A Guide to the 6 Types of Documentaries

Documentaries are a form of non-fiction film that attempts to document reality and capture the world as it is. They can vary drastically in the subject matter that is being portrayed as well as in the style that this subject matter is depicted. The different documentary styles were first laid out by Bill Nichols, a film critic, in 1991. Nichols characterized the types of documentaries as follows:

  • Expository
  • Participatory
  • Observational
  • Performative
  • Reflexive
  • Poetic

Read on to learn more about these documentary genres and the distinct characteristics of each.

Expository

When most people think of documentaries, they’re thinking of an expository documentary film. This style of documentary filmmaking attempts to inform the viewer about a particular subject. This happens through a combination of different types of footage along with a “Voice of God” style of narration. Through the imagery and the narration, the filmmaker is able to tell a clear story that the viewer is easily able to follow. A great example of an expository doc is Planet Earth by David Attenborough.

Participatory

Participatory documentaries are characterized by the filmmaker participating in the documentary. This on-screen interaction between filmmakers and subjects is the biggest differentiator between participatory documentaries and the other documentary modes. While the filmmaker does play a part in the doc, the subjects being interviewed are really providing the bulk of the content for the film. Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore is a prime example of a participatory documentary.

Observational

When the filmmaker takes more of a fly-on-the-wall approach to documenting their subjects it’s known as observational. An observational documentary does not contain any interviews or narration. It is simply depicting events as they happened without any additional commentary. This leaves the audience to really form their own opinion about the subject without being swayed by the filmmaker. One defining characteristic of observational docs is the inclusion of long takes and very few cuts. Hoop Dreams by Steve James is a fantastic example of observational documentary filmmaking in action.

Performative

Similarly to the participatory style of documentary, the performative style also involves the filmmaker. What is unique about these different types of documentaries is that in a performative doc, the filmmaker is much more of the focus. This type of doc details the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject (as opposed to the filmmaker simply interviewing the subject). Because of the filmmaker’s role in the story, a performative documentary tends to be more personal and subjective. The most notable example of a performative doc is Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock.

Reflexive

These types of documentaries are really about the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. Reflexive documentaries often depict the process of making the documentary and include behind-the-scenes footage of the doc being made. Essentially, the filmmaker is focusing on the act of making the film with the “main subject” as more of a secondary character. One of the first-ever reflexive documentaries was Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov.

Poetic

The last of the documentary modes is poetic. As the name suggests, poetic documentaries are more about conveying a feeling rather than depicting the truth. Typically, this type of documentary contains little to no narration and relies heavily on footage to generate a particular mood or feeling. A prime example of this style of documentary filmmaking is Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl.

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