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Documentary - A Definition for the Digital Age

Documentary texts are supposedly those which aim to document reality, attempting veracity in their depiction of people, places and events. However, the process of mediation means that this is something of a oxymoron, it being impossible to re-present reality without constructing a narrative that may be fictional in places. Certainly, any images that are edited cannot claim to be wholly factual, they are the result of choices made by the photographer on the other end of the lens. Nonetheless, it is widely accepted that categories of media texts can be classed as non-fiction, that their aim is to reveal a version of reality that is less filtered and reconstructed than in a fiction text. Such texts are often constructed from a particular moral or political perspective, and cannot therefore claim to be objective. Other texts purport simply to record an event, although decisions made in post-production mean that actuality is edited, re-sequenced and artificially framed. The documentary maker generally establishes a thesis before starting the construction of their text, and the process of documentary-making can be simply the ratification of their idea. Perhaps, to misquote Eco, the objectivity of the text lies not in the origin but the destination?

The documentary genre has a range of purposes, from the simple selection and recording of events (a snapshot or unedited holiday video) to a polemic text that attempts to persuade the audience into a specific set of opinions (Bowling For Columbine). Audiences must identify that purpose early on and will therefore decode documentary texts differently to fictional narratives.

Documentary Modes

In his 2001 book, Introduction to Documentary (Indiana University Press), Bill Nichols defines the following six modes of documentary

The Poetic Mode 'reassembling fragments of the world', a transformation of historical material into a more abstract, lyrical form, usually associated with 1920s and modernist ideas 
The Expository Mode 'direct address', social issues assembled into an argumentative frame, mediated by a voice-of-God narration, associated with 1920s-1930s, and some of the rhetoric and polemic surrounding World War Two
The Observational Mode as technology advanced by the 1960s and cameras became smaller and lighter, able to document life in a less intrusive manner, there is less control required over lighting etc, leaving the social actors free to act and the documentarists free to record without interacting with each other
The Participatory Mode the encounter between film-maker and subject is recorded, as the film-maker actively engages with the situation they are documenting, asking questions of their subjects, sharing experiences with them. Heavily reliant on the honesty of witnesses
The Reflexive Mode demonstrates consciousness of the process of reading documentary, and engages actively with the issues of realism and representation, acknowledging the presence of the viewer and the modality judgements they arrive at. Corresponds to critical theory of the 1980s
The Performative Mode acknowledges the emotional and subjective aspects of documentary, and presents ideas as part of a context, having different meanings for different people, often autobiographical in nature

These roughly correspond to developmental phases in the genre, when new generations of documentary makers have challenged the forms and conventions that have gone before, and re-invented what documentary means for them.

Further Reading