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  • Writer's pictureHenry M Green

The Documentary Modes

Modes are used in documentaries as a way of establishing the style, theme and narrative. The mode is often decided upon depending on what the subject matter is. Most documentaries use a combination of modes throughout the documentary to aid in entertaining , educating, or informing the audience. Most documentaries use the Expository mode as a main basis to go on because it combines all the overall techniques that are used to be deemed techniques that make a documentary successful. For example, Exposition, Voice Overs, Archival footage, etc.


Expository - The expository mode is usually where the film-maker or presenter speaks directly to the audience. It is one of the most commonly used techniques in informative television programs, such as presenters like Stacey Dooley, Louis Theroux, or David Attenborough. Shots in the expository mode are usually used to back up what the presenter is saying and follows their point of view rather than someone being interviewed. The expository mode is meant to be used to show the journey the presenter is taking on rather than someone else in the documentary. This mode is usually used to address the audience directly, using the presenter to gain there attention and is often an incredibly focused and can often be controversial or serious topics with a lot of facts and statistics.


Observational - The observational mode is often used in documentaries as a combination of other modes. If a documentary uses the observational mode it is just witnessing and filming an event or someone’s everyday life rather than having a presenter, or interviews. It relies on real world events and life to establish its content, with little to no engagement with the film-makers themselves.

Good examples of documentaries that use the observational mode are, The September Issue, or dior and I.


Participatory - The participatory mode is often more uncommonly used within documentaries, as it is usually a biased opinion towards the subject. The participatory mode uses the presenter as influence of the footage and facts that are portrayed in the documentary. It also uses a lot of staged re-enactment scenes to convey there views or arguments over the specific topic. A good example of a documentary that uses the participatory mode is Bowling For Columbine.


Performative - The performative mode uses a presenter, however the subject matter is often deeply personal to them. This mode can often be confused with the participatory mode however it takes the audience on the journey that the presenter is feeling. However, it can also expose the viewer to facts and statistics along the way. A good example of a documentary that uses this mode is, Forest of Bliss.


Reflexive - The reflexive mode builds up the information and footage that is presented in the documentary to end with a resolution. This results in a final outcome that is decided for the viewer rather than letting them make their own decision. It can often become biased because it shows only one point of view. However, this is what makes the documentary more successful. A good example of a documentary that uses the reflexive mode is, Exit Through The Gift Shop.


Poetic - The poetic mode is often a biased way of presenting a documentary. This is because it leaves out at key information that is used to gain a full understanding of the subject. It also dictates the tone and mood of the documentary.

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