Media Production 101: Conventions and Modes of Documentaries

Unit 27: Factual programing production technique (TV)

What is Documentary? 

A documentary is a form of media that wishes to present the facts regarding a person,people, place and/or event.

The general documentaries put forward a rhetorical argument to persuade the audience to favor the point of view. This is not true for all documentaries especially Direct cinema which tends to remain objective and has no direct involment.

What follows is an overview of the different modes of documentaries and the conventions (The unwritten rules, what the audience expects when they watch this type of program.“The accepted and expected ways of doing something”.) that comprise the audiences perception of that mode.

The Reflexive mode of documentary acknowledges the process of making the documentary by discussing it and the problems faced in making it, the audience are made aware of the editing, sound recording and whatever else goes into the making of a documentary.

Bill Nichols says that “With the reflexive mode there is an awareness of the process- it conveys that it is not necessarily the “truth” but a reconstruction of “a” truth”. For example Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929) in this film the camera and cameraman become part of the film.

An example of a Reflexive documentary filmmaker is Nick Broomfield and he is known for utilising a minimal crew (sometimes just himself and a camera man) which gives his work a more personal feeling. Many famous film makers have been inspired by his technique.

One other example of a reflexive documentary is NightMooreFilms’ “The Making of”, which depicts a lot of the equipment and people talking about the process of the film making, the way the documentary is cleverly edited to disrupt the audience’s suspension of dis-belief. One example would be a scene where it shows two people talking about something and then the screen zooms out and the audience realizes they have been watching a Final Cut program.

The Poetic Mode of documentary first appeared in the 1920’s as a reaction to the early fictional films. It foregoes the traditional elements of documentaries. Its not made from an objective point of view as its not presenting an argument its presenting a mood through a montage of images and music. It has a subjective tone as the viewer becomes part of the world rather than an outside force observing everything as is the case with most other documentaries.

There is not much character development in these type of films as its more about the emotions the character is feeling. In contrast  the 2003 documentary “Tarnation” by Johnathan Caouette is all about a man worrying for his Ill mother and we see him go through these different emotions with shots of his mother being happy. It makes you connect with atmosphere that these emotions are trying to create.

I don’t feel that Poetic would be taken as seriously as the others because its not informative enough as its more about impressionism than making a rhetorical argument. In essence its not a conventional documentary and its hard to see it as a documentary at all.

In Cinema Verite  the producers lead the audience along with a presenter who has a professional yet subjective outlook on the subject he/she is covering. The presenter will ask open questions in a polite and unthreatening manner, Famous documentarian Louie Theroux is good example of cinema verite although this may not be the case for all presenters. To encourage a person to open up and share information with them, the presenter will also try to to lull a person into a false sense of security in order obtain information which they would not normally give out.

Also in Cinema Verite the presenter will also question a person and sometimes challenge their statements with his/her own beliefs, an example would be “Louis and the Nazis” where TV journalist film maker Louis Theroux interviews known racists and Nazi’s putting himself at risk as he is Jewish.

In it is common to compare Cinema Verite to it’s opposite Direct Cinema, Both seek total realism but they have different ways of reaching it. Cinema Verite takes an active role in what’s going on and influence the events so as to get the truth. Direct Cinema takes a completely  objective stance as it does not get involved at and lets the events play out naturally.

Direct cinema is a mode of documentary that revolves around a film maker and his crew remaining objective (not getting involved) to the the events they are recording. The Director and his crew exercise a lot of restraint as they allow the events to unfold as they would without them interfering. They are not striving for biased argument or a particular social/political agenda they simply strive to achieve accuracy regardless of the outcome.

A lot of nature documentaries are filmed like this as they strive to show nature without mans interference. In recent years the Documentary film “March of the Penguins” was done in a direct cinema style with Morgan Freeman as the Narrator.

Its very much like the next mode of documentary “Observational documentary” except the main difference is that Direct Cinema allows for voiceovers and narrations but Obervational does not which kind of gets confusing if you ask me cos they are very similar. 

 Obervational Documentaries in their purest form follow the action but remain aloft with no interference of any kind from the documentarians ( The aim of an observational documentary is to observe the world as it happens.), they dont add any voiceovers or have a presenter for the audience to connect with and also dont have any Non-diegetic sound (e.g voiceover, music thats added in during editing and so on). As mentioned above in Direct Cinema the ultimate goal is total realism except Observational takes it a step furthur by having no interviews to help explain a particular subject which leaves it totally up to the audience to deside the significance of what they are watching.

This type of documentary is very popular for reality TV especially those shows that follow peoples daily lives like “Peter Andre: The Next Chapter” and the ‘The Only Way is Essex”.

Participatory Documentary Participate means ‘to take part’, it involves taking an active role in the action. In this type of documentary the presenter will play an active and objective role, unlike Cinema Verite the presenter hear will get into debate and share experiences with the people he is interviewing to back up his side of the argument. The presenter is heard both on-screen and as a voiceover, alot of the footage is filmed on location and it also uses archive footage to provide exposition. An example of participatory documentary would be Bowling for Columbine.

Bowling for Columbine is documentary centered around gun crime in America and what the causes of it are. In terms of accuracy it shows both sides of the argument and he interviews actual people(primary research) like the teenagers who went to Columbine high school and Charlton Heston head of the NRA(National Rifle Association).

Michael Moore has an agenda that he is trying to push onto the viewers that the gun nuts are in the wrong and as a result this documentary is not balanced and contains a strong sense of bias. Most of the people that  Michael Moore interviewed  partial to guns and often expressed their amendment right to own firearms as a means of self defense.

As its a documentary we expect formal and informal interviews, archive footage,interesting contributors, voiceovers with truthful information, authority, live location footage and finally a closing statement. Bowling for Columbine has live locations like the Bank that was handing out guns to all new investors

The Expository Mode is a Type of documentary that by definition is “A nonfiction film that emphasizes verbal commentary and argumentative logic.” ( It focuses on the big picture of an argument with no poetic elements just a rhetorical point of view. This type of documentary focuses on speaking to the spectator directly and presents with a perspective of a situation, it will use voiceover or titles to advance an argument and/or recount the history of events regarding the situation (usually from a bias perspective). The type of narration used in expository documentaries is known a voice-of-God narration as its speaks directly to spectator as if they some kind of authoritive power over the situation.

This type of documentary will employ images to coincide with the narration (or titles) to illustrate and illuminate what is being said so the spectator is given insight into a situation rather than just lisening to exposition (or reading words) which could bore them and they would lose interest. Often these images will support the basic claims of the narration (titles) and be edited in a way that will best serve the continuity of the argument or perspective, this kind of editing is called evidentiary editing.

Expository documentaries are mainly focussed on generalization and the large-scale argument regarding its subject (hence why I said the big picture of argument above). One of the best examples of expository documentary is Al gore’s “An Inconveinient Truth” which is about the environment and the pollution we are creating now will have long term effects on the planet. It doesnt really get much more large scale than it does in this documentary trust me. It seems to me that this is the kind of documentary that politicians would use to back up their side of arguments to win support.
The definition of the next documentary is “acknowledges the emotional and subjective aspects of documentary, and presents ideas as part of a context, having different meanings for different people, often autobiographical in nature”  (

Performative Documentary is where the documentarian attempts to express his/her’s attitude towards and emotional engagement with a subjective to an audience. Performative documentaries strive to have the audience understand the subject more than simply know about it by having people talk about their personnel experiences with it and create emotional reponses with them.

Similar to poetic documentary performative mode emphasises creating tone and mood rather than presenting arguments and evidence. The emotional complexities that come from experience can far more compelling to audience as with Al Gore’s “An Inconveinient Truth” which has elements of a performative in it like when it talks about Al Gore’s life growing up and how things have changed. Based on this I would assume that the performative style would be well suited to autobiographical documentaries which all one emotions and experiences through life.


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