6 Modes of Documentary Watched

In the first half of this week I watched Supersize Me (2004), Jesus Camp (2006), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Sicko (2007), Rosie the riveter, Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Reassemblage: From the Firelight to the Screen (1983).  Oh and a snippet of Koyaanisqatsi (1982). I wasn’t just glutton for punishment, though the series of films could easily leave you glass half full. My purpose was to review films within each category of Nichol’s 6 modes of documentary and recognize the components that make each example fit in the mode and reflect on what might be a good fit for short films about health research.

So first starting with the expository mode for which Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth and Sicko are examples.  This is seemingly the most popular and ‘traditional mode’ of documentary in which the filmmaker speaks directly to the audience.  In each of these films you were left in absolutely no doubt as to the view of the filmmaker.

In Supersize Me, you hear Morgan Spurlock’s voice not even 2 minutes into the film and talking directly to the camera by 4 minutes.  Both occur even before the opening credits.  Shortly after you are observing him in an interaction with a doctor but even within these interactions he continues, at times, to address the camera directly.  Throughout the film, you are in no doubt it is Morgan’s film.  You see him interview on the street on camera.  When he is interviewing people where he is off camera he turns down the sync audio with the interview to talk over the top to introduce who that person is.  Key phrases and words within documents shown on screen are circled in red ‘pen’ to highlight what the viewer should be focussed on, and throughout the film chapter titles on screen tell the viewer what topic they should be focussed on in the next segment.  As the viewer there is no room for interpretation, you are told what to think in a number of ways.

An Inconvenient Truth takes the didactic nature of the expository form to a new level with a lot of the film showing Al Gore’s lecture tour.  You are shown facts and figures and told what to think through PowerPoint Presentation.  A PowerPoint presentation!!!  Admittedly he can be engaging and witty and the graphics are more advanced than your average, run of the mill, presentation but even so…  The pace of the film is changed with periods of voice over (delivered by Gore) with B-roll.  During these sections, he is more introspective reflecting on his upbringing, his family life, his career and his values and you see a bit more of the man behind the lecture.  However, both modes of presentation are very much Gore, and again, like Supersize Me, you are in little doubt as the audience what you are supposed to think and feel.  I wondered, though, if you were a skeptic of global warming whether the film would have any impact on you, or whether you would be turned off by the schoolmaster delivery?

This style of film is unlikely to work in the healthcare research arena.  We want people who are not academics to take up the knowledge and be called to action.  As one of my interviewees in my recent research study noted “the academy is very comfortable with the identity as expert and therefore experts have the authority to make decisions and what we try and say is that academics do have expertise but it is not in exclusion of the expertise of lived experience, or of policy or of social service”.  In an expository style film where one person is given the authoritative voice it is likely to turn off others to the message who may feel that their voice is just as valid.  Where the expository style has been used successfully is in whiteboard animations such as those created by Dr. Mike Evans.

So, having already come to that conclusion, why did I watch Sicko?  Well, for one, I was interested in the topic, and second, Nichol’s identifies both Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Sicko as combining of two modes, expository and participatory (due to the use of interviews) but Sicko is predominantly expository mode whereas Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room predominantly participatory.

At the point of watching Sicko and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, I had already watched Jesus Camp which provides insight into the summer camps for evangelical Christian’s and fits very much in the observational mode.  Watching Jesus Camp, it was clear to me which side of the argument I sat as I believe the climate change is real, that homophobia is wrong and that people should have the choice whether or not they have an abortion.  Some of this content, as you can imagine, made me quite mad.  However, stepping back from my feelings on the topic manner and viewing how the film was presented, I think the filmmakers did a pretty good job in presenting both sides of the story.  The pro-evangelical Christian side was predominantly presented in a fly-on-the-wall scenario with limited interviews.  The counter viewpoint is offered by Mike Papantonio discussing his issues with the Christian right on his radio talk show.  I sided with Papantonio’s views but I think if you were an evangelical Christian you would like recognize what was being shown on screen and identify with it.   In fact, other than some criticism that the camp was presented as overly politicized, Becky Fischer the director of the camp, was happy with the portrayal (Hesse, 2016).  This is line with one of the key characteristics of the observational Mode that Nichols (p.211) states is “characterized by a willingness to let audience decide for itself about what it sees and hears”.  This has possibly now swung too far the other way in terms of what I want to achieve with my films, I want the viewer to be guided by the participant’s thoughts but the watch and see mode would often be a long process that could not be afforded based on budget limitations.

So, to the participatory mode.  Sicko, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter are all examples of this mode to one extent or another with Sicko falling in the expository mode but employing elements of the participatory mode, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter very much in the participatory mode, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room somewhere in between.  The common factor across all of them that makes them participatory in nature is the use of interviews.  In Michael Moore’s case, while interviews are used throughout the film to provide evidence for his views and to provide personal insights, it is his voice through voice-over and onscreen activity that guides the viewer.  In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, there is still a voice-over but it is seemingly used more to link the different aspects of the story together rather than tell it.  The real meat comes from the onscreen interviews.  In The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, there is no voice-over commentary.  We are told the story exclusively by interviews with participants in which the voice of interviewer is not heard, intermingled with historical footage.  Despite the lack of hearing the filmmaker’s voice in the film it is still present by the choices made in the questions asked, the interview segments shown in the film and the footage selected for inclusion.

This mode of film likely seems the way forwards for the type of films that I want to make.  It allows the voice of the participants (differed stakeholders to be heard) but through question choice and editing, I can still shape the film to tell the message that needs to be told.

However, I at least wanted to explore the other modes of documentary making for my own learning on the subject.

I am interested in the performative mode as to whether there can be other ways to portray the information to the audience which might be more captivating.  To address this, I watched Waltz with Bashir which is a documentary delivered through animation.  The choices of colours used for the animation and the style of the drawing fit well with the serious topic matter of the 1982 Lebanon war and a genocide that occurred. The details picked out such as the piercing eyes of Carmi Can’an add to the intensity.  Whilst entirely animation other than the last scene of TV footage which shows the aftermath of a massacre, the film manages to be engaging and depict the horrific stories of war proving that talking head or actual footage are not necessarily required for the documentary form.

In Reassemblage: From the Firelight to the Screen, director T. Minh-ha Trinh questions how the presence of documentary impacts on the subject, and how the documentarian’s experiences shape how they interpret what is seen.  Whilst I have no interest in making a reflexive documentary, it was interesting to hear her viewpoint on these things with thought provoking comments like “reality is delicate”, discussions of how we need to organize everything we see to provide an explanation and how this is shaped by the ethnographer’s personal values.  The influence of the filmmaker on the subject is poetically stated as “watching her through the lens, I look at her becoming me”.  In my recent research study a couple of interviewees commented on how the process of making the film changes the researcher, the filmmaker and the participants as they gain new insight through the process. Growth is good but as a filmmaker working in research ethics needs to be considered as to the impact that could be had on people.

Finally, I know that the poetic mode is definitely not for me.  I gave Koyaanisqatsi a cursory watch to confirm this.  The highly rhythmical sounds and images were captivating and a story is told with no commentary but this is not for the realm of health research!

So at the end of this marathon watching what have I learnt?

  • It is easy to feel a bit negative after a week of watching largely negative or disturbing films. Maybe time for some Sesame Street or Bill Cunnignham New York to restore my faith in humanity!
  • As interviews will be a cornerstone of the films I will produce, I believe that they will sit in the participatory mode.
  • It is important that there isn’t a didactic voice and therefore I will need to steer clear of the expository mode.
  • Elements of observation may help show not tell, and
  • I should be consider interpretation through my lens based on my views of the world and whether that represents those of the participants.

My next task, after some more background reading, is to watch the short films coming from academic or based on health or health research and see whether this is true for those.  Check back for my findings…




An Inconvenient Truth. (2006). [film] USA: Davis Guggenheim.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. (2005). [film] USA: Alex Gibney.
Hesse, J. (2016). The kids of Jesus Camp, 10 years later: ‘Was it child abuse? Yes and no’. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/06/jesus-camp-christian-documentary-kids-10-years-later [Accessed 6 Apr. 2017].
Jesus Camp. (2006). [film] USA: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady.
Koyaanisqatsi. (1982). [film] USA: Godfrey Reggio.
Reassemblage: From the Firelight to the Screen. (1983). [film] USA: T. Minh-ha Trinh.
Sicko. (2007). [film] USA: Michael Moore.
Supersize Me. (2004). [film] USA: Morgan Spurlock.
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. (1980). [film] USA: Connie Field.
Waltz With Bashir. (2008). [film] Israel: Ari Folman.






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