The 6 Types of Documentary Films
The documentary film genre is an important part of cinematic history. Let’s look at the different types, characteristics, and examples of each.
Documentary filmmaking is a cinematic style dating back to the earliest days of film. While its most basic definition can be defined by Wikipedia as “a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspects of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record,” the style has become a catch-all for both a certain filmmaking style, as well as a noble cinematic pursuit of truth.
For film and video professionals looking to work in documentary filmmaking, it’s important to understand a bit of its history, as well as the different documentary types.
We suggest you start with Introduction to Documentary, the classic text from Bill Nichols that outlines the six modes (or “sub-genres”) of documentaries. While there’s a lot of variation within, these are the six main categories of the genre into which all documentary films can be placed. Let’s take a look.
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.
For filmmakers, this approach offers a valuable lesson in experimenting with all the elements of documentary filmmaking by finding creative compositions, challenging juxtapositions, and different forms of cinematic storytelling.
Some examples of poetic documentaries include:
- Coal Face (1935) — Dir. Alberto Cavalcanti
- Fata Morgana (1971) — Dir. Werner Herzog
- Tongues Untied (1989) — Dir. Marlon Riggs
- Welt Spiegel Kino (2005) — Dir. Gustav Deutsch
Expository documentaries are probably closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” In sharp contrast to poetic, expository documentaries aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration that’s devoid of ambiguous or poetic rhetoric. This mode includes the familiar Ken Burns and television (A&E, History Channel, etc.) styles.
Those looking for the most direct form of documentary storytelling should explore the straightforward expository style. It’s is one of the best ways to share a message or information.
Some examples of expository documentaries include:
- The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) — Dir. Pare Lorentz
- City of Gold (1957) — Dir. Colin Low and Wolf Koenig
- Waiting for Fidel (1974) — Dir. Michael Rubbo
- March of the Penguins (2005) — Dir. Luc Jacquet
Observational documentaries are exactly what they sound like — they aim to simply observe the world around them. Originating in the 1960s alongside advances in portable film equipment, the Cinéma Vérité-style is much less pointed than the expository approach.
Observational documentaries attempt to give voice to all sides of an issue by offering audiences firsthand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments. The observational style has been very influential over the years, and you can often find filmmakers using it in other film genres to create a sense of realness and truth.
Some examples of observational documentaries include:
- Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) — Dir. Robert Drew
- Salesman (1969) — Dir. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
- Hoop Dreams (1994) — Dir. Steve James
- The Monastery: Mr Vig and the Nun (2006) — Dir. Pernille Rose Grønkjær
Participatory documentaries include the filmmaker within the narrative. This inclusion can be as minor as a filmmaker using their voice to prod their subjects with questions or cues from behind the camera — or as major as a filmmaker directly influencing the actions of the narrative.
There’s some debate in the documentary community as to just how much filmmaker participation it takes to earn a documentary the label of “participatory.” In fact, some argue that, due to their very nature, all documentaries are participatory. Regardless, this style might be one of the most natural for those just starting off.
Some examples of participatory documentaries include:
- Chronicle of a Summer (1961) — Dir. Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch
- Sherman’s March (1985) — Dir. Ross McElwee
- Paris Is Burning (1990) — Dir. Jennie Livingston
- The Danube Exodus (1998) — Dir. Péter Forgács
Reflexive documentaries are similar to participatory docs in that they often include the filmmaker within the film. However, unlike participatory, most creators of reflexive documentaries make no attempt to explore an outside subject. Rather, they focus solely on themselves and the act of making the film.
The best example of this style is the 1929 silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov. It’s a classic showcase of the creative — and quite challenging — images a true reflexive documentary can create.
Other examples of reflexive documentaries include:
- …No Lies (1973) Dir. Mitchell Block
- Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) Dir. T. Minh-ha Trinh
- Biggie & Tupac (2002) Dir. Nick Broomfield
Performative documentaries are an experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response with the world. They often connect and juxtapose personal accounts 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).
Some examples of Performative Documentaries include:
- Drifters (1929) — Dir. John Grierson
- Night and Fog (1956) — Dir. Alain Resnais
- The Thin Blue Line (1988) — Dir. Errol Morris
- Bowling for Columbine (2002) — Dir. Michael Moore
Again, the performative, reflexive, and participatory styles can sometimes seem confusingly interchangeable. Nonetheless, the takeaways offered by these different styles can help inform your own documentary-style decisions as you choose the best methods to tell your unique stories.
If you’re looking for more documentary filmmaking advice and insight, explore the additional resources below.
- A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking
- 5 Tips on How to Create a Great Short Documentary Film
- Support Your Documentary Vision with a Thoughtfully Considered Soundtrack
- Documentary Tips: Capturing the Who, What, When, Where, and Why
- Don’t Blink: A New Age of Micro-Documentary Filmmaking is Dawning
Cover image via Amkino Corporation.