Modes of Documentary


The Expository Mode (voice of God)

The mode most associated with documentary. Assumes a logical argument and a 'right' and 'proper' answer using direct address and offering preferred meaning to the audience. Most associated with Television News Programming and Nature and History documentaries


- '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 many appear as a 'character' in the film

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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 grasped by poetical manipulation.


- Emphasized visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, descriptive passages,

-The formal organization favours mood, tone and texture.

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The Observational Mode (window to the world)

Best exemplified by the Cinema Verite or Direct Cinema movement which emerged in the late 1950's/early 1960's - it attempted to capture (as accurately as possible) objective realioty with the filmmaker as neutral observer.


- A non-interventionist or fly-on-the-wall style of presentation,

-Unobtrusive camera work, appearing to offer a 'window to the world',

-Relatively long takes connoting that nothing has been 'cut out',

-Zoom lenses and hand-held camera following the action,

-Editing which gives the impression of 'lived' or 'real' time,

-Speech which is overheard and not directed to camera or audience,

-Synchronous sound,

-Only diegetic music

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The Participatory or Interactive Mode

Unlike the observational mode, the participatory mode welcomes direct engagement between filmmaker and subject(s) - the filmmaker becomes part of the events being recorded. The filmmaker's impact on the events being recorded is acknowledged, indeed, it is often celebrated and the filmmaker becomes a key 'character' in the film itself.


-The acknowledged presence of the camera and crew,

-The film-maker speaking directly to her/his subjects,

-An emphasis on monologues and dialogues,

-Representation of multiple viewpoints, contributing different information,

-Editing which maintains logical continuity,

-No definitive argument, leaving the audience to decide.

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The Performative Mode

This mode emphasized the subjective nature of the documentarian as well as acknowledging the subjective reading of the audience - notions of objectivity are replaced by 'evocation and affect'. Whenre the documentary maker 'stars' in his/her own film, is also termed 'self-reflexive'.


-Emphasized the emotional and social impact on the audience.

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The Reflexive Mode (awareness of the process)

The reflextive mode acknowledges the constructed nature of documentary and flaunts it - conveying to people that this is not necessarilt 'truth', but a reconstruction of it - 'a' truth, not 'the' truth. The artifice of the documentary is exposed - the audience are made aware of the editing, sound, recording, ETC.


-Acknowledgement of the medium to problematise it,

-Discussion of the problems of making the documentary,

-Making explicit the process of representation,

-Making explicit institutional issues (such as who is funding it)

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