In documentary film/video, we can identify 6+1 modes of documentary films: Poetic, Reflexive, Observational, Participatory, Expository, Performative, and Experimental.

The Poetic Mode

The Poetic documentary shares a common field and area with modernist and artistic expression. This kind of documentary emphasises visuals to encourage the audience to understand an “inner truth”.

The poetic mode moved away from continuity editing and instead organised images of the material world by through pure rhythms and spatial juxtaposition.

EXAMPLES: Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) – dramatic framing of material presents a mythic image of a man in harmony with nature.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) presents a glorified view of (Aryan) athletes and  also Powaqqatsi (2003).

Bert Haanstra’s GLASS  (1958)

The Reflexive Documentary

In a reflexive documentary, the filmmaker acknowledges their presence in front of the camera and provides a narrative to the documentary.

This is a style that is usually associated with more experimental documentaries, ones in which the filmmakers are interested as much in the process of making a film, of how reality can be constructed, as the actual content. At the simplest level, the film may make no attempt to hide aspects of its construction – showing us the camera people for example.

EXAMPLES: Buñuel’s Land Without Bread.

Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989).

David & Judith MacDougall’s Wedding Camels (1980).

The Observational Mode

The director allowed the subject to forget the presence of the camera and behave more naturally.

This is the mode associated with ‘fly-on-the-wall’ type documentaries. “Fly-on-the-wall”  means that you would like to be there secretly to see and hear what happens. The camera crew works as invisible as possible; however, it is also common for participants to be interviewed, often by an off-camera voice. They appear to have been filmed in ‘real time’, as if the camera has happened upon events while those involved are seemingly unaware of the filming going on. In this mode, we do not hear their questions and we do not see them. There is no voiceover telling us what to think or what conclusions we should draw.

EXAMPLES: Frederick Wiseman’s films, e.g. High School (1968).

Gilles Groulx and Michel Brault’s Les Racquetteurs (1958).

Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter (1970).

D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967), about Dylan’s tour of England;

One day on State (2012)

The Participatory Documentary

The participatory mode of the documentary focuses on the interaction of the filmmaker with the social actors. The filmmaker shapes what happens whether it is from interviews or intervention from the filmmakers upon their subjects.

Participatory documentaries can involve ethics and politics. In this film, the camera engages how people react. The filmmaker puts subjects on the spot, asking “are you happy?” This is a great example of how the social actor changes when the filmmaker is involved and there is a camera in someone’s face. This mode is very interesting, engaging the audience, and very popular in documentary filmmaking.

The participatory style is a mode that you can combine it with the other mode (s). For example, participant-observation, it is not only the filmmaker part of the film, we also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by her presence.

EXAMPLES: Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1960).

Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985)

Bowling for Columbine (2002) directed by Michael Moore.

Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970)

The Expository Mode

A very traditional form of documentary films in which an unseen speaker performs a voiceover commentary that literally explains the images that we are seeing. It is the form often associated with wildlife or historic documentaries, in which the viewer might feel in need of information about what they are seeing. The audience is not particularly ‘empowered’ by this kind of approach, finding itself in a secondary role listening to the version of events that the filmmakers choose to priorities.

EXAMPLES: TV shows and films like A&E Biography.

 America’s Most Wanted; many science and nature documentaries.

Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990); Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980)

John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing (1974).

Why We Fight series; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936).

The Performative Documentary

The performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world. They are strongly personal, unconventional, perhaps poetic and/or experimental. The filmmakers put own opinion and involvement in the issue that they are describing/visualising. It is defined by the filmmaker’s stance of “I speak of us to you.”

It raises questions about knowledge!

The emphasis is on the emotional and social impact on the audience. The emotional complexities the filmmaker is facing are central to the film. The filmmaker’s subjective attitude or personal engagement with a subject to evoke an audience reaction is the key. The documentary doesn’t show the ‘truth’ but performs it.

EXAMPLES: Alain Resnais’ Night And Fog (1955). It is a film about memory by Holocaust survivor. It is not a historical account of the Holocaust but instead a subjective account of it.

Peter Forgacs’ Free Fall (1988).

Danube Exodus (1999).

Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1985), a film about India.

Inside LSD National Geographic Explorer

The Experimental Mode

Experimental films are freethinking, nontraditional and set out to challenge the conservative, traditional ideas about making the film. In experimental mode, there are not any specific rules and thus the director/producer uses various styles and modes. The filmmaker is a Non-Linear thinker and they can express more personal experiences or feature more extraordinary topics.

Experimental films have been referred to as avant-garde,underground, personal, or independent-underground, abstract, yBA (young British Artist), Electronic Films, and many other forms.

Example: Short Fiction, The Big Shave 1967, Martin Scorsese, It is an antowar Film, a symbolic story about the American war against Vietnam.


Here are two more examples of Experimental Documentary films: