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Developing Factual Ideas

How to Increase the Impact of Your Documentary: The How and Why of Narrative Structure

Photo by quartermane under CC

Photo by quatermane under CC 3.0

Guest Post: Catalin Brylla

Catalin Brylla is an editor and media lecturer who believes film theory has much to teach TV documentary makers. Over the next few weeks he’s going to present a number of different ways we can structure factual programmes in order to engage the audience through better storytelling. In this post he introduces his approach, which is based on Bill Nichols’ documentary modes.

Nowadays, we are aware that no documentary is objective and truthful, but rather opinionated and selective.

In Introduction to Documentary, Bill Nichols (Professor of Cinema and Director of the Graduate Program in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University) describes six distinctive documentary ‘modes’ or styles, such as Expository, Reflexive and Participatory. At first glance, it appears that Nichols’ documentary modes are an academic instrument for analysing and interpreting documentaries, but of what relevance are they to the day-to-day work of the programme maker?

For film practitioners like myself – I’m an editor and documentary maker – understanding these modes or treatments does have a practical application. Writing a documentary proposal or treatment is impossible without having planned the narrative structure, the POV and the style. Being aware of Nichols’ modes facilitates the creative process, and enables you, as the producer or director, to consider the impact on the audience. It helps you think not only about the “HOW”, but also the “WHY” when you are constructing your narrative structure and voice.

By understanding that the way you construct a documentary affects how the viewer interacts with it, you are able to make conscious artistic and practical decisions that will increase the impact your film has on your audience.

Critics don’t believe that a documentary can or should be squeezed into a formal framework, but Nichols’ modes are not “genres”, they’re aesthetic and conceptual categories. These six categories constitute six ways of creating and presenting a documentary; treatments which for the past century have been mixed, developed, subverted, re-invented, abandoned and rediscovered.
Ultimately, they’re there to help us construct stories that move and engage our viewers, and make you a conscious and efficient filmmaker.

This is the first of a series of articles that look at each of the documentary styles in turn and explores how you can use them to make your film stand out in the TV guide or festival schedule. The modes are:

  1. Poetic Mode
  2. Expository Mode
  3. Observational Mode
  4. Participatory Mode
  5. Reflexive Mode
  6. Participatory Mode

In the next article I will look at the first mode: the Poetic Mode.

What do you think? Leave a comment to join in the debate.

Catalin Brylla is a freelance editor, media lecturer and post-production consultant. He teaches post-production practice, film and documentary theory, and documentary production at the International Film School Wales, the London Academy of Radio, Film and TV and Insight Education.

As a film scholar his research includes narratology and cognitive film studies. His article on narrative endings has been published in Image and Narrative and broadcast on RTV Croatia.

As a practitioner he has edited a variety of documentaries (feature and short), promos and short fiction, which were selected and screened at international film festivals and broadcast on Swedish, Swiss and Brazilian TV.


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