6 Types of Documentary Films
A documentary film seeks to engage with an audience and aims to inform, enlighten, educate, and encourage change. It uses interviews, archival footage and captivating visuals to tell the story.
Documentary styles and techniques vary, but every documentary will fall into one of six categories. These are the types of documentary: Poetic, Observational, Participatory, Reflexive and Expository.
Poetic documentaries rely on the manipulation of images and sounds to build mood, tone, and affect for audiences. They use temporal and spatial editing techniques such as montage to convey meaning and reveal themes. They also stress emotional awareness over objective truths and facts.
Emerging from the City Symphony film movement of the 1920s, poetic documentaries break free of conventional narrative structures. They often incorporate music and images to create visual acoustic rhythms and patterns.
They can also incorporate behind-the-scenes footage of how a documentary was made like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. This style focuses on the process of making a doc rather than a subject and emphasizes the filmmaker as the primary character.
Observational documentary films let the action unfold before the camera without interfering. These fly-on-the-wall documentaries rely on candid storytelling and can reveal aspects of life that would otherwise remain hidden.
Developed due to advances in camera technology, this type of documentary allows filmmakers to capture real-life events without the need for a large crew. This approach can sometimes result in a wobbly image or muffled sound, but it’s often held up as one of the most authentic forms of documentary representation.
Films such as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line fall under this category. These documentaries also explore personal accounts of subjects, as well as larger political or historical issues.
The participatory mode is characterized by on-screen interaction between the filmmaker and interviewees. The filmmaker is visible to the audience and can be heard asking questions which are then edited into the film. Filmmaker Michael Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine and Sicko are good examples of this type of documentary.
The reflexive mode acknowledges the fact that it is impossible to show a documentary without some kind of manipulation. The filmmaker’s role and the process of making a documentary are highlighted, which encourages audiences to question documentary validity. This includes documentaries that include footage of the filmmakers themselves as in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.
The reflexive mode “calls attention to the conventions of documentary filmmaking and sometimes to its methodologies such as fieldwork or interview” (Nichole 151). For example, Errol Morris uses reenactment footage in his documentary The Thin Blue Line to visualize events that happened to a man who was wrongfully accused of murder.
This type of documentary may also feature filmmakers within the film to de-mystify the process and consider its implications. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera was one of the first reflexive documentaries that did this, showing the editing process alongside his actor-less presentation of urban Soviet life. These documentaries often include behind-the-scenes footage as well.
This type of documentary aims to educate the audience about an important subject matter. It often uses archival footage, B-roll and re-enactments to support the film’s spoken argument.
Reflexive documentaries acknowledge that the documentary process itself will always introduce some form of subjectivity or truth distortion. They often include filmmakers within the film such as in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Mitchell Block’s…No Lies.
These documentaries involve the filmmaker on screen interviewing subjects or participating in the action. Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore is a great example of this style. Filmmakers in this mode aim to explore subjective truths about larger topics such as politics or groups of people.
A performative documentary relies on the filmmaker’s involvement with their subject. They will often use their own personal experiences with a topic and link it to larger political or historical realities. For example, Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me documents his experience eating McDonald’s food for 30 days while linking it to obesity and health issues.
Poetic documentaries rely on visuals and artistic style rather than linear continuity. They can be experimental in nature and focus on curating a specific artistic style for the film. Watch Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) for an example of this type of documentary. The reflexive mode explores the quality of documentary films themselves, challenging assumptions and expectations. Documentaries like Mitchell Block’s…No Lies fall into this category.