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Documentary modes explained


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Documentary modes explained

  1. 1. Documentary Modes
  2. 2. Documentary Modes • 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.
  3. 3. Poetic Mode • 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.
  4. 4. Poetic Mode • 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.
  5. 5. Expositional Mode • 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.” (Sussex 1972) • 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.
  6. 6. Expositional Mode • 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 this. • 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 transferring information.
  7. 7. Observational Mode • The observational mode of documentary developed in the wake of the innovation and evolution of more portable cameras in the 1960's. • 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.” (Barnouw 1993) • The move to lighter 16mm equipment and shoulder mounted cameras allowed documentarians to leave the anchored point of the tripod.
  8. 8. Observational Mode • 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.)
  9. 9. Participatory Mode • 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 Elizaveta Svilova.
  10. 10. Participatory Mode • 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 message. • 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.
  11. 11. Reflexive Mode • 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 editing, respectively. • 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.” (Ruby 2005)
  12. 12. Reflexive Mode • 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.
  13. 13. Performative Mode • The performative mode, the final mode Nichols discusses, is easily confused with the participatory mode, and Nichols remains somewhat unclear about their distinctions. • 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.
  14. 14. Performative Mode • 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)