shot design, composition and rhythm achieved in editing are hallmarks of the genre. The narrative, if there is one, is expressed visually rather than rhetorically. Additionally, Dutch filmmaker Joris Iven’s City Symphony classic “Rain” (1929) is a shining example of the poetic style. It shows how a rainstorm transforms the Dutch metropolis Amsterdam.

Suggested Viewing

“Play of Light: Black, White, Grey” Laslo Moholy-Nagy 1930; “N.Y.,N.Y.” Francis Thomson 1957; “Sans Soleil” (Sunless) Chris Marker 1983; “Koyaanisqatsi” Godfrey Reggio 1982

The Performative Mode

The performative mode of documentary is the direct opposite of the observational mode. In Observational documentaries, unobtrusive observation of the subject is the director’s aim. A Performative documentary emphasizes the filmmaker’s own involvement with the subject.

Furthermore, the filmmaker shows a larger political or historical reality through the window of her own experience. Rather than rely on the expository approach, the performative filmmaker becomes a personal guide. The guide shows it and tells it like it is with raw emotion.

In performative mode the filmmaker gives a “what’s it like to be there” perspective on a world, a culture or an event in history. Without that perspective, it’s likely the audience would otherwise never know those topics. In “Tongues Untied” (1989) the late African-American filmmaker Marlon Riggs combines actuality, re-enactments and his personal account to shine a light on black gay American identity.

Also in the performative category are the works of so-called ‘found footage’ filmmakers like Hungarian Péter Forgács (“Danube Exodus,” 1999). His films are created from home movies. They’re recovered personal records to tell the story of ordinary people’s lives that are about to be overtaken by catastrophic, historic events.

Suggested Viewing

“Night And Fog” Alain Resnais 1955; “Paris Is Burning” Jenny Livingston 1991; “Forest of Bliss” Robert Gardner 1986

Framing all type of documentaries

All the types of documentaries have their own distinguishing characteristics. However, most docs are not made exclusively in any one mode. Rather, they combine more than one style. For example, it can be argued that Michael Moore’s films straddle both participatory and performative modes. Additionally, masters of direct cinema Albert and David Maysles were clearly operating in participatory as well as in observational mode. They were not afraid to include in their films off topic interactions between crew and subject.

To enrich your understanding of the types of documentaries, look for the works of documentary masters online. Also, be on the lookout for documentary fests near you. Look for where screenings that include Q & As with filmmakers. Their insights will inform your own approach to crafting non-fiction stories for the screen.

Peter Biesterfeld is a seasoned script-to-screen television. He’s also a video producer and trainer with a specialty in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

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