Analysing documentary films 

Professors at the Graduate Institute often use films to address the topic of their course, whether in history, political science, or anthropology. Most of these are documentaries that students will have to analyse with a critical eye. Based on the writings of Bill Nichols, the American founder of the study of documentary film, this post aims to give you clues for a better understanding of documentaries.

First, what is a documentary?

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a documentary film is “a motion picture that shapes and interprets factual material for purposes of education or entertainment”. Ok, but many fiction films, like biopics for example, also meet this definition. A documentary is generally considered as a reflection of reality with the intention of instructing or testifying. In public opinion, it shows real life, in the real world, compared to fiction that explores reality with accepted artifices such as actors, costumes or movie sets.

In documentary films, we expect what we are told to be true, a statement that should be treated with caution. There is actually no truth in cinema, only perspective and interpretation driven by personal interest and emotional perception. According to John Grierson, a pioneering Scottish filmmaker, a documentary remains a “creative treatment of actuality”.

The six modes of representation

In his notable book Introduction to documentary, Nichols identifies certain traits visible in documentaries that allow him to define six modes of representation: poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative.   

1) Poetic mode

A poetic documentary is an aesthetic interpretation, which goal is to create an emotion through images and editing. There is no linear continuity, no narrative content. It is a kind of abstraction, relying on tones, sound and mood, just like an illustrated poem.

e.g. Geyrhalter, Nikolaus. Our daily bread (Unser täglich Brot). 2005
Call number: 4.1 UNS

2) Expository mode

This classic mode is a spoken narrative form illustrated by footage that aims to inform or educate. Frequently used in TV reportages or wildlife documentaries, it is supposed to be objective, but can sometimes contain a persuasive aspect.

e.g. Guggenheim, Davis. An inconvenient truth: a global warning. 2006
Call number: 4.1 INC

3) Observational mode

This mode tends to simply observe what happens in front of the camera without overt intervention. No narration nor voice-over, no interviews, no music, it is a kind of “cinema vérité” which aims to let reality speak through long shots.

e.g. Wiseman, Frederick. At Berkeley. 2013
Call number: 2.3 ATB

4) Participatory mode

It is a mode in which there is an interaction between the filmmaker and the subjects. The director is part of the film, through his/her voice or body, directly intervening by talking to the protagonists or asking them questions. This style is often used in Jean Rouch’s ethnographic films.

e.g. Rouch, Jean. Sur les traces du renard pâle (Recherches en pays Dogon, 1931-1983). 1983
Call number: 5.0 JEA 2

5) Reflexive mode

Reflexive documentaries consider the quality of the documentary film itself, questioning the subjectivity and constructed nature of both film and reality. The intended goal is to make the viewers think about what they are actually watching. Due to their self-awareness, mockumentaries, which depict fictional events but present them as a documentary, can fall under this mode.

e.g. Banksy. Exit through the gift shop. 2010
Call number: 2.3 EXI

6) Performative mode

Participatory and performative modes can, in some instances, feel very close. Performative documentaries also involve the filmmaker personally engaging as part of the story. They use a perspective, constructing subjective truths. The topic is often linked to political or historical issues. This mode is sometimes called the “Michael Moore” style.

e.g. Moore, Michael. Fahrenheit 11/9. 2018
Call number: 2.2 TRU 3

All these categories are not exclusive and a documentary may absolutely mix different modes.

Remember, Nichols’ theory is not a rule in itself, but a means of gaining a better understanding of a documentary filmmaker’s intentions and approach. 


Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.

Selway Katherine. “Bill Nichols’ 6 Modes of Documentary” The lift-off global network, 29th August 2017.

Susan Kerrigan & Phillip McIntyre. “The ‘creative treatment of actuality’: Rationalizing and reconceptualizing the notion of creativity for documentary practice” Journal of Media Practice, 11:2, 111-130, DOI: 10.1386/jmpr.11.2.111_1 (accessed January 10, 2022).

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Illustration: Moore, Michael, 2018, Fahrenheit 11/9, United States, Midwestern Films.

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