Did You Know?
The first successful documentary that was made was Nanook of the North, which was filmed from 1920-1921 by Robert Joseph Flaherty, in Northern Quebec. This movie gave an insight into the life of Nanook (an Eskimo).
There are different genres of films, out of which documentaries are the most compelling, eye-opening, thought-provoking, controversial, and educational ones. Why? It is because they address the world, and touch on various topics that other films, like horror, romance, science fiction, etc., do not. These films are raw and based on reality, or at least some aspects of reality.
Defining a documentary is a very difficult task. Therefore, understanding its modes or types, brings us a little closer to understanding what a documentary film is. Bill Nichols, an American film critic, has been a great contributor to explaining what a documentary is, and has identified 6 modes or types of documentary through his extensive study and research of filmmaking, and they are explained in this Buzzle write-up.
Types of Documentary Films
Poetic documentaries made an appearance around the 1920s. They tend to be an indirect way of making people grasp the inner or hidden meaning behind the different aspects of life. Movies in this mode are expressed through dramatization of reality, using audio visual associations, descriptive passages, rhythmic qualities, juxtapositions, etc. This mode of documentary film does not make use of continuity editing or individual characters, but is rather lyrical, fragmentary, and impressionistic.
The Bridge (1928), Man of Aran (1934), Song of Ceylon (1934), Olympia (1938), Listen to Britain (1942), and Koyaanisqatsi (1983).
The expository mode is what most people think of as a documentary. It makes use of a narrator, and emphasizes on an argumentative logic of what is right and wrong. This mode of documentary directly addresses issues, and throws light on what exactly is happening in the world. Most news programs and nature-related documentaries have adopted an expository approach, and make use of this style of documentary. Expository documentaries make use of the 'voice of God', which is nothing but a commentator, narrator, or a voice over, making a strong statement which has the power to influence the minds of the audience. These documentaries speak directly to the audience, showing them reality. They revolve around historic happenings and important events.
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), Trance and Dance in Bali (1952), Spanish Earth (1937), Les Maîtres Fous (1955), The Civil War (1990), Frank Capra's wartime series Why We Fight, and America's Most Wanted.
The observational mode, like the name suggests, just observes and tries to capture life in its natural form. It has been described as a window to the world, and the filmmaker is just a neutral observer. This style of documentary emerged between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, and was a part of the direct Cinema Movement or the Cinéma Vérité. In this style, the filmmaker does not have a fixed script, screenplay, actors, or even location. A hand-held camera is used, and if a voice over is given, it is mostly the spontaneous observations of the filmmaker. The main aim of this mode of documentary is to portray ordinary real-life situations, and people's actions and take on such events.
High School (1968), Gilles Groulx and Michel Brault's Les Raquetteurs (1958), Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin's Gimme Shelter (1970), D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back (1967), Hospital (1970), Soho Stories (1996), and Geri (1999).
The participatory mode is characterized by a direct involvement between the filmmaker and the subjects in the film, mostly in the form of interviews, conversations, and sharing of experiences. The filmmaker becomes a character in the documentary and also often becomes a part of the events that he records in his films. Talk shows, interviews, witness statements to a particular event, etc., are some of the examples of such documentaries. Participatory documentaries are also called interactive documentaries.
Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Rouch and Morin's Chronicle of a Summer (1960), Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1985), Solovky Power (1988), Shoah (1985), The Sorrow and the Pity (1970), and Kurt & Courtney (1998).
Reflexive documentaries are those that show the truth behind the whole concept of documentaries. They make people acknowledge the fact that documentaries have a structure to them, and are not always showing real-life events, but a reproduction of them. This mode of documentary is more like an exposé on documentaries, making the audience aware of several factors, like editing, sound recording, cameras, lights, etc. They show the audience the film crew, and some points in the film when they are getting shot. This mode of documentary draws light on the fact that not all documentaries show the truth, but just a part of it, and make the audience question the authenticity of documentary films.
Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Buñuel's Land Without Bread (1932), Trinh T. Minh-ha's Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), Jim McBride & L.M. Kit Carson's David Holzman's Diary (1968), David & Judith MacDougall's The Wedding Camels (1980), The Ax Fight (1975), The War Game (1966), and Reassemblage (1982).
Performative documentaries are autobiographic in nature, and they are perceived in different ways by different people. They are subjective in nature and strongly personal. They may make use of enactments to put forth a point of view. These documentaries usually portray personal connections to historical or political events.
Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955), Peter Forgacs' Free Fall (1988), The Danube Exodus (1999), Robert Gardner's Forest of Bliss (1985), Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me (2004), Unﬁnished Diary (1983), History and Memory (1991), The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), and Tongues Untied (1989).
Filmmaking is a very subjective field. As it is a very versatile form of art, there is always a mixture seen in it. Even though there are rules in filmmaking, filmmakers like to mix and merge different types and styles of genres so that their work is different from others. This is the same with documentaries too, as there are hundreds of documentaries that are a mix of the different modes explained above.