Bill Nichols, Representing Reality  Ch. 2

Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary


What are Modes?  

          *basic ways of organizing texts (in this case, documentary films) in relation to certain recurrent features or conventions 

 What is Representation?

*the process of using a medium (video, film, audio, painting, writing) to construct a version of the real world.

* a likeness, or depiction of the world.



*Filmmaker is representative of the social, political, economic interests of others.(independence) 

*Must represent members of a culture with sensitivity to their own ideas of identity (ethnocentrism)

*Must respect the subjects of documentary as independent social actors (People are not merely convenient raw material for your filmmaking needs!)
******* This issue involves idea of informed consent. How much do the social actors know about your project, how much input and control do they have over their own representation onscreen?


Documentary film has six dominant modes:

poetic, expository, observational, interactive, reflexive and performative



Poetic Documentary

(Ivens, Bunuel & Dali. Fischinger, Menken)

1. Does not use continuity editing, sacrifices sense of the very specific location and place that continuity creates

2. Explores associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions 

3. Social Actors rarely become fully-fledged characters

4. Opens up possibility of alternative forms of knowledge to straightforward transfer of knowledge



Expository Documentary

Grierson, Flaherty, Ivens. 

1.Arose from dissatisfaction with distracting entertainment qualities of the fiction film 
2.Voice of god commentary, poetic perspectives sought to disclose information about historical world & see that world afresh, even if ideas seem romantic or didactic 
3.Addresses viewer directly, w/titles or voices

4.Advances argument about historical world 

5. It takes shape around commentary directed toward the viewer; images illustrate  the verbal commentary builds sense of dramatic involvement around need for solution to a problem. 
6. Nonsynchronous sound prevails (historical circumstances)

7. Editing generally establishes/maintains rhetorical continuity more than spatial/temporal  




Observational Documentary 

 Paradigm: depiction of everyday life

** Often described as either direct cinema (Eric Barnouw) or cinema verite (Mamber). Barnouw says that verite is interventionist/interactive mode. 

Nichols  (source for these notes) sidesteps this issue by creating two different modes that cover this topic: the observational and interactive modes of representation

Examples of filmmakers: Leacock, Pennebaker, Wiseman, Maysles/Zwerin 

1.Arose from available lightweight portable synchronous recordin equipment & dissatisfaction with moralizing quality of expository documentary. 
2.It allowed filmmaker to record unobtrusively what folks did when not explicitly addressing the camera. 
3.It stresses the nonintervention of filmmaker 
4.Filmmaker cedes control of events more than any other mode. 
5.Editing doesnít construct time frame or rhythm, but enhances impression of lived or real time. 
6.This mode limited filmmaker to present moment and required disciplined detachment from events themselves. 
7.It uses indirect address, speech overheard, synchronous sound, relatively long takes. 
8 Its sense of observation comes from 




Interactive Documentary 

Examples: Rouch, de Antonio, Connie Field 


It arose from the availability of same mobile equipment & desire to make filmmakers perspective more evident. 

1. This mode  wants to engage w/individuals more directly while not reverting to classic exposition interview styles

2. It allows filmmaker to account for past events via witnesses and experts whom viewer can also see 

3.  Archival footage becomes appended to these commentaries to avoid hazards of reenactment & monolithic claims of voice of god commentary 


Reflexive Documentary 

(Vertov, Godmilow, Raul Ruiz) 

1.    Arose form desire to make the conventions of representation themselves more apparent & to challenge the impression of reality which other three modes normally conveyed unproblematically. 

2.     It is the most self-aware mode - its reflexivity makes audience aware of how other modes claim to cosntruct "truth" through documentary practice.

3.     It uses many of devices of other modes but sets them on edge so viewer attends to device as well as the effect. 

4. It tears away veil of filmmakers illusory absence 

5. Becomes technologically viable in 50s  with emergence of portable synchronous sound equipment makes interaction more feasible 



Performative Documentary 

(Resnais, Julien, Riggs)

1. Like Reflexive Documentary, it raises questions about knowledge
2. Endorses definition of knowledge that emphasizes personal experience (in tradition of poetry, literature)

3. Tries to demonstrate how understanding such personal knowledge can help us understand more general processes of society

4. May "mix" elements of various documentary modes to achieve link between subjective knowledge/understanding of the world, and more general understandings, i.e. historical ones.