Documentary structures and styles

Documentary Research: Structure

Documentaries structure isn’t very specific, from the different documentaries I’ve watched I’ve noticed there isn’t a set structure, because there’s a lot of different types of documentaries that can overlap in all sorts of ways, meaning that although a documentary is mainly for example an expository documentary, it may also have some observational elements to it. Desktop Documentaries says “the structure of a documentary is determined by the subject matter of the film, but in general it’s made up of a beginning, middle and end, also referred to as the “three-act-structure” [1] They say that the beginning of a documentary needs to capture the audience’s attention, so it’s important to set the tone and create curiosity in order to keep them watching [1]. They also say that the middle of your documentary is “the gut of the story” [1] This is basically the part of the documentary that starts informing the audience, this is usually the part where you start talking about the history of the subject you talk about, do some interviews with people to get some different opinions and viewpoints (usually you’d interview someone who is informed well on the subject, or is a witness to something, for example, if you’re doing a documentary about an event, you might want to interview someone who witnessed it, to get their viewpoint of it). Desktop Documentaries also says that the ending usually “Brings some kind of resolution to the questions and conflict established at the beginning” [1]. At this point you’d usually answer the questions asked in the beginning, using the information you gathered in the middle, and that usually is the structure of a documentary. There are also a few aspects of documentaries that are a common and needed in order to make them what they are, according to Ehow, they say you need Narration, interviews, location shots, music and sound, graphics, and Achieve footage [2].


Expository Documentaries:

Expository documentaries are the most familiar and common documentaries. They’re commonly seen on TV. They speak directly to the viewer often in a form of an authoritative voiceover. They’re heavily researched and sometimes are referred to as ‘Essay Films’. Peter Biesterfeld says “Their aim is mostly to educate and explain issues, events etc.” [7] It’s techniques usually includes interviews and ‘voice of god’ narration track that comments on the images and explains what is happening to the audience directly. It normally “constructs a specific argument or a point of view for the audience” says Oakley Anderson-Moore from No Film School [3].

An example of expository documentaries is ‘The Nick’ Documentary.

Observational Documentaries:

Observational documentaries is the documentaries that mostly analysis it’s subject. It focuses on trying to document its subjects daily life trying to forget the presence of the camera so it behaves more natural. This allows the audience to see how the subject actually behaves and doesn’t behave like that because of camera’s. Observational documentaries “simply observe, allowing viewers to reach whatever conclusions they may deduce” [4].

Participatory Documentaries:

These documentaries are described as when the filmmaker actively engages with the situation they’re documenting. They sort of shape what happens before the camera. The person who’s filming usually talks directly with the subject. The filmmaker interacts with the subject rather than observing the subject like observational documentaries. Some people argue that participatory documentaries hold the most truth because it allows for observation and engagement. A participatory documentary “engages communities in designing and carrying out their own story” according to Sandy’s Storyline [5].

An example of Participatory documentary is ‘Can We Trust the police’.

Reflexive Documentaries:

Reflexive documentaries ‘Points out the methods involved in the filmmaking process within the actual film” says Julia Henderson [6]. It acknowledges the construction of documentaries and in a way flaunts it, showing people that it’s necessarily true but rather a reconstruction of the truth.

An example of reflexive documentaries is America’s Medicated Kids by Louis Theroux. Louis Theroux is known for making controversial reflexive documentaries.

Poetic Documentaries:

According to Oakley Anderson-Moore, filmmakers who create Poetic documentaries make these by “arranging footage in an order to evoke an audience association through tone and rhythm” [3].

A good example of a poetic documentary is a documentary called ‘Samsara’.

Performative Documentaries:

Performative documentaries usually emphasize the filmmakers own involvement with the subject. They show a larger political or historical reality through their own experience. “The participatory mode aims for immediacy and often presents the filmmaker’s point of view” [7].


[1] Desktop-Documentaries (2016) Documentary structure | the Three-Act documentary. Available at: (Accessed: 29 November 2016).

[2] James, T. (2015) Elements of a documentary film. Available at: (Accessed: 29 November 2016).

[3] Anderson-Moore, O. (2015) Nichols’ 6 modes of documentary might expand your storytelling strategies. Available at: (Accessed: 29 November 2016).

[4] Documentary mode (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 29 November 2016).

[5] What is a participatory documentary? (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 29 November 2016).

[6] jhender (2013) Participatory and Reflexive modes of documentary: Response 4. Available at: (Accessed: 29 November 2016).

[7]Peter (2015) Six primary styles of documentary production. Available at: (Accessed: 29 November 2016).


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