Television Broadcasting Tutorial 36

The Modes of Documentary

John Grierson, the Godfather of British documentary, coined the term documentary in the 1920s, and defined it as the “creative treatment of actuality”. This definition is still central to a modern discussion of film theory, and the most respected of all documentary theorists is American Bill Nichols, whose important books include Introduction to Documentary.

Nichols defines what he calls the six modes of documentary; all non-fiction films display one or more of these traits in their construction, as there is often overlapping between the different styles and conventions.

Intro to Doc cover

Here is a promotional interview with Nichols about the book.

The Six Modes of Documentary:


  • Visual quality is central to its form
  • There is a clear and intentional rhythm to the images
  • Experimental, spatial juxtaposition


  • Voiceover commentary, often by unseen narrator
  • Constructs argument or point of view that is film’s narrative
  • ‘Talking head’ soundbite interviews


  • Draws on theories of Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite
  • Filmmaker observes to allow the viewer to reach own conclusions
  • Captures footage ‘fly-on-the-wall’, as it unfolds in front of camera without interruption.


  • Subjects participate with filmmaker; i.e., interviewed on camera
  • But can also mean more direct involvement, from conversations on camera to provocations of each other
  • Can also be first-person storytelling by subject of film


  • About the relationship between filmmaker and audience
  • Draws attention to conventions of documentary-making and the representation of reality on screen – dispels the myth and breaks down the filmmaking process for the viewer
  • Filmmaker can be present on camera for the viewer


  • Emphasises the subjective view of the filmmaker over the objective
  • An expression of the filmmaker’s own involvement
  • Strives to heighten the audience reaction through emotion and effect

Here is a short video with examples to illustrate the different modes.





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