Types of documentary films or documentary mode is a film theory. This was created by film critic Bill Nichol’s in 2001 as a way of categorising the different types of documentary filmmaking. According to this theory, every film will fit into one or two of these modes.
These six documentary types are not here to stop your creativity. By all means, if you have an idea outside of these modes great! But if you are interested in documentary filmmaking, it’s helpful to study the well-known styles and genres to inspire your own work.
1. Poetic Mode
This is when a film relies on images to tell the story and has no narrator or presenter. The aim of this style is to let the audience find their own viewpoint. Unlike over types of documentaries, this one is more creative and less subjective. It’s up to the viewer to decide what they believe is happening and no one is pushing an opinion.
When making this type of documentary, you will still need to heavily research the subject matter. If you are filming a group of people it might take a while for them to act naturally and ignore the camera. This style of more likely to take risks with camera shots and compositions.
- Fata Morgana (1971) Werner Herzog
- Samsara (2011) Rob Fricke
- Olympia (1938) Leni Riefenstahl
- The House is Black (1962) Forough Farrokhzad
2. Expository Mode
This is the most popular of the types of documentary films. These films educate and explain an issue, event or location. Most documentary films fall under this genre, and it covers wildlife, history and travel shows. In addition, these films tend to feature interviews, graphics and have a ‘voice of god’ narration. In contrast to the other types, the subject matter is clear and logical.
To make this type of film, you will need to do a lot of research and planning. Often the story, script and interviews are all decided before production. However, this type is the easiest to create and has a simple storyline for an audience to follow. Although the subject matter can vary, these documentaries have a typical three-act structure.
- Our Planet (2019) David Attenborough
- March of the Penguins (2005) Luc Jacquet
- The Dust Bowl (2012) Ken Burns
- An Inconvenient Truth (2006) Davis Guggenheim
3. Participatory Mode
In this mode, a filmmaker talks with the subjects instead of observing them. You will see them on screen asking questions and being involved in the action. According to Bill Nichols, in these types of documentaries, ‘the filmmaker becomes a social actor’. Although the filmmaker does not influence the subject, they do tell their own version of the truth.
Often this mode will look at a big theme or subject matter. For example, Bowling for Columbine (2002) explores the time leading up to the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre. Filmmaker Michael Moore is seen on the screen directly interviewing teachers and students.
- Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore
- Paris is Burning (1990) Jennie Livingston
- My Scientology Movie (2016) LouisTheroux
- Icarus (2017) Bryan Fogel
4. Observational Mode
Unlike the other documentary modes, this one simply observes the subject. These films tend to not have music, interviews or narration. The camera is the fly on the wall, and the audience is free to make their own opinion. Additionally, the edit is more natural and tends to use long takes and few cuts.
In documentary filmmaking, you need an interesting subject to focus on. These films are more likely to focus on a person or social issue. It also helps that this is a unique subject or takes a different viewpoint. Gaining permission from the people featured will also take time as you need to view their world without influence.
- Don’t Look Back (1967) D.A. Pennebaker
- Hoop Dreams (1994) Steve James
- War Photographer (2001) Christian Frei
- Armadillo (2010) Janus Metz
5. Reflexive Mode
These types of documentary films focus on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. This mode looks at the filmmaker’s life or the people around them. For example, in The Thin Blue Line (1988), Errol Morris explores the events of a man wrongfully accused of murder. Because there was no footage of the event, he chooses to include himself in the film and even acts out scenes of the crime.
The main difference with this type is that the filmmaker will have personal involvement in the film. You could also call this type of film behind the scenes. Bill Nichol’s wrote that these films ‘question the authenticity of the documentary itself’. Because of this, mockumentaries can sometimes fall under this category.
- Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov
- The Thin Blue Line (1988) Errol Mossis
- Stories We Tell (2012) Sarah Polley
- This is Spinal Tap (1984) Rob Reiner
6. Performative Mode
Performative films are more stylised and focus on a big theme. The filmmaker makes the whole movie an entertaining performance. Often the subject is personal to the presenter, and they are involved in the story. These films tend to be more subjective and opinionated.
In this mode of documentary filmmaking, they show a larger than life experience of a world, culture or event. One example of this is Super Size Me (2004), where Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s fast food for 30 days straight. This is a performative documentary because Spurlock himself is the main focus, and he is personally involved in the action.
- Super Size Me (2004) Morgan Spurlock
- Catfish (2010) Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost
- Tongues Untied (1989) Marlon Riggs
- Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) Michael Moore
Wrapping Up – Types of Documentary Films
In short, all documentaries will fit under one or a mix of these modes. Next time you watch a documentary, consider what mode it fits under. Is there be a ‘voice of god’ narration, or is the presenter part of the action. Is it a subjective piece sharing the filmmaker’s opinion, or can the audience decide for themselves?
When you set out to make a documentary, you will need to consider what style is best for you. A performative style might sell well but it can also compromise the integrity of the subject.