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Documentary Films

“The genre of documentary film is a major part of the history of cinema. Let’s take a look at the various forms, features and examples of each.”


Documentary filmmaking is cinematic style which dates back to the film’s earliest days. 
Although Wikipedia may describe its most simple meaning as “a non-fictional motion picture intended to document certain aspects of reality, mainly for educational purposes or to keep historical record,” the term has become catch-all for both certain type of filmmaking and noble cinema.
It is important for film and video professionals looking to work in documentary filmmaking to understand a bit of its history, as well as the different types of documentary.

Poetic Documentaries

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.

This approach gives filmmakers a valuable lesson in playing with all the elements of documentary filmmaking by seeking innovative configurations, difficult juxtapositions and different styles of film storytelling.

Expository Documentaries

Expository documentaries are probably closest to what most people consider to be “documentaries.” In sharp contrast to poetic, exhibitory documentaries aim to inform and/or persuade — often through the omnipresent narration of the “Voice of God,” which is devoid of ambiguous or poetic rhetoric. This approach includes the familiar designs of Ken Burns, and TV (A&E, History Channel, etc.).

The straightforward expository style should be followed by those who are searching for the most direct form of documentary storytelling. It is one of the best ways of conveying a message or information.

Observational Documentaries

Observational films are just what they sound like — they actually seek to see the world around them. Originating in the 1960s alongside advances in portable film equipment, the style of Cinéma Vérité is much less pointed than the approach to expository.

Observational documentaries seek to give voice to both sides of an issue by giving viewers access to some of the most critical (and mostly private) moments of the subject first hand. Through the years, the documentary-style has been very popular and you will still find filmmakers who use it in many styles of film to create a sense of truth and fact.

Participatory Documentaries

The director uses participatory documentaries inside the plot. This presence may be as slight as a director using their voice to taunt their subjects with questions or suggestions from behind the camera — or as powerful as a director who explicitly affects the narrative’s acts.

Within the documentary community, there is some controversy on how much filmmaker involvement it requires to give a documentary the “participatory” mark. However, some claim that all films are participatory due to their very nature. Regardless, one of the most common types for those just starting out maybe this.

Reflexive Documentaries

Reflexive documentaries are similar to participatory docs in that the director is always included in the video. Unlike participatory, however, the majority of producers of reflexive documentaries make no effort to examine an external subject. Instead, they focus exclusively on themselves and the act of making the film.

Performative Documentaries

Performative documentaries are a blend of different techniques used to highlight the perspective of the subject and to communicate an emotional reaction with the viewer. We also link personal accounts and juxtapose them with broader political or historical issues. This was often called the “Michael Moore-style,” since he sometimes uses his own personal stories as a way of constructing social truths

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