Introduction to Documentary

What is Documentary?

Documentary is a non-fictional motion picture. It describes some aspect of reality for the purposes of instruction, education and maintaining a historical evidence.

Modes of Documentary Film

Documentary mode is a theoretical scheme which was developed by American documentary theorist Bill Nichols. Documentary mode distinguishes particular traits and conventions of various documentary film styles.

Bill Nichols describes four different documentary mode in his reading, including Observational, Participatory, Reflexive, and Performative Modes.

This article will discuss the hallmarks of Observational mode in documentary film.

Observational Mode

Observational documentary attempt to simply and observe lived experience with a minimum of intervention.

Bill Nichols has stated, “what we saw was what there was”. This mode ensures the authenticity of what happens. A pure observational documentary has no voice-over commentary, no supplementary music and sound effects, no inter-titles, no historical reenactments, no behaviour repeated for the camera, and no interviews in post-production.  Observational documentary tends to simply observe, allowing viewers to reach whatever conclusions they may figure.

The filmmakers are neutral observer. They are normally out of shot so they cannot influence what is happening. Nothing will be rehearsed or staged. This means filmmaker has to rush around, resulting in poor shaky looking footage. Bill also has said, “We look in on life as it is lived. Often the characters are caught up in pressing demands or a crisis of their own. This requires their attention and draws it away from the presence of filmmakers.”Observational documentary arises from available lightweight portable synchronous recording equipment and dissatisfaction with moralising quality of expository documentary. The filmmakers have to be patient to catch the right moments,  they will be in a “waiting position” or else missing a really tiny “piece” of footage will make the documentary unfinished.

One of the most controversial conflicts of our time, the Vietnam War inspired untold numbers of films, songs and books, and most of historical records are observational documentaries. The truth of the most disastrous battlefield in human history are revealed. Every footage taken by courageous reporters and filmmakers from all over the world will remain its previous eternally.

Bill mentioned in his work about whether the cameraman should have refused or tried to dissuade the Vietnamese monk, who set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War. This is an issue that the filmmakers consider when producing documentaries. Should they ignore the obstacles and continue with what happens in reality, or should they intervene to save a person, or simply a creature of the wildlife? The filmmakers have to pull out their boldness to witness and work in the battlefield, where they can sacrifice their lives to catch these valuable survival moments

However, observational documentary aimed for immediacy, intimacy, and revelation of individual human character in ordinary life situations. Every historical record should be honoured to certify its originality.

Making an observational documentary brings a lot of benefits. It allows filmmaker to record unobtrusively what happens when not explicitly addressing the camera. Although it stresses the non-intervention of filmmaker, this mode raises the ability of filmmaker to include representative and revealing moments. Filmmaker cedes control of events more than any other mode, it helps with building patience and filmmaking skills development while they have to properly record sound and images.



Nichols, Bill, 2010. Introduction to Documentary . 2nd ed. America: Indiana University Press.