One way of categorising documentaries is by the
degree of creative treatment of recorded material.
Three subgenres are:
realist documentary: imposing minimal treatment
on recorded material i.e. ‘fly-on-the-wall’
formalist documentary: imposing a particular
narrative structure on recorded material i.e. ‘fly-in-
subjective documentary: which express the
filmmaker’s personal vision.
Any one documentary can mix these techniques.
A documentary (like any film) can have different tones:
Narrative: Narrative Structure 1
In ‘Film Art: an Introduction’, American film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin
Thompson identify four types of narrative structure in documentary:
1. Story-telling: stories about people, events, places, …
2. Categorical: conveying information by ‘chunking’ it into various categories.
3. Rhetorical: presenting an argument to persuade the audience to adopt an
opinion on an issue and perhaps to act on that opinion. A typical structure for
rhetorical form is:
• introduction to the problem
• discussion of the facts
• what to do about the problem
• summary epilogue.
1. Associational: suggesting links between images that might not have any
Narrative: Rhetorical Narrative
Typical features of rhetorical narrative are that it:
Presents a reasoned argument
Appeals to the emotions
Addresses the audience directly e.g. to camera or by
Uses repeated motifs to emphasise its argument e.g.
recurring images, sounds, phrases
Suppresses, mocks or criticises contrary opinions
Encourages the audience to act.
Narrative: Argumentation Schemes
When we construct arguments about issues we use a number of
typical ways of arguing (argumentation schemes).
The fact that a scheme is used does not mean the argument is valid.
Examples of argumentation schemes are:
Problem-solving: “If X is a problem, then do Y”
Numbers: “If number X is too large/small, then do Y to reduce/increase X”
Authority: “As expert X says …”
History: “History teaches us that …”
Illustration: “As the situation in X shows …”
Comparison: “If X can do A then so can Y.”
Narrative: Narrative Codes
One can analyse narrative in terms of overall structure.
However narrative can also be analysed in terms of
narrative codes which work moment-by-moment in a text.
One of the most important is the enigmatic code. Focusing
on the enigmatic code lets us view a film as a sequence of
questions and answers. The film poses enigmas
(questions) which engage the viewer’s attention and these
questions may, or may not be, resolved (answered) by the
end of the film.