In a participatory mode documentary, the filmmaker plays an active role in the story and has meaningful exchanges with the people they’re filming. The documentary’s maker may make a cameo appearance during an interview, provide a voiceover from off-camera, or even appear on camera alone. The filmmaker’s involvement may have little effect on the story, or it may have a profound one.
The participatory mode is one of the six modes of documentary outlined by Bill Nichols.
At A Glance
In Participatory mode documentaries, “the filmmaker becomes a social actor,” as Bill Nichols puts it. Even though the filmmaker doesn’t have any say in how the subject is portrayed, they nonetheless present their own take on events.
This style typically explores a broad topic or theme. For instance, the events leading up to the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre are examined in Bowling for Columbine (2002). On-screen, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore conducts in-person interviews with classroom instructors and students.
Participatory Mode vs other Mode
In contrast to the observational documentary mode, in which the director takes the role of a fly on the wall and merely observes the world without engaging with it, the participatory documentary mode encourages its audience to actively engage in the creation of the film.
Participatory mode of filmmaking differs from traditional observational methods in that the filmmaker actively engages with the subjects. They actively participate in the activity and can be seen on film asking questions.
Participatory Mode – Ones To Watch
Chronicle of a Summer (1961)
The acclaimed French documentary Chronicle of a Summer, directed by Jean Rouch and co-written with sociologist Edgar Morin, has all one might expect in a film of this genre. The film, which was shot primarily in Paris in 1960, is a groundbreaking example of cinéma vérité and is in line with the Nouvelle Vague of non-fiction cinema, influencing the style and format of many other documentaries.
The film’s proceedings have a freewheeling, open, and honest vibe that is really welcome. The directors of Chronicle of a Summer wanted to make a film that focused on its subjects and was shot almost entirely with handheld cameras, so they did away with the formality of earlier international documentaries.
Rouch and Morin’s film is a remarkable and fascinating mixture of intellectual interview and human observation. It is unlike anything that has come before it and starkly contrasts conventional documentary methods and practice. The directors were tasked with presenting divisive (but not necessarily controversial) topics to a focus group before turning on the camera to record the ensuing debate.
Sherman’s March (1985)
Ross McElwee’s first plan for his documentary about General William T. Sherman’s famed scorched-earth march through the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War was to be a kind of travelogue. Instead, McElwee records his attempts (and failures) to initiate a new relationship after a recent separation. Now, instead of investigating the past and present, he is on a quest of self-discovery and introspection.
He briefly crosses paths with a sweetly dizzy actress whose greatest wish is to meet Burt Reynolds, a somewhat more mature Atlanta interior designer who introduces him to a group of conservative survivalists building private underground bunkers in the mountains; a linguist who looks like a Meryl Streep character and lives a hermit’s life on an island off Savannah; and a Jacqueline Bisset look-alike aspiring rock singer on her way to
Paris Is Burning (1990)
It was a watershed moment in cinematic history when the 1990’s Paris is Burning was released, and it continues to be hailed as one of the best films ever made for the LGBTQ+ community. The director of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston, also worked as a producer on the critically acclaimed FX series Pose, demonstrating the film’s far-reaching influence on the filmmaking industry.
It’s easy to see why the film resonated strongly with so many people. Putting aside the film’s slick visuals and polished production values, it handles its subject matter with dignity and compassion, representing a group that has been overlooked in cinema for a long time. It has all the hallmarks of humanity and is a tonne of joy to watch.
Even so, the film’s visual style and technological polish play significant roles in setting it apart. In 2022, the 16mm imagery is striking and magnificent when we revisit this film. The bright colors and graininess of the 16mm film evoke feelings of nostalgia and warmth.
The Danube Exodus (1998)
In his travelogue The Danube Exodus, published just before the outbreak of World War II, Forgács details the mass emigration of Jews from Slovakia. Nearly 900 Jews from Slovakia and Austria set out on the Danube in two boats, hoping to reach the Black Sea and Palestine. Forgács based his movie on home movies shot by one of the ships’ captains, Nándor Andrásovits. Passengers were watched while they prayed, napped, and even got married while under his care. It’s evident towards the conclusion of the voyage that the ship won’t be returning empty; rather, it’ll be carrying back Germans from Bessarabia who had fled to the Third Reich when the Soviets invaded.
My Scientology Movie (2016)
Theroux’s film about Scientology is an excellent example of what can be dubbed improv-ocation. He announces his arrival in Los Angeles to film a sequence of staged and improvised scenarios depicting pivotal periods in the life of David Miscavige, the ominous leader of the Scientologists. (Here, Theroux might have been influenced by Josh Oppenheimer’s modern classic documentary The Act of Killing, which is set in Indonesia and depicts the country’s tyrannical regime.) The famous apostate and whistleblower, former Scientologist enforcer Marty Rathbun, now loathed in the church, will serve as his adviser. He will use the process of casting actors as a documentary.
Bryan Fogel, an amateur filmmaker and cyclist plan to make a film about how simple it is to cheat in sports. He intends to take illegal drugs to enhance his cycling performance and prove that they cannot be detected. To complete his mission, he must meet with Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping lab. Fogel is unaware that he will become embroiled in and a chronicler of the greatest doping scandal in sports history as information about Russia’s vast, government-sponsored doping program becomes public.
- Edgar Morin
- Ross McElwee
- Louis Theroux
- Jennie Livingston
- Péter Forgács
- Bryan Fogel
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