DOCUMENTARY 101: Definition and its Types

What is a Documentary?
A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture that is entirely factual. The film re-enacts, comments on or just generally retells history. Documentary films are usually different from feature films in terms of what they present, how they present it and the cost of producing it. Documentaries by definition must be non-fiction and present facts before viewers, unlike feature films which are created just for entertainment.

The term ‘documentary’ was not coined until 1926 and they were originally called ‘actuality’ films. Initially, the length of documentary films was only a minute or less in length; at present they are of 30 minutes – 2 hours duration.

Modes of Documentary Films

• Poetic mode
Poetic documentaries are considered a ‘subjective interpretation of the subject(s).’ This mode dictates that a certain tone or mood is depicted throughout the documentary and thus, creates an impression or a mood rather than argue a point.

• Expository mode
The expository mode documentary diverges sharply from the poetic mode in terms of visual practice and story-telling. It is where the viewers are directly addressed via authoritative narration or subtitles proposing a strong argument and point of view.

• Observational mode
The observational mode uses a more ‘unbiased’ method, where the object is simply observed, allowing viewers to reach whatever conclusion they wish to deduce. Pure observational documentaries are simple i.e. without narration, music, scene arrangement, etc.

• Participatory mode
In the participatory mode, we get to see an active engagement of the filmmaker with the situation they are documenting. Not only this, but we also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by her presence.

• Reflexive mode
Reflexive documentaries provoke audiences to “question the authenticity of the documentary in general.” They use specific footage and information that leads viewers to a specific outcome and therefore essentially make the decision of their opinions for them.

• Performative mode
The performative mode often confused with participatory, is more personal and subjective because we learn about the opinions of one person. This mode emphasizes on the filmmaker’s own involvement with the subject.

What type of documentary do you prefer watching? Are there any documentary types you think we left out? Let us know!

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