Tip #760: 6 Categories of Documentary Films

… for Random Weirdness

Tip #760: 6 Categories of Documentary Films

Larry Jordan – LarryJordan.com

Which category does your doc best fit?

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This article, written by Jourdan Aldredge, first appeared in PremiumBeat.com. This is an excerpt.

Documentary filmmaking is a cinematic style dating back to the earliest days of film. For film and video professionals looking to work in documentary filmmaking, it’s important to understand a bit of its history, as well as the different documentary types.

While there’s a lot of variation within, these are the six main categories of the genre into which all documentary films can be placed.

  • Poetic Documentaries. First seen in the 1920s, poetic documentaries are very much what they sound like. They focus on experiences, images, and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. Abstract and loose with narrative, the poetic sub-genre can be very unconventional and experimental in form and content. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than a truth.
  • Expository Documentaries. These are probably closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” Those looking for the most direct form of documentary storytelling should explore the straightforward expository style. It’s is one of the best ways to share a message or information.
  • Observational Documentaries. These attempt to give voice to all sides of an issue by offering audiences firsthand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments and allow the audience to observe the world around them.
  • Participatory Documentaries. These include the filmmaker within the narrative. There’s some debate in the documentary community as to just how much filmmaker participation it takes to earn a documentary the label of “participatory.” In fact, some argue that, due to their very nature, all documentaries are participatory. Regardless, this style might be one of the most natural for those just starting off.
  • Reflexive Documentaries. These are similar to participatory docs in that they often include the filmmaker within the film. However, unlike participatory, most creators of reflexive documentaries make no attempt to explore an outside subject. Rather, they focus solely on themselves and the act of making the film.
  • Performative Documentaries. these are an experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response with the world. They often connect and juxtapose personal accounts with larger political or historical issues. This has sometimes been called the “Michael Moore-style,” as he often uses his own personal stories as a way to construct social truths (without having to argue the validity of their experiences).


The article link above has examples and reference videos for all these categories. It is worth reading in full.

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