Documentary Genre’s

‘All types of documentary have existed at different times’ – Stella Bruzzi

What is the point of worrying about authenticity’ – Stella Bruzzi

Many documentaries are multi-genre and it is hard to find documentaries that fit into just one category.

Observational – Observational documentaries are filmed by filmmakers who are following either an individual or group of people to observe the events that take place around them. Many observational documentaries are longitudinal and it is often either too dangerous to set up or their is no time to do so. The result of such events leads to typically handheld footage. But the main reason in which they are filmed in that manner is because the filmmaker wants direct engagement with the subject(s) who are acting as if they are not on camera and are going about normal everyday life. Observational documentaries are usually unaltered and have very few edits made to them. So most of the footage is left in it’s original form. Meaning a lot of the footage that we will see in the final edit will be long takes where the camera just keeps rolling. Observational documentaries very rarely include music, interviews and reenactments. At times the filmmaker will talk to the camera. Those in front of the camera do not really act as if their was a camera filming, as the filmmaker will simply be following them around and capturing handheld footage. If questions are asked towards those on screen, then they will casually answer it on the spot and in a non interview type setup.

Expository – Expository documentaries are called expository documentaries because they serve to expose people, groups or events. Expository documentaries study something with a specific viewpoint. They will be factual and will include several interviews. They will also feature narrative leads, often referred to as the ‘voice of god’. Because their is a voice of god, aside from the addition of many facts or statistics, it can also place you the viewer on one end of the spectrum. This is because the voice of god may use rhetoric speech. The voice of god speaks to the viewers directly. Often the voice of god will describe and explain to the viewers what is actually happening in some of the images on screen. Expository documentaries often speak of and address subjects that the subjects might not be aware of. These subjects are often places or events. However they won’t necessarily be completely factual, as they are sometimes partly subjective.

Poetic – Poetic documentaries are very subjective and based upon an individuals feelings about something specific. Their is a strong bond between imagery, objects and spoken word. Poetic documentaries try to reveal an inner truth about whatever it is that the documentary is focusing on. Lyrics and dialogue have a strong presence and importance in poetic documentaries. The lyrics come together with the imagery and sound to create something which triggers emotion in the audience’s mind.

Participatory – Participatory documentaries study specific people and or events whilst featuring the filmmaker on screen as they engage with both the films’s subjects and it’s audience. They are a very important part of the documentary. Those on screen are not very fazed by the fact that they are being filmed and for the most part continue to act as normal. The filmmakers at times tend to try and get more out of their subjects in participatory films, because they are on screen so they have the power to alter and influence their subjects. This means that they can be intrusive as they can engage with someone as if it were not a film, like anyone normally would. The footage is often handheld so that the cameramen/women can follow the subjects and filmmaker (who is on screen) around. The filmmaker who is on screen will usually also play the role of the interviewer and ask his/her subjects multiple questions. The film will be made from the viewpoint of the filmmaker and won’t necessarily consider both sides. The filmmaker is often the central narrative character in the documentary as they will lead the interviews and such with other subjects. 

Performative – Performative documentaries are very subjective and are emotionally ‘strong’. They attempt to connect the audience with the story. The story however will probably hinge upon the opinions of the filmmaker. Performative documentaries are based upon the involvement of the filmmaker and the main subject(s). This is because the filmmaker will want to get certain emotional responses and feelings from the audience towards the subject. This is one of the reasons why they are subjective. Similar to the reflexive mode of documentary, performative documentaries investigate the creative process behind documentaries and explore how they are made. Performative documentaries explore and question the idea of ‘truth’ in documentaries.

Reflexive documentaries

Reflexive documentaries are documentaries where the viewers get a better understanding of the filmmaking process. The filmmaker them self has a presence on screen. This means that they will often speak to the camera to give the audience a better understanding of the situation. Editing has next to no place in reflexive documentaries, because everything is filmed in the moment and so we see what the filmmakers would have seen. Reflexive documentaries are made to alter the audience’s perception on the filmmaking process of documentaries and the subjects that they study. Reflexive documentaries are similar to performative documentaries as they convey ‘ a truth’ but not ‘the truth’


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