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Genres of Documentaries

To kick off our discussion about the way in which documentaries generate power and meaning, we will be looking at how these genres arose in the history of film. Briefly, they are: actualities (simple, one-shot depictions of reality for the purpose of demonstrating the wonder of moving pictures), poetic (the meditative presentation of images juxtaposed with others in order to create a mood), expository (narrator-driven films organized like an essay, with b-roll images presented as evidence for what the narrator says), participatory (interview-based films where the subject tells the story with the help of the filmmaker), cinema verité (observational, fly-on-the-wall films presented as slices of reality with no narration or stylistic techniques), point of view (a view of the world from the perspective of the filmmaker, supplemented with the thoughts and feelings of the filmmaker through voice over) and performative (a film used as a tool for activism or change performed as an action in the world).[1] As we shall see, each of these techniques arose in part because of a perceived need to build upon or react against the techniques of the past. Filmmakers, in adopting these new techniques were, like McKee advocated, interacting with the traditions in which they found themselves. When watching a documentary film, after asking yourself about the primary narrative technique employed, the next question might be, which genre or technique is being used?

[1] These categories are loosely correlated with the categories from Bill Nichols’ Introduction to Documentary.