Types of documentaries

Yes. There are types in documentary films. Film theorists have over the time and age come up with many categories and talks on the kinds of documentaries that filmmakers make. There is no hard and fast rule though but a documentary film, unlike (sometimes like) a feature is not dependent on genre. Its extremely content oriented and later does the filmmaker decides to treat in a certain way.

So here are six modes of documentaries as studied by Bill Nichols, an American film critic and theoretician that tend to make a lot of sense.

The Expository Mode :

They argue. Through narration and visuals that complement that argument. They try to put across a point by providing evidence for it.
For example – Fire in the blood (2013), a documentary about the strategic malice conducted by big, corporate western pharmaceutical companies to “patent” medicines by giving past evidences of the low cost AIDS drugs being blocked from South Africa during the 1996 HIV epidemic.

The Observational Mode:

“Somebody is watching.”
As the name suggests, subjects are observed  simply and instinctively without meddling with their actions or activities. Most of the time characters do not even know that they being filmed or even if they do, they are too used to it to make notice. Filmmaker as a ‘fly on the wall’ – neither influencing nor altering events being filmed.
For example – The zoo (1961) by Bert Haanstra shows a series of shots that are shot in a zoo that includes animals and visitors, their activities and reactions on seeing each other. For the record, its hilarious and can be watched here – click.

The Poetic Mode:

It suggests. An artistic form of expression which allows you to make an interpretation of the content. Basically, what poets sort of do. They know what they are talking about, but do you get it? It will touch everyone perhaps in a different way and that is the strength and complexity of it.
For example – Baraka. 1992. Ron Fricke. A non narrative film with series of slow motion and time lapse scenes of different places in the world, coming together breathtakingly with music to support its feel.

The Participatory Mode:

They observe too. But by being a participant in the process. They have the power to consciously control the content of the documentary but like social actors rather than affecting the image of their main subject.
For example (My favourite one) – Exit through the gift shop. 2010. The film is from the perspective of Banksy. He is the filmmaker but not the conventional narrator here. He talks about Mr. Brainwash’s road to success, more as a participant in the discussion/story than being a story teller.

The Performative Mode:

Now this is what it is. What all documentaries actually are. But this one here, is loud my friend. It is the filmmaker’s show for you. It is personal and tends to be more emotional by focusing on the filmmaker’s subjective experience.
For example – Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), where American political commentator Michael Moore made  a documentary on the series of emotional conflicts that families and innocent Americans went through during the Bush administration that led to Afghanistan – Iraq wars and the convenient use of 9/11 attacks to motivate youngsters to join army.

The Reflexive Mode:

Here, the filmmaker is neither trying to influence the content nor are they by-standers or ‘fly in the wall’ while telling you a story they see. They consciously tell you that they are making this documentary and thus, making us question authenticity posed by a documentary.
For example – Catfish (2010) is about Nev who was filmed by his brother and friend who met a little girl who loved his photographs on the internet and then met her cousin online and fell in love. Throughout the film, they follow him – talk to him and help him figure whatever’s happening. They participate and yet do not tend to influence the events that tend to occur. But in the end, you would question the authenticity of the film.

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