Documentary mode

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Documentary mode is a conceptual scheme developed by American documentary theorist Bill Nichols 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. 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.” (Nichols 2001)

Poetic Mode[edit]

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. Documentary pioneer Dziga Vertov came remarkably close to describing the mode in his “We: Variant of a Manifesto” when he proclaimed that "kinochestvo" (the quality of being cinematic) is “the art of organizing the necessary movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole, in harmony with the properties of the material and internal rhythm of each object.” (Michelson, O’Brien, & Vertov 1984)

The poetic mode of documentary film tends toward subjective interpretations of its subject(s). Light on rhetoric, documentaries in the poetic mode forsake traditional narrative content: individual characters and events remain undeveloped, in favor of creating a particular mood or tone. 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 IvensRegen (1929) is paradigmatic 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.

Expository Mode[edit]

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 diverges sharply from the poetic mode in terms of visual practice and story-telling devices, by virtue of its emphasis on rhetorical content, and its goals of information dissemination or persuasion.

Narration is a distinct innovation of the expositional mode of documentary. Initially manifesting as an omnipresent, omniscient, and objective voice intoned over footage, narration holds the weight of explaining and arguing a film’s rhetorical content. Where documentary in the poetic mode thrived on a filmmaker’s aesthetic and subjective visual interpretation of a subject, expositional mode collects footage that functions 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: 107) 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 programs lean heavily on its utility as a device for transferring information.

Observational Mode[edit]

The observational mode of documentary developed in the wake of documentarians returning to Vertovian ideals of truth, along with the innovation and evolution of cinematic hardware in the 1960s. 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) The move to lighter 16mm equipment and shoulder mounted cameras allowed documentarians to leave the anchored point of the tripod. 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 the documentary milieu.

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. 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 utilize 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.)

Reflexive Mode[edit]

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) 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.

Performative Mode[edit]

The performative mode, the final mode Nichols discusses, is easily confused with the participatory mode, and Nichols remains somewhat nebulous about their distinctions. The crux of the difference seems to lie in the fact that where the participatory mode engages the filmmaker to the story but attempts to construct truths that should be self-evident to anyone, the performative mode engages the filmmaker to the story but constructs subjective truths that are significant to the filmmaker him or herself. 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 pits Nichols’ conception of performative documentary at the polar opposite of observational documentary, commenting that performative pieces, “confront the problem of aestheticisation, accepting…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)

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 filmmaker currently working in this documentary mode is Michael Moore.


  • Barnouw, E. (1993). Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Bruzzi, S. (2000). New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London, England: Routledge.
  • Michelson, A. (Ed.) O’Brien, K. (Trans,) & Vertov, D. (1984). Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Berkeley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
  • Nichols, B (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
  • Ruby, J. (2005). The Image Mirrored: Reflexivity and the Documentary Film. New Challenges for Documentary. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.
  • Sussex, E. (1972). Grierson on Documentary: The Last Interview. Film Quarterly. Vol. 26, 24-30.