Documentary Modality

Every documentary you see will have a different style, theme and feeling behind it. This isn’t just because of the different topics, it’s because the filmmaker has to decide what Modality they want the film to feature. Modality means ‘modes of desire’ and in a film context, it’s the way a documentary is made. These modalities are used for the following reasons:

  • To record, reveal or preserve
  • To persuade or promote
  • To analyse or interrogate
  • To express


To achieve these, a filmmaker could make an expository, poetic, observational or participatory documentary. These are just a few of the modalities used to make successful documentaries. The most common would be expository documentaries. They speak directly to the viewer, almost in a ‘voice of God’ type of manner. These documentaries are very structured and heavily narrated to move the story along. A contrast to these documentaries are poetic and observational documentaries. These focus more on mood, style and tone to tell their story rather than the typical film structures seen in others. Participatory is one of the more obscure but incredibly interesting types of modality. In participatory documentaries, the director/filmmaker immerses themselves into the story world, becoming part of the documentary. This is is a very special but also risky technique depending on the subjects being filmed.

I’m currently in the process of proposing an expository documentary, ‘Not Guilty’. Expository documentaries are made to persuade an audience using combinations of voice overs and narrations that act almost like a voice of god. The authoritative nature of these voice overs/narrations are also to speak directly to the viewer and strengthen their argument. Expository documentaries are one of the most popular forms as they don’t rely heavily on visuals but rather the storytelling of whatever the event is. My documentary is an expository documentary because it is heavily interview based and relies on the protagonist to tell the audience her story. Similar to a film called ‘The Case of 8’ where the interviews and life experiences coming directly from the lawyers and victims are said in a standard interview format. That being said however, it will also have observational qualities.

Observational documentaries capture moments as they happen in time. They observe life with a minimum of intervention. This modality will be present in my documentary as well as some of the scenes over narration will have an observational element to them. These will be dramatized sequences but will give the audience the ‘fly on the wall’ mentality.

Modality is versatile but incredibly important when it comes to making a documentary. Without a specific vision or reasoning behind them, the documentary will struggle in capturing an audience and truly expressing its story. The modalities I have chosen for my documentary will allow the viewer to connect with my characters while also showing a behind the scenes look at what they do.


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