6 Modes ofDocumentaries-By Bill NicholsBy Callum Garnett and Penney
What are the Modes? The different modes are a way of determining the common concepts and themes of the various documentary styles, Devised by American documentary theorist Bill Nichols. There are 6 different suggested modes of documentary: 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. Therefore, it is inaccurate to think of modes as historical punctuation marks in an evolution towards an ultimate accepted documentary style. Also, modes are not mutually exclusive. There is often significant overlapping between modalities within individual documentary features. As Nichols points out, “the characteristics of a given mode function as a dominant in a given film…but they do not dictate or determine every aspect of its organization.”
Poetic Mode The poetic mode is considered a „subjective interpretation of the subject‟ – essentially meaning its biased. This mode dictates that a certain tone or mood is depicted throughout the documentary, which will influence the viewers understanding and intake of information. This mood is purposefully created through the leaving out of important information, such as character descriptions and specific events, which create a biased view point.
Poetic Mode An example of this happening is „Ross Kemp on Gangs‟, which is meant to be a factual documentation of gang culture, but clearly the pictures below, does not show an everyday occurrence, and is merely constructed to show the severity of what is considered the stereotype on gang culture.
GOOD POINTS – Through the selective incorporation of information, those who favour that subject are more likely to instantly agree with the suggested terms. This gives the documentary an automatic acceptance amongst its audience. BAD POINTS – Due to this biased view point, those who do not already favour the matter, will have a negative opinion and not be interested by the biased opinion, due to the documentaries lack of counter arguments and knowledge, which lower acceptance and doesn‟t represent other views.
Expository Mode The expository mode is where the documenter speaks directly to the viewer, through the use of tools such as voice over, or subtitles, and through this create an powerful argument and point of view. Images are more so used to emphasise the point being mentioned by the documenter and not to create their own point, this adds to the extremity of the point being made, and adds relevant pictorial evidence. Through this use of pictures being accompanied by direct addressing of the audience, the audience are strongly directed to view a picture or video in a specific way. This is used in historical documentaries to deliver an „un- problematic and objective‟ account and interpretation of past events.
Expository Mode An example of this is: America‟s Most Wanted. The show uses a direct voice over, aimed at the viewers, which documents the actions of the footage shown. This is considered a tool used to intopolate the audience. The narrator‟s, John Walsh‟s, voice is very typical of the conventions of this mode, as his deep and sonorous voice and be equated to the „Voice of God‟.
GOOD POINTS – As long as you have a charismatic, well informed and well spoken narrator to document the „facts‟, the view is more likely to be received positively by the audience. BAD POINTS – Some people don‟t necessarily receive the more spoken element to this type of documentary, and those who better receive visual elements will not benefit so much from this documentary, deeming it „boring‟.
Observational Mode Definition : Emphasizing the documentary filmmakers engagement in observing the subjects daily life and circumstances and documenting them with an unobtrusive camera. The observational mode uses a more „unbiased‟ method, through the simple observation of events happening around the documenter without any direct interference. Conclusions are then obtained from the events and scenarios witnessed. This passive way of obtaining facts, creates a more intimate connection between the audience, by them actually witnessing real events (such as trauma or injury‟) which can cause an emotional response from the viewer.
Observational Mode An example for this is Frederick Wiseman‟s documentary, High School (1968) which takes a „fly on the wall‟ approach into Northeast High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As this mode is entirely factual it was able to reveal facts about the school the administration did not wish to become public, i.e.. The oppression of the students. Below is a segment from „High School‟showing this mode of documentary:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lrdBMR2IEQ
GOOD POINTS – The emotional aspect of this mode would appeal to a more sensitive audience, but even the lesser connected viewer are still likely to be impacted by the heavily „real‟ footage of events. BAD POINTS – The un-biased footage obtained, gives a lack of control to the documenter, which can lead to an un-factual and weak argument, which could also potentially leave it without any factual or visual stimuli.
Participatory Mode The participatory mode believes that the documenter has to have a certain level of influence on the footage and facts. This allows a certain level of clear evidence on the documenters presence effecting events. The incorporation of documenter influence will essentially make the film entirely biased, as they will create artificial events to create a strong and evident argument.
Participatory Mode An example of this particular mode is Vertov‟s The Man with a Camera (1929) where nothing but the lives of Soviet citizens, specifically the films cameraman and editor, are filmed to display the state of Soviet life. In this way, there is no story and no „characters‟ to speak of, in addition to the film being silent, and it is this involvement the film crew take in the documentary that makes it a strong example of the Participatory Mode. Below is a segment of „The Man With a Camera:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00ZciIC4JPw
GOOD POINTS – Through the use of star vehicles, commonly associated with the subject matter will create a lot of renown and expectation. BAD POINTS – The un-biased footage obtained, gives a lack of control to the documenter, which can lead to an un-factual and weak argument, which could also potentially leave it without any factual or visual stimuli.
Reflexive Mode Definition: The mode uses specific footage and information that will lead viewers to a specific outcome and therefore essentially make the decision of their opinions for them. The reflexive mode essentially highlights constructed scenarios and does not create the sense of realism intentionally to emphasise the point of the documentary. This can highlight extreme cases of events, but these will be considered normal by the un-aware viewer. This extreme use of suggestion toward one view point, makes the documentary ecspecially succesful.
Reflexive Mode The example we are going to use is the 1933 documentary :Land without bread. It shows the reflexive method by simply showing only the bad points of the society, which highlights only one side of the argument. The use of language like „strange and barbaric‟ are used to once again highlight the „different‟ aspects that the society shows, and what the documenter wants us to believe. The fact that the majority of the; scripting, narrating and directing was done by one individual; Luis Bunuel means there is only one opinion being conveyed to us, the use of hegemony is evident, and the view point is strongly aimed in one direction. Below is a segment of „Land Without Bread‟:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unWILZzQ5_Y
GOOD POINTS – Able to show the extreme Truths‟ that arent necessarily able to be witness in an everyday occurrence, which although takes away from normality, can increase sensitivity and severity of the events. BAD POINTS – The narrow-minded elements of this documentary can often leave out factual points necessary in making an informed decision on the matter.
Performative Mode The performative mode, which is often confused with participatory, engages the viewer in a story but can expose them to factual points during this process. This type of documentary focuses on the experiences of the filmmaker themselves, and is deeply personal to them. This mode is best suited to tell the stories of filmmakers from specific niche social groups.
Performative Mode An example of the Performative Mode is Alain Resnais‟ Night and Fog (1955) a subjective, survivor account of the holocaust , recounting a biased opinion of the events haven taken place. The controversial content and subject matter of the film causes it become and emotionally based film, adding the aspects of the Performative Mode. Also, it follows the typical convention that this mode is suited more for minorities to give them a voice.
GOOD POINTS – The documentaries are fairly easy to understand due to the „mind of the documenter‟ being directly portrayed to the viewers. BAD POINTS – This „self view‟ style of documentary is seen as pretentious due to the focus solely being on the documenter. This could also be considered boring due to the one focus of attention. The niche audience that is attracted to this mode lowers the potential audience.