PHO704: Documentary Modes

Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols (Nichols 2017) is about the history and narrative techniques of documentary filmmaking and the most important issues now facing the field.

My interest lies in what Nichols has to say about story and narrative in documentaries. Story and narrative are two different things and are not interchangeable. Put simply, a narrative is how a story is told or demonstrated. The story is all the events, characters and other elements that make up a narrative. (If there is a plot, then the plot will suggest some kind of relationship between the story’s various elements.)

Nichols’ approach is highly schematic. In particular, he identifies seven different documentary modes (Nichols 2017: 22-3):

  • Poetic mode
  • Expository mode
  • Observational mode
  • Participatory mode
  • Reflexive mode
  • Performative mode
  • Interactive mode

Much of the book is concerned with elucidating the differences between these modes. Each mode tends to have typical uses, for example, together with particular goals and ethical issues (Nichols 2017: 156-7). Each mode treats time and space differently, is distinct epistemologically, usually employs a different ‘voice’ and treatment of sound and has a rough equivalent in other media (Nichols 2017: 108-9). The modes may also make use of well-established models such as the investigative report, the travel piece, the poetic, the autobiographical, the history or the testimonial (Nichols 2017: 106-7).

Nichols pays particular attention to ‘voice’ in documentary filmmaking, by which he does not mean the literal spoken word. He explains:

‘The voice of documentary is each film’s specific way of expressing its way of seeing the world. The same topic and perspective on it can be expressed in different ways. … Voice, then, is a question of how the reasoning, analysis, feelings, and values in a documentary become conveyed to us. … Documentary voice is clearly akin to film style’ (Nichols 2017: 50).

This is important, because as Nichols points out, ‘Each voice is unique. This uniqueness stems from the concrete utilization of conventions and models, from techniques and modes, and from the specific pattern of encounter that takes place between filmmaker and subject’ (Nichols 2017: 53).

This sophisticated analysis matters because it is so close to how story and narrative may arise from a portfolio of still images. The techniques are similar – framing, composition, editing, jump cuts, mixed modes of expression and so forth. If a portfolio of images is accompanied by a soundtrack then its treatment would also be similar to the use of sound in various modes of documentary, as would captions. Captions are in fact an important element of ‘voice’ and require careful treatment. They may enhance an image, but equally they may subvert it, change the mode of expression, or spoil a poetic moment.

Where does my research project stand in relation to this? I think it is firmly in Nichols’ poetic mode. Qualities Nichols associates with the poetic mode include ‘Formal abstractions … see the familiar in a fresh way … Expressive … Discontinuous … images that build mood or pattern without full regard for their original proximity … may distort or exaggerate for aesthetic effect … Expressive desire to give new forms and fresh perspectives’ (Nichols 2017: 108).

These qualities do identify my work over this module. However, things are rarely clear cut. Just as documentary filmmakers mix modes in their work, so my research project occasionally strays into other territory. Some images, particularly of deprivation, are observational in their intent. Images of graffiti or signage with an apparent message could be considered expository. And, overall, a strongly personal work could be considered performative because such a work ‘seeks to move its audience into subjective alignment or affinity with its specific perspective on the world’ (Nichols 2017: 152). Whether or not I decide to change this, at least I am now more aware of what I am doing.

I am glad to have found such a detailed analysis. It leaves me with a better idea of where my research project fits in as well as with goals and techniques to concentrate on in the poetic mode. Nothing beats a clear intent. In addition, the work has given me a better understanding of the role of text and captions. These are not afterthought. I am building a ‘voice’ from many components and any one of them can change it.


NICHOLS, Bill. 2017. Introduction to Documentary. 3rd edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.