Storytelling and documentaries

How to speak about documentairies?
Documentary filmmakers have three major choices:

Nichols (2010) made a subdivision in six documentary modes of production, based on differences in film form and directional intentions:
1. The Poetic Mode
 “Represents reality in terms of a series of fragments, subjective impressions, incoherent acts, loose associations. Explores patterns of temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions.”
Documentary as film art: a creative use of the reality, an artistic vision on the reality. Reality transformed into poetic material.
Some experimental, avant-garde examples:
2. The Expository Mode
 “Addresses the viewer directly, with titles or voices that propose a perspective, advance an argument, or recount history. Emphasizes the impression of objectivity and well-supported argument. Facilitates generalization and large-scale argumentation.”
Documentary as rhetoric: an opinionated view on reality, an orchestration of arguments, a persuasive intention.
Classic examples:
More recent examples:
3. The Observational Mode
 “We look in on life as it is lived. We make inferences and come to conclusions on the basis of behaviour we observe or overhear.”
Documentary as window on the world: a truthful account of the reality, an unmanipulated representation of reality, a neutral registration of facts. Capturing the reality as it is: invisible camera, fly-on-the-wall, candid camera. Also known as: ‘Direct Cinema’.
Wim Wenders in context: some essays and interviews (in English):
  1. Wenders, Wim, Emotion Pictures. Reflections on the cinema. Londen: Faber & Faber 1991.
  2. Wenders, Wim, The Logic of Images. Essays and Conversations. Londen: Faber & Faber, 1992.
  3. Wenders, Wim, The Act of Seeing. Essays and Conversations, Londen: Faber & Faber, 1992.
4. The Participatory Mode (or Interactive Mode)
 “We witness the historical world as represented by someone who actively engages with that world. The filmmaker becomes a social actor, serves as a researcher or investigative reporter.”
Documentary as tool for questioning the reality, the filmmaker makes herself/himself very visible, through interviews and statements and use of found footage. Also known as: ‘Cinema verité’.
Case-study: FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (Michael Moore) proofed to be a very controversial film.
Some websites Pro-Moore:;; And books: Michael Moore, Dude Where’s My Country? Stupid White Men.
Some websites Anti-Moore:;;;;;;; And accusatory books: Hardy & Clarke, Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man.
For a more neutral view, phrased with subtility and nuance see this article in the academic magazine Screening the Past: and the Flemish magazine RektoVerso:
5. The Reflexive Mode 
 “Draws our attention to our assumptions and expectations about documentary form itself, the filmmakers’ active involvement in shaping the scenes we see. Reflexivity points also toward our assumptions and expectations about the world around us.”
Raising questions like: which choices are made by the filmmaker? And the eternal question: what is reality? How could we capture it?
The ‘reflexive mode’ could also be about: how were famous documentaries made?
Some examples of meta-perspectives:
6. The Performative Mode.
“Performative documentary underscores the complexity of our knowledge of the world by emphasizing its subjective and affective dimensions. Performative documentaries primarily address us, emotionally and expressively.”
Some examples:
Further reading: Nichols, B., Introduction to Documentary, Indiana UP, 2010 (sec. ed.).
The full text is free available on line:

Epilogue: Storytelling in commercials
Commercials could be seen as mini documentaries, often with just a single track story: this product is good, and you should buy this product to feel good. The more interesting commercials tell a more complex story, in just a few seconds. Take for instance the episode of “the world’s deepest bin” at
We see first a demonstration how a garbage bin in a park is prepared with a sound device, so the viewer knows more than the characters. Then the effect is showed, a couple of young mothers passes, one of them is deaf, so she get an explanation in gestures. Every passer by is intrigued, young and old. An intertitle states that the bin is a success: people throw more garbage in the bin than any other bin, so the park is cleaner. This film is also an example of ‘viral marketing’, it is a commercial sponsored by Volkswagen, labeled ‘fun theory’. The influence on sales figures are uncertain, but is good storytelling in a very short documentary.
Some other examples of good practice of storytelling in commercials are: