FMP: Documentary Modes

Bill Nichols writes about the five documentary modes that are defined under the following headings; Poetic, Expository, Observational, Reflexive, and Performative.


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 Ivens’ Regen (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.


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.


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’sTiticut Follies (1967,) and hit the campaign trail with John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Robert Drew’s Primary (1960.)


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.


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.

Through reading up on these modes I think my film falls into both the Poetic and Performative modes as it leaves room for interpretation, will never truly develop my contributor, uses visuals that don’t link to each other, will create a certain mood and tone as well as; engages me as the film maker to the story, constructing truths, being deeply personal and airing my perspective of those who are mentally ill and the issue of mental health.

I don’t necessarily think it’s a problem that my film falls into more than one mode, I think it’s very possible and shows just how creative and imaginative my piece really is. It is not a normal documentary or film and does not always conform to the typical rules.



About gailenepierre

Ambitious and driven but knows how to have funnnn :)

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