A Breakdown of Documentary Types and Styles

As we move into the exciting realm of documentary film, we discover a myriad of styles and methods used to tell compelling stories. The documentary genre, characterized by its non-fictional nature, is a treasure trove of information, instruction, and historical record. Each type of documentary offers a unique perspective of reality, providing a rich tapestry of human experiences, events, and truths. This article offers a comprehensive breakdown of the various types of documentaries, exploring their distinct characteristics, purposes, and the artistic choices that shape their storytelling and impact. Whether you are an avid documentary enthusiast or an aspiring filmmaker, this guide will help you understand and appreciate the multifaceted world of documentary filmmaking.

Poetic Documentaries: A Symphony of Images and Emotions

Poetic documentaries, which emerged in the 1920s, are akin to visual poetry. They prioritize experiences and emotions over narrative consistency or factual exposition. Through a combination of abstract and unconventional film techniques, these documentaries attempt to evoke feelings rather than convey specific truths or messages.

The poetic documentary genre encourages filmmakers to experiment with various elements of filmmaking, such as innovative compositions, challenging juxtapositions, and diverse forms of cinematic storytelling. Modern examples, such as Terrence Malick's 'Voyage of Time', offer a kaleidoscope of abstract and poetic imagery, emphasizing emotion over narration.

Expository Documentaries: The Informative Lens

Expository documentaries are what most people traditionally associate with the documentary genre. Unlike their poetic counterparts, expository documentaries are intent on informing or persuading the audience. This documentary type often employs the "Voice of God" narration, a third-person, omniscient voiceover that guides viewers through the film without ambiguity or poetic abstraction. Here is a perfect example - Room 237.

Expository documentaries, such as the familiar styles of Ken Burns or A&E, offer a simple way of narrating, making them an efficient method of disseminating information or a particular point of view. Modern equivalents of exhibition documentaries can be seen in video essays, which use eye-catching visuals and direct narrative to construct an argument on a specific topic.

Observational Documentaries: The Unbiased Observer

Observational documentaries, born in the 1960s alongside advances in portable film equipment, strive to present an unbiased view of the world. They offer viewers a firsthand perspective of the subject's most intimate and important moments. Observational documentaries are synonymous with "cinéma vérité", a filmmaking style that emphasizes naturalistic techniques, favoring a candid, unobtrusive approach.

These documentaries aim to portray all sides of an issue, thereby creating a sense of realism and truth. They often adopt a "fly on the wall" perspective, enabling viewers to draw their own conclusions and form narratives independently. A classic example of an observational documentary is Barbara Kopple's 'Harlan County, USA'.

Participatory Documentaries: The Filmmaker as a Part

Participatory documentaries include the filmmaker within the narrative's framework. The filmmaker's involvement can range from subtle interactions with the subjects to directly influencing the narrative's course. This approach is often adopted by filmmakers who want to immerse themselves in the story they're documenting, such as in the 'Free Solo' documentary.

There is a continuous debate about the level of involvement of filmmakers required to classify a documentary as participatory. However, this style is often considered the most natural and attractive to junior filmmakers.

Reflexive Documentaries: The Filmmaker's Mirror

Reflexive documentaries, much like participatory documentaries, often include the filmmaker within the film. Yet, they differ in their focus. Reflexive documentaries primarily concentrate on the filmmaker and the filmmaking process itself, rather than exploring an external subject.

This documentary type offers a unique perspective on the creative process, often challenging conventional norms of filmmaking. The 1929 silent documentary 'Man with a Movie Camera' by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov is a classic example of this style.

Performative Documentaries: The Personal and Political

Performative documentaries blend personal accounts with larger political or historical issues. They focus on the emotional experience of the subject, often in relation to broader societal concerns. Michael Moore, a renowned documentary filmmaker known for his personal and political storytelling approach, is a notable figure in this genre.

This documentary type combines various styles to evoke emotional responses, often making the personal political. A modern example of this style is the film 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?', which documents the life and legacy of Mr. Rogers.

As we conclude our journey through the diverse landscape of documentary genres, it's clear that each type offers unique storytelling techniques and perspectives. The beauty of documentary filmmaking lies in its flexibility and adaptability, enabling filmmakers to choose the methods that best suit their narrative goals. Whether you're an aspiring filmmaker, a seasoned professional, or a documentary enthusiast, understanding these types and styles will provide valuable insights into the intricate world of documentary filmmaking.