Documentary modes

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Quick overview of Bill Nichols' concept of documentary modes for English 232: Film and Visual Literacy at Fayetteville State University.

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Documentary modes

  1. 1. Documentary Modes English 232: Film and Visual Literacy
  2. 2. Documentary Modes     The concept of documentary modes was developed by Bill Nichols in his classic 2001 book, Introduction to Documentary. Rather than analyzing categories of documentaries in terms of genre, Nichols proposes “modes” as a way of describing how docs engage with the actual world, usually in an effort to express a sense of “authenticity.” Modes become dominant during certain historical periods in response to technological, social, and political change. Modes are not mutually exclusive. One mode is usually dominant, but a given documentary may have characteristics of several modes.
  3. 3. Poetic mode (origins: 1920s)      Associated with Soviet montage theory and French Impressionist cinema Usually lack a clear narrative Characters and events are undeveloped in favor of establishing a mood or tone Poetic documentaries avoid continuity editing in favor of rhythmic editing techniques. Examples:    JorisIvens’ Regen (1929): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPD2C0K38jY Godfrey Reggis’sKoyannisqatsi (1982): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uAiHSlUUIc
  4. 4. Expository documentary (1930s)     Often serve a rhetorical purpose to disseminate information to or persuade audiences Frequently used voice-over narration (often described as voice-of-God narration because narrator is omniscient and onmipresent—think Morgan Freeman!). Emerged in part due to rise of sound cinema. Uses what Nichols calls “evidentiary editing” where images serve as evidence of narrative/observation. Examples:   Pare Lorentz’ The River (1937): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uAiHSlUUIc Watt and Wright’s Night Mail (1936): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uAiHSlUUIc  Features poem by British poet W.H. Auden!
  5. 5. Observational Mode (late 1950s)     Developed in response to perceived artificiality of expository documentaries and made use of modern, mobile camera equipment and sound recorders. Fly-on-the-wall style. Very few cuts, no voice-over narration, no non-diegetic music, no scene arrangement. Viewers were invited to watch and reach their own conclusions. Examples:   D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WH55dLua9E0 Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OT3NLw2IPPw
  6. 6. Participatory Mode (1970s-80s)    Acknowledge the role of the the filmmaker in creating meaning The filmmaker/director often appears on-screen and frames documentary as his or her subjective experience, becoming a social actor like those who appear on screen Examples:   Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnohMWYXeZ4 Alan Berliner’s Sweetest Sound (2001): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rayfzuObAiA
  7. 7. Reflexive Mode (1970s)     Engage with the very techniques of documentary storytelling (i.e., documentaries about documentary filmmaking) Meant to encourage a more critical viewership by exposing how truth is constructed Highly skeptical of “realism,” even in documentary film Examples:    Trinh Minh-ha’sReassemblage (1983): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSZaRHg0xVs Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1968): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDsRhMVpADw
  8. 8. Performative Documentaries (1980s)    Stress subjective experience and an emotional response to the world Might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to entice the viewer to experience what it’s like to share a specific perspective on the world Examples:   Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWuPLxMBjM8 Jonathan Caouette’sTarnation (2003): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7YjtX5fcW0

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