September 17, 2015

Nichols’ 6 Modes of Documentary Might Expand Your Storytelling Strategies

Credit: Stories We Tell
Documentaries are supposed to be true. But as filmmakers, we know that our films -- true or not -- are constructs. Are there rules we should follow to make a great, honest documentary?

Nope! That's what's great about docs. Since as a species we can't agree on what truth, knowledge, or reality is, there's so much room for documentary filmmakers to play! A look at the trends in the last 100 years of film history in Bill Nichols' classic film text Introduction to Documentary might confirm this and inspire you to take on new creative risks in referencing them to your own work. Nichols' coins six sub-genres of documentary according to the method filmmakers use to convey the truth, and he introduces us to the modes like this:

Individual voices lend themselves to an auteur theory of cinema, while shared voices lend themselves to a genre theory of cinema. Genre study considers the qualities that characterize groupings of various of filmmakers. In documentary film and video, we can identify six modes of representation that function something like sub-genres of the documentary genre itself: poetic, expository, participatory, observational, reflexive, performative. These six modes establish a loose framework of affiliation within which individuals may work; they set up conventions that a given film may adopt; and they  provide specific expectations viewers anticipate having fulfilled.

Introduction to Documentary is a great read for any filmmaker, with provocative film theories guaranteed to send you late into the night on wine-fueled philosophical discussions. The following is a quick breakdown of the six modes, with illustrative trailers that do an even better job of explaining the sub-genre. Read, watch, and be inspired to create the next sub-genre!

Poetic Documentary

Instead of using traditional linear continuity to create story structure, the poetic documentary filmmaker arrives at its point by arranging footage in an order to evoke an audience association through tone, rhythm, or spatial juxtaposition. Following in the tradition of Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi Trilogy, Ron Fricke's breathtaking 70mm Samsara is a fine example.

Expository Documentary

Also having first appeared in the 1920's along with the poetic documentary, the expository documentary on the other hand constructs a specific argument or a point of view for the audience. Generally, the formula is a resonating, authoritative voice (like the silky baritone of Morgan Freeman in March of the Penguins) that tells you something with corresponding footage proving that it is, indeed, true.

Observational Documentary

In reaction to previous forms of documentary and to changing camera technology, both Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite movements started to appear in the 1960s that embraced observational documentary -- that is, the filmmaker observing truth by letting the camera capture its subjects uninterrupted. The seminal film Salesman from the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin features all the skinny ties, cigarettes, and overized bibles you could ever want as seen in this brilliant trailer.

https://youtu.be/FJIqZ9OLbRY

Participatory Documentary

Around the same time as Direct Cinema style of observing without interfering showed up, so did the opposite sensibility. The participatory documentary invited the subjects to participate with the filmmaker -- usually by being interviewed. The first-person storytelling accounts shared with Errol Morris in his breakout film The Thin Blue Line should be in every filmmaker's must-watch queue.

https://youtu.be/SXBFt0b7nB0

Reflexive Documentary

The most Brechtian of the sub-genres, reflexive documentary is not about the relationship with the filmmaker and the subject, but rather the filmmaker and the audience. Showing the man (or woman) behind the curtain to the audience should shake the core of the whole damned process of storytelling, as in Sarah Polley's masterful Stories We Tell.

https://youtu.be/ytq4VZ2Nyxg

Performative Documentary

Showing up in the 1980s along with the reflexive sub-genre, the performative documentary emphasizes truth as relative, favoring a personal take over the objective lens. You can see the subjective poetics of autobiographical experience in the trailer for Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied.

https://youtu.be/tWuPLxMBjM8

Do you have recommendations for documentary titles that illustrate these sub-genres? How do you feel about Nichols' labels, and do you see any new forms of documentary emerging?      

Your Comment

5 Comments

OK Nichols is a good place to start but I think there is more depth required in the descriptions of the modes to really get to the meat and potatoes of what he is saying. For example the Reflexive Mode is more than just breaking the fourth wall it is about sign posting that this is a film you are watching. Man With a Movie Camera is possibly the archetype here and that includes no people talking to camera but it does shout quite loudly "you are watching a film and I as the filmmaker may only be telling you what I want to tell you".

This distinction is important when you come to discuss Observational Mode where you lump Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema together. Actually the classic Cinema Verite documentar is Chronicle of a Summer by Jean Rouch and that film is really very very purposefully reflexive and not at all observational in the sense that Direct Cinema is.

I also think there are some better examples out there, for example Chris Marker Sans Soleel for Poetic is a much more classic example, but sadly many of them are quite old so this blog has done well to find some more contemporary examples. Young people in general, don't want to watch old films.

The main problem with Nichols though is that pretty much most documentaries will exhibit a range of his modes and consequently pretty much all documentary would be considered hybrid by Nichols. Plus you could argue endlessly is Sans Soleil poetic or performed. Is Man With a Movie Camera poetic or reflexive. As I say, its a good starting point but actually theoretically it doesn't stack up.

If you want to read a book about narrative modes in documentary written by a real filmmaker then once you have read Nichols (and you need to read it first because this book is in part a response to Nichols) Then read Looking Two Ways by Toni de Bromhead. She takes a look at the modes debate by analysing documentary in relation to the narrative structures adopted by the filmmakers. Personally I found this book enlightening despite the fact that like most books on documentary you will never get to see many of the films discussed (documentary film theory was once described as the study of missing texts). It is much more informative if you want to understand how documentary constructs meaning and its relationship with its audience.

Anyway that is my tupence worth please feel free to shred my comment and tear down my argument.

September 17, 2015 at 6:23PM

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Roy Hanney
Senior Lecturer in Media Production
88

OK Nichols is a good place to start but I think there is more depth required in the descriptions of the modes to really get to the meat and potatoes of what he is saying. For example the Reflexive Mode is more than just breaking the fourth wall it is about sign posting that this is a film you are watching. Man With a Movie Camera is possibly the archetype here and that includes no people talking to camera but it does shout quite loudly "you are watching a film and I as the filmmaker may only be telling you what I want to tell you".

This distinction is important when you come to discuss Observational Mode where you lump Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema together. Actually the classic Cinema Verite documentar is Chronicle of a Summer by Jean Rouch and that film is really very very purposefully reflexive and not at all observational in the sense that Direct Cinema is.

I also think there are some better examples out there, for example Chris Marker Sans Soleel for Poetic is a much more classic example, but sadly many of them are quite old so this blog has done well to find some more contemporary examples. Young people in general, don't want to watch old films.

The main problem with Nichols though is that pretty much most documentaries will exhibit a range of his modes and consequently pretty much all documentary would be considered hybrid by Nichols. Plus you could argue endlessly is Sans Soleil poetic or performed. Is Man With a Movie Camera poetic or reflexive. As I say, its a good starting point but actually theoretically it doesn't stack up.

If you want to read a book about narrative modes in documentary written by a real filmmaker then once you have read Nichols (and you need to read it first because this book is in part a response to Nichols) Then read Looking Two Ways by Toni de Bromhead. She takes a look at the modes debate by analysing documentary in relation to the narrative structures adopted by the filmmakers. Personally I found this book enlightening despite the fact that like most books on documentary you will never get to see many of the films discussed (documentary film theory was once described as the study of missing texts). It is much more informative if you want to understand how documentary constructs meaning and its relationship with its audience.

Anyway that is my tupence worth please feel free to shred my comment and tear down my argument.

September 17, 2015 at 6:25PM, Edited September 17, 6:25PM

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Roy Hanney
Senior Lecturer in Media Production
88

I enjoyed your insight. I read Nichols' Intro to Documentary book in my college documentary form class, and, I agree, it left a lot to be desired. It did serve as a good introduction to think about concepts more in depth, and challenge his straightforward approach. I need to find a way to get my hands on the other book you recommended, Looking Two Ways. It sounds like a good read.

September 18, 2015 at 10:59AM, Edited September 18, 10:59AM

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Andrew Joseph Gafford
Videographer/Video Artist
74

Ahh, lovely. Was just trying to remember who coined the 6 modes. Thank you.

September 17, 2015 at 7:07PM, Edited September 17, 7:07PM

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Happy to help!

September 17, 2015 at 11:24PM

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor