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BILL NICHOLS THEORIES
Bill Nichols, an American film and media theorist, splits the different styles of documentaries into six
paths to separate specific codes and conventions into particular areas.
The six types are:
Observational – commonly known as the ‘fly on the wall’ effect. With no on screen narrator, the focus is entirely
on the subjects of the documentary.
Poetic – focusing on the audiences emotional feelings at the time of watching the documentary.
Expository - this is when the narrator talks throughout with a clear and sound argument.
Participatory - this is where the documentary maker is directly involved in the main events and actions of the
Reflexive – the audience, so some extent, tell that the documentary is staged.
Performative – heavy emphasis of the topic/subject to allow it to be well acknowledged.
OBSERVATIONAL DOCUMENTARY (FLY-ON-THE-WALL)
This type of documentary is when the people or the objects (such as animals in David Attenborough’s
nature documentaries) who are being filmed ignore the presence of the video camera.
Life is lived naturally by the participants and the film maker is seen as a neutral observer wherein they
look into the lives of the participant from the outside.
The camera crew has very limited involvement in being in the actual shot and this therefore means as
little influence in what is happening.
The use of establishing shots and long shots along with an off screen presenter helps contribute to the
fly-on-the-wall affect. This allows the exploration of every-day and normal activity such as the setting of
a school to be seen it its most natural form.
This type of documentary, which ultimately aims to simply just observe the world, is very much linked to
the cinéma vérité style. This allows the audience to often see very private moments of the subjects of the
POETIC DOCUMENTARY (SUBJECTIVE, ARTISTIC, EXPRESSION)
Poetic documentary ultimately aims to create a prevailing emotion or feeling from the audience rather
than, fro example, facts or truth which may be presented in a historical/event documentary.
The documentary considers a subject matter that is personal to the people involved as they focus on
experiences, mostly between the presenter and the interviewee.
This type of documentary points out important elements of a person’s life through not only the content
and dialogue but also through the sue of music, camera shots, angles and editing. By carefully and
artistically constructing these aspects the film maker expresses their personal feelings to influence to
tone and mood of the story in the documentary. This allows the audience to feel personally connected to
the presenter and film maker as the values and messages of the conveyed through the above elements.
Also known as ‘Voice of God’.
This type of documentary is what I personally mostly associate with documentaries.
It highlights the use of a narrator with verbal commentary.
They address the spectator directly with voices or titles that suggest an opinion and side to an argument.
Background footage and still images become subsidiary compared to the voice-over narration. Their
purpose is to reinforce what is being said by the narrator or to highlight a specific point.
In this mode, the editing is seamlessly incorporated to serve the continuity of the narration.
THE PARTICIPATORY MODE
In order to allows the film maker/on screen presenter to interact with the subjects in the documentary,
interviews take place. This is the opposite of not addressing the audience through an off screen narrator.
The events of situations in the documentary are directly affected by the presence of the filmmaker. This
is clearly evident in ’Supersize Me’ where it is written, produced and directed by Morgan Spurlock who
also stars in the film.
This is an awareness of the process of the documentary making.
The audience engages with the content of the documentary as it happens by acknowledging the social
realism of it.
It puts emphasis on the expressive nature of the documentary and there is reliance on the idea of
suggestions rather than facts.
The film maker/on screen presenter directly interacts with the subjects.
They specially make note of the process of the making of the documentary.
The documentary is often formed around a debate, investigation or search which does not necessarily
mean there is a conclusion made.
The presenter may try to evoke a certain response from the audience by addressing them in, for
example, a direct and emotional way.
The subject matter may be about social groups rather than historical subjects.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO FOR OUR DOCUMENTARY?
I am really interested in the first element of Nichols theory of our documentary being observational in
order to allow the audience to form their own opinion through the fly-on-the wall technique.
After speaking to the group about general ideas, I don’t think anyone is confident enough to be an on-
screen presenter so it is very unlikely that we will go down a performative or participatory route.
I also think this could link well with the expository mode as voice over could act as guide by presenting a
We need to agree whether we would rather provide a topic with the narrator providing their opinion or