Film Industry TipsScreenwriter

Bill Nichols’ 6 Modes of Documentary

Documentary is a wonderful way of showing people an aspect of reality and actuality. Often used to inform and to share knowledge with their audience, documentaries do not appear to have any boundaries therefore as humans continue to discover, create and explore it is clear that documentary filmmaking will continue to evolve. There are many different forms of documentary and the varying techniques employed can create exceedingly different experiences for the audience.  Documentaries make up a specific part of the film industry, within them there are many sub-genres and differing styles. Bill Nichols 6 Modes of Documentary explores this.

American documentary theorist, Bill Nichols distinguished between documentary styles and developed 6 modes, outlined in his book ‘Introduction to Documentary’. Nichols identified certain traits visible in documentaries that were utilised by the documentary maker either consciously or simply because that is their way of telling their truth and sharing their knowledge. Nichols explains that all documentaries make use of one or more of the 6 modes. Outline below are the modes suggested by Nichols, some more prevalent than others. Understanding the various modes of documentary can come in useful not just for analysing documentaries but for a filmmaker creating their own documentary.



Bill Nichols 6 Modes of Documentary. Poetic Mode

As Nichols stated in his book, the poetic mode “moves away from the ‘objective’ reality of a given situation or people, to grasp at an “inner truth” that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation”. In other words, instead of using linear continuity to create a structure, a poetic documentary arranges its shots by means of associations, tone and rhythm. A subjective, abstract representation of reality is shown to the audience with emphasis on the visuals. Poetic documentaries often rely on colour, tones, sounds and mood. They are usually associated with avant-garde filmmaking.


The House Is Black (1962) directed by Forough Farrokhzad

Samsara (2011)  created by Ron Fricke

Koyaanisqatsi (1982) directed by Godfrey Reggio


Samsara by Ron Fricke


Bill Nichols 6 Modes of Documentary. 
Expository Mode

This tends to be the mode most familiar to us. It is frequently used in nature and TV documentaries. Expository documentaries use the ‘voice of God’ narration where by the author provides a scripted commentary to accompany or illustrate visuals. They are sometimes referred to as essays films because their primary aim is to educate their audience and explain their subject. This mode is famously seen in documentaries narrated by David Attenborough where they will ‘assume a logical argument’, informing the audience of what they are seeing on screen. Expository documentaries will be heavily researched focusing on facts rather than opinion or emotion. That is not to say that these sorts of documentaries cannot purge emotion or shape opinions. They may talk about controversial subjects, however there aim is to inform objectively and supply evidence.


Frozen Planet (2011) narrated by David Attenborough

Nanook of the North (1922) directing by Robert Flaherty

March of the Penguins (2005) directed by Luc Jacquet

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) Davis Guggenheim


BBC’s Frozen Planet

Bill Nichols 6 Modes of Documentary. Observational Mode

The Observational mode, also referred to as cinema verité, direct cinema or fly-on-the-wall documentary is a more specific type of documentary telling. Observational documentaries were essentially born out of a movement in the 1960s and 1970s by a group of filmmakers who referred to themselves as ‘actuality filmmakers’. Due to the advance in technology during this time, sound and camera equipment became easier to use and manoeuvre . This allowed filmmakers more freedom and the ability to observe events without being intrusive to their subjects. The concept of direct cinema is that the best way to see truth is to view it without any involvement or influence. To be a ‘fly on the wall’. This often means that the footage is raw and shaky or jumpy. Nothing is staged and what you see is completely natural. There are of course arguments asking how natural someone can be when a camera is present, despite how non-intrusive it is. However this does not necessarily detract from the mode itself. 



Don’t Look Back (1967) directed by D.A. Pennebaker

Etre Et Avoir (2002) directed by Nicolas Philibert – Could be debated as not observational

Armadillo (2011) directed by Janus Metz Pedersen

Salesman (1969) directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Don’t Look Back directed by D.A Pennebaker


Bill Nichols 6 Modes of Documentary. Participatory Documentaries

Bill Nichols describes participatory documentary as “[when] the encounter between filmmaker and subject is recorded and the filmmaker actively engages with the situation they are documenting.”

The Participatory mode has become a popular form of documentary telling in the last 30 years or more with names such as Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and Louis Theroux championing this technique. Often this is also investigative filmmaking where a question is asked or a controversial topic is explored and the filmmaker is showing the audience the filmmaking process of their subject. The filmmaker can become an integral part of the film. This was most recently seen in the documentary Icarus, both a participatory and performative documentary. Participatory documentaries can be done by the filmmaker or director following their subject around and asking questions, a technique often employed by Louis Theroux. The filmmaker does not influence the subject but will attempt to subjectively engage with their subject despite their personal beliefs.

Icarus (2017) directed by Bryan Fogel

Louis Theroux: The City Addicted to Crystal Meth (2009) directed by Louis Theroux

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) directed by Nick Broomfield

Bowling for Columbine (2002) directed by Michael Moore

Icarus directed by Bryan Fogel


Bill Nichols 6 Modes of Documentary. Reflexive Documentaries

Reflexive documentaries acknowledge the way a documentary is constructed and that it is impossible to show a purely objective and truthful subject due to how many processes there are. From the use of the camera to the editing and the filmmaker themselves, there will always be subjectivity or decisions that need to be made which will change the story, whether it be intentional or not. As Bill Nichols wrote, the reflexive mode will provoke audiences to “question the authenticity of documentary in general”. Mocumentaries can sometimes fall under the reflexive mode due to their self-awareness. 


Exit Through The Gift Shop – Banksy (2010)

The Man With A Movie Camera (1929) directed by Dziga Vertov


Image from A Man With A Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov


Bill Nichols 6 Modes of Documentary. Performative Documentaries

The performative mode of documentary is the direct opposite of the observational mode.

Performative documentaries will emphasize and encourage the filmmakers involvement with the subject. Performative documentaries tend to be more emotionally driven and may have a larger political or historical motivation. Because the filmmaker tends to be passionately involved, performative documentaries will usually be subjective in one way or another. Unlike many modes of documentary, performative do not set out to reach a truth but show a perspective or ‘what is like to be there’.



Super Size Me (2004) directed by Morgan Spurlock

Catfish (2010) directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

Night and Fog (1956)

Tongues United (1990)


Tongued United directed by Marlon Riggs



There is no wrong or right when it comes to documentary modes, often modes are mixed together or have cross overs. Nichols modes simply enable a documentary to define itself and the way it presents itself. These are not rules by which to make a documentary but guidelines and observations.


Written by Katherine Selway