Documentary films is a genre of filmmaking that dates back to 1922 when the American director Robert Flaherty presented his film, Nanook of the North which was a record of the lives of the Eskimos living in Nanook. This movie set the cinematic stage for documentaries and is considered the first “original” film of this genre.

The usage of the term documentary, though, began only in the year 1996 when Scottish born filmmaker, John Grierson used it to describe a non-fiction film. According, to Britannica, documentary film is defined as a “motion picture that shapes and interprets factual material for purposes of education and entertainment.” Documentary films have played a large role in bringing realism to the field of filmmaking.

Though Documentary Films in general are meant to show reality and facts on screen, there is not just one type of documentary. In 1991, American film critic and theoretician Bill Nichols proposed that there six types of documentary films, each with its own individual characteristic of its own. The literature on documentary films is vast and you can find a lot to read but our personal suggestions would be, Documentary Directing and Storytelling: How to direct Documentaries and more by James R martin is perfect for beginners, A New History of Documentary Film by Betsy A. McLane gives an in-depth historical account of documentaries, Documentary Films in India: An Anthropological History by Giulia Battaglia is another book to understand the evolution of documentaries in India. There are others besides these and you can always comment down below to know more. For now, let’s get into the six types of documentaries and what sets them apart from each other.


  1. Poetic Documentaries

As the name suggests, this sub- genre of documentaries is just that, poetic. These aren’t your realistic portrayals of facts. Poetic documentaries follow a more experimental style of narration that is based upon music and images. Instead of adhering to the general narrative structure of a documentary

to inform or entertain the audience, these documentaries are aimed to evoke a certain emotion through state-of-the-art visuals which are accompanied by music and voice overs that completely support the mood or feel it wants to emote.

The best examples of Poetic Documentaries would be:

  1. Sans Soleil by Chris Marker (Sunless, 1983)
  2. The House is Black by Forough Farrokhzad (1963)
  3. Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey by Terrence Malick (2015)

2. Expository Documentaries

These documentaries are mostly known for providing an objective view of the characters, locations or objects of a film. There is usually a narrator in the film who talks directly to the audience who explains concepts as well as educates the audience.

The verbal commentary is also used to establish the mood or the relationship between characters in the film. The spoken narrative is usually accompanied by striking visuals that leave the audience over awed and they want to learn more about them. The narrators and writers play a very important role in an expository documentary. The most important skill required for a narrator in these documentaries is their ability to engage the audience by making monotonous explanations sound much more interesting.

The best examples of Expository documentaries would be:

  1. Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty (1986)
  2. BBC The Blue Planet with David Attenborough (2001)
  3. BBC Planet Earth narrated by David Attenborough (2016)

3. Observational Documentaries

These are considered to be the most realistic form of documentaries and are shot as is. Since, they are observational in nature, there is little to no narration. This is also known as the cinema verité style of documentary.  The characters are caught on camera going about their lives without any kind of interference from the filmmaker.

The job of the filmmaker while shooting an observational documentary is to follow the subject or object in order to cover their life. Unlike other forms of documentaries, no part of the documentary is reshot as filmmakers feel it takes the realism out of the film. They don’t have emotions of a Poetic Documentary or the explanations of an Expository Documentary. With Observational Documentaries you get what you see and reality in its most authentic form is what they portray.

The best examples of Observational Documentaries would be:

  1. Primary by Robert Drew (1960)
  2. Salesman by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerlin (1969)
  3. Young Plato by Declan McGrath (2021)

4. Participatory Documentaries

Participatory Documentaries refer to those documentaries in which the filmmaker participates along with the subjects that are being filmed. The participation might be minimal but it either is extremely provides a crucial turn to the events in the film or simply helps to bind the narrative together. Filmmakers participate in a documentary in various ways, they can either ask questions from behind the camera, they can provide a voice over or

narrative in front of the camera or they can simply be talking with the characters of the documentary in a scene in order to interview them, simply listening or voicing their concerns. Their involvement is what forms the story in a participative documentary. Participative documentaries provide a different perspective to the storyline as it is also based upon the vision of the filmmaker and how they want to engage in the process in order to move story forward.

The best examples of Participatory Documentaries are:

  1. Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingstone (1990)
  2. Sherman’s March by Ross McElwee (1985)
  3. Roger and Me by Michael Moore (1989)

5. Performative Documentaries

There documentaries are focused upon a filmmaker’s involvement in a project using their own personal experience or personal relationship with the person or subject of a documentary in order to explore larger truths be it political, cultural, societal or historical among others. The cinematographer not just captures the process of the documentary production but

also captures the personal relationship between the filmmaker and the subject which provides a more intimate outlook to the entire narrative. The difference between Participatory and Performative Documentaries is the relationship between the filmmaker and subject. In Performative documentaries the filmmaker often has a direct relationship with the subject whereas in participatory documentaries no such relationship is present or established.

The best examples of Performative Documentaries are:

  1. Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs (1989)
  2. Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore (2002)
  3. Super Size Me by Meghan Spurlock (2004)

6. Reflexive Documentaries

This sub-genre of documentaries is entirely focused upon the filmmakers and the audience. It’s not about a truth that has to be portrayed, the filmmakers themselves are the subjects in these documentaries. With these documentaries, filmmakers don’t worry about a script or story but are entirely focused on the art of filmmaking. If there’s a notion, an idea or a perspective that they want the audience to re-think or re-analyse, it is done through Reflexive Documentaries. These documentaries aren’t meant to evoke emotions or explain facts to people, they are simply meant to make people think.

Reflexive documentaries showcase the entire documentary making process from pre to post production. It can also be considered a behind- the- scenes type of documentary as it usually involves the thoughts and ideas of the entire team that works together to create a perfect documentary film.

The best examples of Reflexive Documentaries:

  1. Man with a Movie camera by Dziga Vertov (1929)
  2. Weird Weekend by Louis Theroux (1998)
  3. Stories we Tell by Sarah Polley (2012)

The last three forms of documentaries are often confused with one another as all three involve the filmmaker even though each genre is vastly different from the other. Many films don’t follow just one documentary style in general, sometimes the different modes overlap or mix with one another to create a stirring film that appeals to the masses. A documentary film depends upon the vision of filmmakers and how they prefer to experiment with it.  Should there be a voice over or should there be an anchor? Do you want to stay silent and remain behind the camera or get involved with the subject by conversing with or talking about it in front of or behind the camera? Do you need to evoke an emotion in the audience, educate or explain facts for them or simply allow them to ponder upon an idea?

When a filmmaker decides to create a documentary, they ask such questions and more to decide which documentary style might suit their story best. One can make an explanatory documentary but sometimes one needs to evoke an emotion in it to emphasize upon a certain factor. At the end of the day, everything boils down to the choices of the filmmakers themselves.

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