The 6 Types of Documentary Films
The documentary genre of film is a woven part of cinematic history. We explore the different types and share characteristics and examples of each.
Top image via BFI
What is a documentary? Webster’s dictionary defines documentary as “consisting of documents: written down.” After a better Google search, Wikipedia defines a documentary as “a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspects of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record.”
It also opens into the history of documentaries while referencing Bill Nichols‘ classic text Introduction to Documentary, where he outlines the six modes (or “sub-genres” or “types”) of documentaries. While there’s a lot of variation within, these are the six main categories of the genre in which all documentary films can be cast.
First seen in the 1920s, Poetic Documentaries are very much what they sound like. They focus on experiences, images and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. Abstract and loose with narrative, the poetic sub-genre can be very unconventional and experimental in form and content. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than a truth.
Expository Documentaries are probably closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” A sharp contrast to poetic, expository documentaries aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration over footage devoid of ambiguous or poetic rhetoric. This mode includes the familiar Ken Burns and television (A&E, History Channel, etc…) styles.
Observational Documentaries are exactly what they sound like — they aim to simply observe the world around them. Originating in the 1960s with the advances in portable film equipment, the cinéma vérité style is much less pointed than the Expository. The style attempts to give voice to all sides of an issue by giving audiences first hand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments.
Participatory Documentaries, while having elements of Observational and Expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. This could be as minor as the filmmaker’s voice being heard behind the camera, prodding subjects with questions or cues — all the way to the filmmaker directly influencing the major actions of the narrative.
Reflexive Documentaries are similar to Participatory in that they often include the filmmaker within the film — however, unlike Participatory, they make no attempts to explore an outside subject. Rather, they focus solely on themselves and the act of them making the film.
Performative Documentaries are an experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response to the world. They often connect personal accounts or experience juxtaposed with larger political or historical issues. This has sometimes been called the “Michael Moore” style, as he often uses his own personal stories as a way to construct social truths (without having to argue the validity of their experiences).
From there, within each sub-genre springs an endless list of variations and styles unique to each and every film. It’s up to the documentary filmmakers to craft their narrative (or non-narrative) for their desired audience.
What type of documentary do you prefer? Are there any documentary types you think we left out? Let us know below!