Research on Documentary Modes - Bill Nichols


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  • 12/9/2013
  • 12/9/2013
  • 12/9/2013
  • 12/9/2013
  • 12/9/2013
  • 12/9/2013
  • 12/9/2013
  • 12/9/2013
  • Research on Documentary Modes - Bill Nichols

    1. 1. Documentary Modes Developed by an American documentary theorist, Bill Nichols. ‘Documentary Modes’ are spilt into six different types of documentary, although all documentaries can overlap into different modes. Researching and watching documentaries from such modes allows me to see the variety in styles, which will help me later when it comes to choosing my own documentary style.
    2. 2. Poetic Mode • ‘The poetic mode moved away from continuity editing and instead organized images of the material world by means of associations and patterns, both in terms of time and space. Well-rounded characters— ‘life-like people’—were absent; instead, people appeared in these films as entities, just like any other, that are found in the material world. The films were fragmentary, impressionistic, lyrical.’ (Source: • Joris Ivens’ Rain (1928) is an example of a poetic documentary. ( • In a way, this has inspired my documentary through the use of shots that are directly about the subject. In Rain, every shot, in some form, contains rain, so everything is related with presenting the theme throughout. Using this element of the poetic mode, I’ll be using shots of everything associated with social networks, such as mobile phones, computers etc. to establish the theme of the documentary. Although this form of documentary is an interesting way to construct a film, this mode gives no information and seems to mainly focus on the visuals. Whereas in my documentary I want information to be key with the visual to be an added extra.
    3. 3. Expository Mode • Documentaries of the expository mode speak directly to the viewer, commonly in the form of a voiceover or titles. They normally are an authoritative commentary which proposes a strong argument and point of view. Additionally, the voiceover may be of an omniscient (voice-of-God) like position. • ‘Images are often not paramount; they exist to advance the argument. The rhetoric insistently presses upon us to read the images in a certain fashion. Historical documentaries in this mode deliver an unproblematic and ‘objective’ account and interpretation of past events.’ (Source: • Examples of the expository mode documentaries are: Ken Burns’ Civil War (1990 - TV show) and Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980) • In Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New, Hughes possesses a very authoritative voice which gives off a believable tone in his narration. He gives definitions for the people who are uneducated on the subject, and goes into great detail with his explanations, which I believe is essential for a documentary because the point is to educate. The element of this mode that will most likely inspire my documentary will be the authoritative voiceover as a way to convey information to the audience. Although effective because it matches the theme of that specific episode, there are particular parts of the documentary that I wouldn’t personally choose to use in my documentary, such as how Hughes is also present in front of the camera. Here, Hughes mixes documentary modes, using both elements of the Expository and Reflexive Mode, this allows him to cleverly edit each episode by having auditory narrative to then cut to him on screen continuing his script. Other elements used in this documentary was archive footage and traditional sounding music.
    4. 4. Observational Mode • The observational mode emerged when filmmakers saw the poetic mode as too unreal and saw the expository mode as too instructive. The aim of the observational mode is to simply and spontaneously observe life with minimum intervention, very fly-on-the-wall like. No opinions are ever given, leaving the viewer to make their own opinions. • ‘The first observational docs date back to the 1960’s; the technological developments which made them possible include mobile lightweight cameras and portable sound recording equipment for synchronised sound. Often, this mode of film eschewed voice-over commentary, post-synchronised dialogue and music, or re-enactments. The films aimed for immediacy, intimacy, and revelation of individual human character in ordinary life situations.’ (Source: • An example of an observational documentary is Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter (1970). • In Gimme Shelter, they introduce participants (members of the band) through creative credits (As shown in the images below). Even though they’re of simple colour and font, the editor places the credit in different positions on screen to fit the frame. This is particularly effective because it makes the shot as a whole much more interesting as it encourages the viewer to be actively watching the documentary by focusing on different parts of the screen. Even though this is a small part of the production, this will inspire my documentary by encouraging me to focus on tiny aspects, such as the credits, to create better shots as a whole.
    5. 5. Participatory Mode • The participatory mode of filmmaking believes that it is obvious that the act of filmmaking will influence and alter the events that are being captured, so these films have the act of participant observation. The encounter between filmmaker and subject becomes a critical element for the film. • ‘The filmmaker steps out from behind the cloak of voice-over commentary, steps away from poetic meditation, steps down from a fly-on-the-wall perch, and becomes a social actor (almost) like any other’ - Bill Nichols. • A filmmaker well known for this documentary type is filmmaker Nick Broomfield.
    6. 6. Reflexive Mode • In a reflexive documentary the filmmaker is present in front of the camera and provides a narrative to the documentary. In most cases the viewer is just as interested about how the film is constructed as they are to the actual content. • ‘It is the most self-conscious of all the modes, and is highly skeptical of ‘realism.’ It may use Brechtian alienation strategies to jar us, in order to ‘defamiliarize’ what we are seeing and how we are seeing it.’ (Source: • The reflexive mode interested me most, so I researched further into this documentary type. I selected Nick Broomfield, although he’s known for participatory documentaries, his film Tracking Down Maggie is a brilliant example of a reflexive documentary (analysis on the next slides).
    7. 7. Performative Mode • ‘Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world. They are strongly personal, unconventional, perhaps poetic and/or experimental, and might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to make us experience what it might be like for us to possess a certain specific perspective on the world that is not our own’. (Source: • An example of a performative documentary is Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard (Translation: Night And Fog) (1955) • From the opening shot of Nuit et Brouillard, the performative mode is established straight away. The shot contains what seems to be an establishing wide shot of a field (similar to what would be expected of a poetic documentary, where scenic shots are common), but with a simple camera movement, the camera tracks out to reveal an uninviting fence. With the context of the documentary, we know it’s a film on Nazi Germany’s death camps. The use of music in the shot, this shows the heightened emotion that are stereotypically present in performative documentaries. Comparing concepts of this documentary and mine, if I took on the performative mode in my documentary, I feel it wouldn’t be the appropriate mode to use when my documentary is on a rather simple concept, whereas documentary is based on a historic and emotive event.
    8. 8. Documentary Mode Conclusion • To conclude, upon researching into Nichol’s theory of documentary modes, I think whilst creating my documentary it will relate to the ‘Expository mode’ because I intend to use a voiceover to guide the viewer through the documentary. However, I will not fully conform with this mode as the main feature of a Expository documentary is being authoritative, meaning an argument will be forced upon the viewer. I do not want this to occur because I believe the audience should gain their own opinion. With my current structure plan, my documentary seems to focus mainly on the negative aspects of social networking. So it could be suggested that I, unintentionally, am being authoritative with the arguably biased content I’ll be selecting to use. • One of my aims is to educate an older audience about youth culture, so a possible outcome of my finished film could be creating more of a generation gap through adults seeing the dangers of the internet. This is similar to the Magic Bullet Theory, otherwise known as the Hypodermic Needle Model, meaning that a message from the media is ‘injected’ into the audience’s mind. It could be argued I’d exactly be doing this, creating power from the message, thus making the viewer wholly accepting it. Consequently, I’m aiming to show an equal amount of positives and negatives to create a balance. • Although I looked into the Reflexive mode a great deal (Tracking Down Maggie), I feel this style isn’t what I want from a documentary on social networking because I’m aiming to construct my documentary in a different way to a Reflexive, for example: I won’t be using handheld shots and the interviews with people won’t be spontaneous as they were in Tracking Down Maggie. However, Broomfield’s documentary is interview based, which is what I also want from my film.