Identifying Styles or “Modes” of Films

The term “Mode” in documentary filmmaking referred to the method in which the story or information is told in a documentary film. Think of this as a “genre” in Hollywood films. Much like the way genres overlap in narrative feature films, many documentaries often feature more than one mode.

There are 6 common modes of documentary that have been defined over the years. These are:


  • In many reflective films the filmmaker is a part of the film itself and can often be the main character.
  • There is an obvious relationship between the filmmaker and the audience
  • It is ‘reflective’ in the sense that the documentary mirrors the art of documentary-making itself


  • These types of documentary usually express a clear point of view that leaves little room for individual interpretation and the filmmaker typically presents their message as truth.
  • Many have a voice-of-God style narration that puts forward a structured argument
  • Many expository documentary films can be described as propaganda


  • These types of documentary use a fly-on-the-wall filming approach. What is going on in the film is REALLY going on
  • Observational films try to convey regular everyday life without interviewing the subjects.
  • Presence of the filmmaker is kept to a minimum and the filming process is less intrusive on the subject. Think of watching the documentary through a security camera.


The filmmaker interacts with subjects, asks them questions and shares experiences

These films often use archival footage rather than reenactments to portray a sense of history


  • These films do not use continuity editing, nor give a good sense of location or time.
  • These films tend to explores associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions
  • They are more fragmented and abstract. Think of them as visual poetry and not a storytelling device.


  • Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world.
  • This style is somewhat similar to the reflexive documentary style, but often involves a mix of many styles
  • Performative documentaries try to demonstrate how understanding such personal knowledge can help us understand more general processes of society

As a documentarian though, you are much more free within the documentary structure to vary from what is typically considered the “norm” in narrative story telling. Where as a romantic comedy or horror film have to follow the rules of their genre, a modern documentary can be much more flexible in the format it takes to convey its message.