Documentary films, just like narrative films, come in all shapes and sizes. As creators of non-fiction films, documentary filmmakers strive to present honest and truthful stories, however, the methods in which they attempt to achieve this can be varied. Because of this fact, respected documentary film theorist, Bill Nichols named six subcategories to help classify different styles of documentary filmmaking. These are: Poetic, Expository, Observational, Performative, Participatory, and Reflexive. These six modes are widely used by filmmakers and film theorists alike. It is important to note that although these modes exist, it does not mean the conventions of one mode cannot be present in another.
In this series of articles, we will be looking into each mode, identifying the features, looking into the history, and highlighting notable films and directors.
The Poetic Mode
With the poetic mode of documentary, the goal is not to create a film with a traditional narrative but rather to look into presenting patterns and associations to create meaning and evoke an emotional response from the audience. This is often achieved by arranging imagery into rhythms and juxtapositions.
When people become part of the poetic documentary as participants, they are seen more like objects or “raw material” rather than characters with complex personalities and backstories. They are often arranged by the filmmaker, just like other objects in the film to create patterns and meaning.
The poetic documentary came into existence during the 1920s. It combined cinema with avant-garde and arose in tandem modernism as a way to represent reality as “a series of fragments, subjective impressions, incoherent acts, and loose associations.” People often attribute this to the effects of WWI and the “transformations of industrialization.” There was an interesting honesty about the poetic mode as it would often be ambiguous or puzzling and refused to provide solutions to large problems; these features became very prominent in the sub-genre.
Ones To Watch
Sans Soleil (1983) Directed by Chris Marker
Sans Soleil is a French documentary shot mainly in Japan and Guinea Bissau which are identified as “two extreme poles of survival.” Other shooting locations include San Francisco, Cape Verde, Paris, and Iceland. Throughout the film, we hear narration from a woman who talks about her thoughts as a world traveler as if reading a letter to a friend. The film takes the audience on a journey around the world but poses deeper thoughts about human nature. There is a heavy reliance on the juxtaposition of narrative and imagery to create meaning and does not include any synchronous sound.
In the Sight and Sound poll conducted by BFI, Sans Soleil was ranked 3rd best documentary of all time.
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) Directed by Godfrey Reggio
Koyaanisqatsi is an American documentary that explores “nature, humanity and the relationship between them.” With no conventional plot, the film uses stunning imagery of landscapes and the environment without narration. By combining the cinematography of Ron Fricke and music from Phillip Glass we get a powerful film that essentially shows us the effect humans have had on the world.
Koyaanisqatsi is the first film of the Qatsi Trilogy. It is followed by Powaqqatsi: Life in transformation and Naqoysqatsi: Life as war.
Samsara (2011) Directed by Ron Fricke
Koyaanisqatsi cinematographer Ron Fricke was evidently influenced by the films he previously worked on and went on to direct his own series of poetic documentaries. Filmed over the span of nearly five years in 25 different countries, Samara takes the audience on an intimate journey across the world where they get a special view of “sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial complexes and natural wonders.”
Notable Poetic Documentary Directors
- Chris Marker
- Ron Fricke
- Godfrey Reggio
- Luis Buñel
- Kenneth Anger
- Péter Forgács
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