• Documentary mode is a conceptual scheme developed
by American documentary theorist Bill Nichols (2001)
that seeks to distinguish particular traits and conventions
of various documentary film styles.
• Nichols identifies six different documentary 'modes' in his
schema: poetic, expository, observational, participatory,
reflexive, and performative.
• While Nichols' discussion of modes does progress
chronologically with the order of their appearance in
practice, documentary film often returns to themes and
devices from previous modes.
• In other words documentaries can have elements of the
different modes within them.
• Early documentary filmmakers, bolstered by
Soviet montage theory and the
French Impressionist cinema principle of
photogenie, appropriated these techniques into
documentary filmmaking to create what Nichols
would later call the poetic mode.
• The poetic mode of documentary film tends
toward subjective interpretations of its subject(s).
• Documentaries in the poetic mode forsake
traditional narrative content: individual
characters and events remain undeveloped, in
favor of creating a particular mood or tone.
• This is particularly noticeable in the editing of poetic
documentaries, where continuity is of virtually no
consequence at all.
• Rather, poetic editing explores “associations and
patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial
juxtapositions.” (Nichols 2001)
• Joris Ivens’ Regen (1929) is a good example of the
poetic mode, consisting of unrelated shots linked
together to illustrate a rain shower in Amsterdam.
• That the poetic mode illustrates such subjective
impressions with little or no rhetorical content, it is often
perceived as avant-garde, and subsequent pieces in this
mode (Godfrey Reggio’s Koyannisqatsi (1982) for
example,) are likely to be found within that realm.
• Documentary forefather John Grierson offers an explanation for the
move away from poetic documentary, claiming filmmakers, “got
caught up in social propaganda…We got on to the social problems
of the world, and we ourselves deviated from the poetic line.”
• The expositional mode moves sharply from the poetic mode in terms
of visual practice and story-telling devices, by virtue of using rhetoric
(factual information and opinions given by interviewees) and its
goals of passing on information and persuading the viewer.
• Narration is a distinct innovation of the expositional mode of
documentary. Mainly as an omnipresent, omniscient, and objective
voice over the footage.
• Narration is used as a way of explaining and arguing about a
documentary’s rhetorical content.
• Where documentary in the poetic mode thrived on a filmmaker’s
subjective visual interpretation of a subject, expositional mode
collects footage that aims to strengthen the spoken narrative.
• This shift in visual tactics gives rise to what Nichols refers to as
“evidentiary editing,” a practice in which expositional images
“...illustrate, illuminate, evoke, or act in counterpoint to what is
said…[we] take our cue from the commentary and understand the
images as evidence or demonstration…” (Nichols 2001)
• Cutaways during an interview are a particularly good example of
• The engagement of rhetoric with supporting visual information
founded in the expositional mode continues today and, indeed,
makes up the bulk of documentary product. Film features, news
stories, and various television programmes use this device for
• The observational mode of documentary developed in the wake of
the innovation and evolution of more portable cameras in the
• In Dziga Vertov's Kino-Eye manifestoes, he declared, “I, a camera,
fling myself along…maneuvering in the chaos of movement,
recording movement, startling with movements of the most complex
combinations.” (Michelson, O’Brien, & Vertov 1984)
• This emphasis on mobility became practicable in the early 1960’s
as, “new, light equipment made possible an intimacy of observation
new to documentary, and this involved sound as well as image.”
• The move to lighter 16mm equipment and shoulder mounted
cameras allowed documentarians to leave the anchored point of the
• Portable Nagra sync-sound systems and unidirectional microphones, too,
freed the documentarian from cumbersome audio equipment. A two-person
film crew could now realize Vertov’s vision and sought to bring real truth to
documentaries. Unlike the subjective content of poetic documentary, or the
rhetorical insistence of expositional documentary, observational
documentaries tend to simply observe, allowing viewers to reach whatever
conclusions they may deduce.
• The camera, while moving with subjects and staying in the action, remains
as unobtrusive as possible, mutely recording events as they happen.
• Pure observational documentarians proceeded under some bylaws: no
music, no interviews, no scene arrangement of any kind, and no narration.
• The fly-on-the-wall perspective is championed, while editing processes use
long takes and few cuts. Resultant footage appears as though the viewer is
witnessing first-hand the experiences of the subject: they travel with
Bob Dylan to England in D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back [sic] (1967,)
suffer the stark treatment of patients at the Bridgewater State Hospital in
Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (1967,) and hit the campaign trail with
John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Robert Drew’s Primary (1960.)
• In the participatory mode, filmmakers move from behind
the camera and appear as subjects in their own work.
• This move away from Direct cinema (the American
movement most closely associated with the
observational mode of documentary,) had already begun
in France with Cinema verite, notably in Edgar Morin and
Jean Rouch’s Chronique d'un ete (1961.)
• Dziga Vertov, as well, employed aspects of the
participatory mode in Man with a Movie Camera (1929,)
with his brother and camera operator Mikhail Kaufman
appearing on-screen as well as his wife and editor
• With the filmmaker visible to the viewer, and freed to
openly discuss his or her perspective in regards to the
film being made, rhetoric and argumentation return to the
documentary film as the filmmaker clearly asserts a
• Perhaps the most famous (or, infamous,) filmmaker
currently working in this documentary mode is Michael
Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911). Of
illustrative value in his work is the (perhaps obvious,)
result that as the participatory documentarian moves
onto the screen, dropping the mask of objectivity worn by
the observational mode, the film can become a channel
for the filmmaker's agenda.
• The reflexive mode considers the quality of
documentary itself, de-mystifying its processes
and considering its implications. In Dziga Vertov
’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929,) for
example, he features footage of his brother and
wife in the process of shooting footage and
• The goal in including these images was, “to aid
the audience in their understanding of the
process of construction in film so that they could
develop a sophisticated and critical attitude.”
• In other words this process demystifies the art of making
a documentary in an attempt to make the audience view
the text in a more objective way.
• Mitchell Block’s ...No Lies (1974,) functioned in a notably
different manner, as it reflexively and critically
questioned the observational mode, commenting on
observational techniques and their capacity for capturing
authentic truths. In this way, the reflexive mode of
documentary often functions as its own regulatory board,
policing ethical and technical boundaries within
Documentary film itself.
• The performative mode, the final mode Nichols
discusses, is easily confused with the participatory
mode, and Nichols remains somewhat unclear about
• The crux of the difference seems to lie in the fact that
where the participatory mode ehas the filmmaker in the
story but attempts to constructs truths that should be
self-evident to anyone, the performative mode engages
the filmmaker in the story creating an almost
autobiographical description of subjective truths that are
significant to the filmmaker him or herself.
• Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Supersize Me’ is an example of this.
• Deeply personal, the performative mode is particularly well-suited to
telling the stories of filmmakers from marginalized social groups,
offering the chance to air unique perspectives without having to
argue the validity of their experiences, as in Marlon Riggs’ 1990
documentary Tongues Untied about his experiences as a gay black
dancer in New York City.
• The departure from a rhetoric of persuasion allows the performative
film a great deal more room for creative freedom in terms of visual
abstraction, narrative, etc.
• Stella Bruzzi sees Nichols’ conception of performative documentary
as the polar opposite of observational documentary, commenting
that performative pieces, “accept…authorship as intrinsic to
documentary, in direct opposition to the exponents of Direct cinema
who saw themselves as merely the purveyors of the truth they
pursued.” (Bruzzi 2000)