The term “Mode” in documentary filmmaking referred to the method in which the story or information is told in a documentary film. Think of this as a “genre” in Hollywood films. Much like the way genres overlap in narrative feature films, many documentaries often feature more than one mode.
There are 6 common modes of documentary that have been defined over the years. These are:
REFLECTIVE DOCUMENTARY STYLE
- In many reflective films the filmmaker is a part of the film itself and can often be the main character.
- There is an obvious relationship between the filmmaker and the audience
- It is ‘reflective’ in the sense that the documentary mirrors the art of documentary-making itself
EXPOSITORY DOCUMENTARY STYLE
- These types of documentary usually express a clear point of view that leaves little room for individual interpretation and the filmmaker typically presents their message as truth.
- Many have a voice-of-God style narration that puts forward a structured argument
- Many expository documentary films can be described as propaganda
OBSERVATIONAL DOCUMENTARY STYLE
- These types of documentary use a fly-on-the-wall filming approach. What is going on in the film is REALLY going on
- Observational films try to convey regular everyday life without interviewing the subjects.
- Presence of the filmmaker is kept to a minimum and the filming process is less intrusive on the subject. Think of watching the documentary through a security camera.
INTERACTIVE or PARTICIPATORY DOCUMENTARY STYLE
The filmmaker interacts with subjects, asks them questions and shares experiences
These films often use archival footage rather than reenactments to portray a sense of history
POETIC DOCUMENTARY STYLE
- These films do not use continuity editing, nor give a good sense of location or time.
- These films tend to explores associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions
- They are more fragmented and abstract. Think of them as visual poetry and not a storytelling device.
PERFORMATIVE DOCUMENTARY STYLE
- Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world.
- This style is somewhat similar to the reflexive documentary style, but often involves a mix of many styles
- Performative documentaries try to demonstrate how understanding such personal knowledge can help us understand more general processes of society
As a documentarian though, you are much more free within the documentary structure to vary from what is typically considered the “norm” in narrative story telling. Where as a romantic comedy or horror film have to follow the rules of their genre, a modern documentary can be much more flexible in the format it takes to convey its message.