The Many Modes of Documentaries


Documentary filmmaking is a powerful and versatile medium for storytelling. It directs a unique lens through which filmmakers can capture real-life events, people, and issues, offering viewers a glimpse into the world’s complexities. To harness the full potential of this art form, it’s essential to comprehend the various documentary modes available. 

The Observational Mode

An objective observer. As the name entails, this mode aims to give a voice to all parties involved in the documentary’s topic of discussion. This is achieved through capturing unfolding events without direct interference and with minimal editing to preserve its authenticity. Being Silver, our documentary for St Luke’s Hospital’s 25th Anniversary, featuring five individuals in their silver years, is a perfect example for this mode of filming as it observes their respective unique life experiences.

The Reflexive Mode

All eyes on the filmmaker. Similar to the participatory mode, filmmakers are seen in the frame of reflexive documentaries too but the subject matter is often the process of filmmaking itself, with a cinematographer capturing the process of the film production. The reflexive mode invites viewers to question the authenticity and construction of the documentary itself. Our project with Canon, Reinvent Perspectives, is a demonstration of this mode, as it follows architectural photographer Jeffrey Wong throughout his process of transforming buildings into forms of art.

The Poetic Mode

A feeling rather than a truth. Unconventional and experimental, filmmakers are abstract and loose with their narrative, using artistic and metaphorical language to convey their message. The poetic mode aims to evoke emotions and provoke thought through visual and auditory means. Below, 12 Hours in Kolkata captures perfectly the essence of poetic documentary filmmaking through its ambiguous narration and immersive visuals.

As the art of documentary filmmaking continues to evolve, understanding and mastering the modes open doors to endless possibilities, enriching the diversity of voices and perspectives in the world of non-fiction cinema. Ultimately, the significance of these modes reaffirms the power of documentary filmmaking as a medium that not only informs but also enlightens, challenges, and captivates audiences with the compelling stories of our ever-changing world and the people in it.

Want to tell your own story? Reach out to our team at Vicinity Studio. For a quotation on the video production, contact us by email at [email protected] or by phone at +65 6993 6993

Gwen Voon

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