Documentaries are arguably one of the most eye-opening and thought-provoking types of film that exist. This is simply because they address the world that we live in, with a rawness that many other genres fail to acknowledge. It is difficult to know how to define a documentary, but through understanding the different types (or modes) of documentaries, we can gain a fuller understanding of what they are really about.
Firstly, there is the Poetic documentary. These came about in the 1920s and aim to indirectly make the audience see an inner or hidden meaning behind different aspects of life. Instead of following the chronological order of events, the poetic documentary filmmaker may arrange the scenes in a particular order, in an attempt to create a feeling rather than the truth. A notable example of this mode is the 1938 German film, Olympia, which documents the Summer Olympics held in Berlin. It has been universally admired as it uses many motion picture techniques that were ground-breaking at the time, such as, unusual camera angles, smash cuts and extreme close-ups.
There is also Expository mode, which is what most people think of as a documentary. It uses a narrator and it aims to inform and/or persuade. This type of documentary directly addresses issues, exploring what is actually happening in the world. The majority of news programs and nature-related documentaries make use of the expository mode. Expository documentaries commonly use the ‘voice of God’, which is just a narrator or voice-over, which aims to have power over the minds of the audience. The ‘voice of God’ speaks directly to the audience, showing reality, and often revolve around history and important events. Available on Netflix, The Civil War, made in1990, is a critically acclaimed depiction of the actions of America’s Civil War battles.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Observational mode emerged and was part of the Cinema Movement or Cinéma Vérité. It simply observes and tries to capture life in its natural form, creating a window into the world. The filmmaker does not have a script, actors, screenplay or even a location – they are to be a neutral observer. A hand-held camera is used, and the main aim is to show real-life events and the ordinary people in these situations. In 1999, an observational TV documentary was released called Geri, which shows the roller-coaster career of Geri Horner, the world’s beloved ‘Ginger Spice’ from the Spice Girls.
The Participatory mode is categorised through the direct involvement between the filmmaker and the subjects of the film, largely through interviews and conversations. This means that the filmmaker becomes a character in the documentary itself, therefore becoming a part of the events he/she records. Also to be found on Netflix, in 1998 the ‘Rockumentary’ Kurt & Courtney was released, examining the circumstances that surrounded the death of Kurt Cobain, and the question to whether or not Courtney Love was involved in it. This documentary is one of a few documentaries that delve into Cobain’s life and death.
Reflexive documentaries, much like Participatory mode, often include the filmmaker within the film. But, unlike Participatory, they make no attempt to explore an ‘outside subject’ and instead focus on themselves and the act of making the film. They want to show the truth behind the whole idea and concept of documentaries, making the audience acknowledge that these types of films have a structure to them, not always showing real-life events but a reproduction of them. Reflexive documentaries show that not all documentaries show the whole truth, making the audience question the authenticity of such films. For example, Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s 1982 documentary Reassemblage shows the everyday life of the Serer people of Senegal.
A mode that is more autobiographic is the Performative documentary. These are subjective and often very personal. Performative documentaries are experimental through their combination of styles and aim to share a particular emotional response to the world. They usually make links between personal experiences and connections to political or historical events. In 2004, Super Size Me, by Morgan Spurlock, the audience got to see Spurlock attempting to live entirely on food from the McDonald’s menu for an entire month. We observe his sudden loss of energy and weight gain, along with all sorts of unexpected side effects in this investigation into corporates growing role in American lives and its influence in America’s obesity epidemic.
The best documentaries can illuminate a person, and through this obviously versatile art, we, as audience members, through an understanding of what’s what in the world of documentaries, can see why a filmmaker did what they did and how the mode that was used influenced the way in which the film impacted us. Recently, I watched an amazing documentary (on Netflix) called Period. End of Sentence., which rightfully won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject due to its showing of Indian women fighting the stigma around periods and the start of manufacturing sanitary pads. It opened my eyes and that is an amazing thing for the short film I decided to watch, sitting in bed last Saturday night. So, if you want to switch things up, watch a documentary, and maybe, just maybe, you will be able to see what mode was used and why.
What documentary will you watch next?
Text: Didi Robinson