Introduction to Documentary

There are a number of different ways that you can choose to film a documentary. Nichols believes that they can be broken down into 6 different modes of documentary. The modes are Expository, Poetic, Observational, Participatory, Reflexive, and Performative. As I read through these various methods one really intrigued and interested me as a method I would like to experiment with in the future.

The Observational method of documentary film making can better be know as the “fly on the wall”. Differing from the other methods, in this one the film maker is taken completely out of the process.

“Social actors engage with one another, ignoring the filmmakers.” (p174)

“Almost all contemporary filmmakers who rely on interviews meet and talk to their subjects first, often pre-rehearsing what will be said on-camera to ensure, at the very least, that it is terse and coherent”. (p177)

This is one of the reasons that this method of documentary film making is so interesting to me. It allows to viewer to form their own opinions about the topic of the film. There is no narrator or outside person telling the viewer about the topic or what they want them to hear. It is more subjective and can have different effects of the different viewers who watch it.

In the editing of the process for this type of documentary there is some control for the director to guide the viewer in a direction. This may affect the perception of the viewer. The hardest part when editing is that is that it’s totally unrehearsed and you are never sure what the outcome will be. Depending on the content and context, some of what is discussed may be misinterpreted by the viewer.

There are some downfalls to this method as well. If the topic is controversial the subjects of the documentary may be painted in a bad light whether they mean to or not. The film maker is to be a bystander and not intervene but sometimes it may be necessary as you would not want anyone to be compromised or in danger though this does not always happen. Sometimes the improv of this type ends up being even more successful than you may have planned.

That is part of the reason why I think this form of documentary would be exciting. It is unpredictable in its nature and the idea that the crew may have had going into it can be changed every step of the way. The fact that a project can change and take on a mind of it own, although it may be stressful, is also really exciting. It has the potential to turn into something really great, giving the viewer the power to decide how to interpret it which can make it a more powerful piece.


Nichols, B. (n.d.). Introduction to documentary. 1st ed. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, pp.174-177.

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