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Documentary: A Beginner's LibGuide: Six Modes of Documentary

This is a LibGuide that will provide various information on all things concerning Documentary.

Expository Documentary

  1. Arose from dissatisfaction with distracting entertainment qualities of the fiction film
  2. Voice of God commentary, poetic perspectives sought to disclose information about the historical world & see that world afresh, even if ideas seem romantic or didactic
  3. Addresses viewer directly, w/titles or voices
  4. Advances argument about historical world
  5. It takes shape around commentary directed toward the viewer; images illustrate the verbal commentary builds a sense of dramatic involvement around the need for a solution to a problem.
  6. Non-synchronous sound prevails (historical circumstances)
  7. Editing generally establishes/maintains rhetorical continuity more than spatial/temporal 


Expository Documentary Examples

Nanook of the North (USA, Robert Flaherty, 1922, 79 min)

In this silent predecessor to the modern documentary, film-maker Robert J. Flaherty spends one year following the lives of Nanook and his family, Inuits living in the Arctic Circle.

Land Without Bread (Spain, Luis Bunuel, 1933, 27 min)

A surrealistic documentary portrait of the region of Las Hurdes, a remote region of Spain where civilization has barely developed, showing how the local peasants try to survive without even the most basic utilities and skills.

Blood of the Beasts (France, Georges Franju, 1949, 20 min)

Bucolic scenes from the outskirts of Paris are contrasted with stark footage from slaughterhouses.

Roger and Me (USA, Michael Moore, 1989, 91 min)

Director Michael Moore pursues GM CEO Roger B. Smith to confront him about the harm he did to Flint, Michigan with his massive downsizing.

Observational Documentary

  1. Arose from available lightweight portable synchronous recording equipment & dissatisfaction with moralizing quality of expository documentary.
  2. It allowed the filmmaker to record unobtrusively what folks did when not explicitly addressing the camera.
  3. It stresses the nonintervention of the filmmaker
  4. Filmmaker cedes control of events more than any other mode.
  5. Editing doesn’t construct time frame or rhythm but enhances impression of lived or real time.
  6. This mode limited filmmaker to present moment and required disciplined detachment from events themselves.
  7. It uses indirect address, speech overheard, synchronous sound, relatively long takes.
  8. Its sense of observation comes from
    1. Ability of filmmaker to include representative & revealing moments
    2. Sounds and images recorded at moment of observational filming in contrast to voice-over of expository mode
    3. Illustrations do not serve generalizations but a specific slide of reality.
    4. Presence of camera on scene


Observational Documentary Examples

Harlan County, USA (USA, Barbara Kopple, 1976, 103 min)

This film chronicles the bitter and violent struggle waged by coal miners during a strike in 1973 in Eastern Kentucky against the Eastover Mining Company. The story focuses on the miners and their families' fight for decent living standards in an area where many still live in shacks with no indoor plumbing and work at jobs with little security and dangerous conditions.

High School (USA, Frederick Wiseman, 1968, 75 min)

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman takes us inside Northeast High School as a fly on the wall to observe the teachers and how they interact with the students.

Brother's Keeper (USA, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992, 104 min)

This documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky details the murder trial of Delbert Ward. The film explores possible motives for the crime, from mercy-killing (Bill was ill at the time), to progressively more outré hypotheses. It also shows how residents of the rural community of Munnsville, NY rallied to the support of one of their own (residents previously considered the Wards as social outcasts), against what they felt were intrusive 'big-city' police and a district attorney involved in an election, who might've used the death to help bolster his candidacy.

Participatory Documentary

  1. It arose from the availability of same mobile equipment & desire to make filmmakers perspective more evident.
  2. This mode wants to engage w/individuals more directly while not reverting to classic exposition interview styles
  3. It allows filmmaker to account for past events via witnesses and experts whom viewer can also see
  4. Archival footage becomes appended to these commentaries to avoid hazards of reenactment & monolithic claims of voice of god commentary


Participatory Documentary Examples

Who Killed Vincent Chin? (USA, Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena, 1987, 87 min)

This film recounts the murder of Vincent Chin, an automotive engineer mistaken as Japanese who was slain by an assembly line worker who blamed him for the competition by the Japanese auto makers that were threatening his job. It then recounts how that murderer escaped justice in the court system.

Chronicle of a Summer (France, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1961, 85 min)

A documentary about the everyday lives of ordinary Parisians, done in the style of cinéma vérité.

Performative Documentary

  1. Like Reflexive Documentary, it raises questions about knowledge
  2. Endorses definition of knowledge that emphasizes personal experience (in the tradition of poetry, literature)
  3. Tries to demonstrate how understanding such personal knowledge can help us understand more general processes of society
  4. May "mix" elements of various documentary modes to achieve a link between subjective knowledge/understanding of the world, and more general understandings, i.e. historical ones.

Cinema Verite --Meaning "truthful cinema", is a style of filmmaking characterized by realistic, typically documentary motion pictures that avoid artificiality and artistic effect and are generally made with simple equipment. Combines modes of observational and performative. From the French school of documentary film.

Direct Cinema --This style of documentary filmmaking attempts to remove all barriers between subject and audience, be they of a technical, procedural and structural nature. Also combines both modes of observational and performative. From the North American school of documentary film. 

Performative Documentary Examples

No Lies (USA, Mitchell Block, 1973, 16 min)

No Lies is a 1973 short dramatic film made by Mitchell Block while he was a student at New York University. The film, which is in the style of a cinéma vérité interview (sub-performative mode), deals with a young woman who has been raped and has been widely viewed by nurses, therapists and police officers.

David Holzman’s Diary (USA, Jim McBridge, 1967, 73 min)

A young filmmaker decides to make a movie of his life.

Reflexive Documentary

  1. Arose from the desire to make the conventions of representation themselves more apparent & to challenge the impression of reality which other three modes normally conveyed non-problematically.
  2. It is the most self-aware mode - its reflexivity makes the audience aware of how other modes claim to construct "truth" through documentary practice.
  3. It uses many devices of other modes but sets them on the edge so viewer attends to the device as well as the effect.
  4. It tears away the veil of filmmaker’s illusory absence.
  5. Becomes technologically viable in the 50s with the emergence of portable synchronous sound equipment makes interaction more feasible.


Reflexive Documentary Examples

The Gleaners and I (France, Agnes Varda, 2000, 82 min)

Varda films and interviews gleaners in France in all forms, from those picking fields after the harvest to those scouring the dumpsters of Paris.

Lovely Andrea (Germany, Hito Steyerl, 2007, 30 min)

Two women set themselves the project of tracking down a ‘bondage’ photograph taken in the 1980s, in Japan. The protagonists are in fact the artist, Hito Steyerl, and Asagi Ageha, the artist’s translator and also a bondage model. The missing image is that of Steyerl herself, a portrait of the artist as a young woman bound up in elaborate and sexualised knots. Locating it requires the women to undertake a journey through Japan’s bondage industry.

Night and Fog (France, Alain Resnais, 1955, 31 min)

The history of Nazi Germany's death camps of the Final Solution and the hellish world of dehumanization and death contained inside.

Here and Elsewhere (France, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville, 1974, 55 min)

Godard, Miéville and Gorin (aka the "Dziga Vertov Group") examine the parallel lives of two families - one French, one Palestinian - using an exploratory combination of film and video.

All is Well Along the Border (Lebanon, Akram Zataari, 1997, 43 min)

One of Zaatari’s earliest experiments in documentary video, All Is Well on the Border emerged from the filmmaker’s desire to understand Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon following the 1982 Lebanon War. The video presents a series of testimonies by Lebanese citizens who were detained during the occupation, each presenting an image of resistance that falls outside the dominant narrative of liberation and solidarity promoted by the Lebanese left. At the same time, by actively resisting the tendency in political documentary filmmaking to give a voice to those who do not have one, Zaatari adopts a form of self-critique similar to the one used by Godard and Miéville twenty years earlier in Here and Elsewhere.

Poetic Documentary

  1. Does not use continuity editing, sacrifices sense of the very specific location and place that continuity creates
  2. Explores associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions
  3. Social Actors rarely become fully-fledged characters
  4. Opens up the possibility of alternative forms of knowledge to straightforward transfer of knowledge


Poetic Documentary Examples

Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, Dziga Vertov, 1929, 68 min)

A man travels around a city with a camera slung over his shoulder, documenting urban life with dazzling invention.

The Wonder Ring (USA, Stan Brakhage, 1955, 6 min)

A short film by Stan Brakhage in which New York City's Third Avenue elevated train is filmed before its destruction.

Created By


Created December 2018 by Melissa, Ann, and Alex. Pratt Institute.