“As is true of other arts, filmmakers who are familiar with previous work and who are aware of the basic characteristics of different models and modes typically exhibit a fluidity and grace in their ability to use a wide range of conventions and techniques to create a style and voice uniquely their own” Nichols (2017) p. 110
Image from Helen Keller in Her Story
(1954, director: Nancy Hamilton)
Image from Super Size Me (2004, director: Morgan Spurlock).
What are “six modes of documentary”, and how can these support our analysis of documentaries?
Can drawing from these modes enable us to come up with fresh ideas and distinctive approaches to documentary making?
There many ways of categorising approaches to documentary. Nichols (2017) outlines six modes: Poetic, Expository, Observational, Participatory, Reflexive and Performative. While Nichols’ six modes may refer to entire documentaries, some theorists argue that the modes can refer to individual scenes within documentaries (Natusch & Hawkins, 2014). The modes are not mutually exclusive — overlapping and hybridisations are common.
The goal of this studio was to deepen our understanding of existing documentaries and to spark possibilities for our own work. We spent the first six weeks focusing on one mode per week: analysing and discussing documentaries, engaging with a relevant reading, and making one “sketch” or experiment. We hoped that would shake us out of our routine patterns or “go to” styles when it comes to creating non-fiction video. After the first six weeks, we had a collection of content that was wildly diverse in form.
Drawing from our regular analyses and reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of our experiments, we developed a major documentary project. The project featured one dominant mode or fused together multiple modes.