Documentary genres

We are in the process of providing useful genre information for the films on Docuseek2. Since most of the titles on Docuseek2 are documentaries, our genre listing digs deeper into the documentary field to provide a sense as to what kind of documentary the film is. Our categories are roughly derived from the categories of documentary theorist Bill Nichols (see, e.g. Wikipedia’s entry on Documentary mode; or his book Introduction to Documentary, Indiana University Press, 2001.) One might quibble whether these are properly genres or “just” modes of delivery, but within the rich field of documentary film “genre” seems more useful for organizing the films, so we are using it here.

Here is the list of the Docuseek2 genres.

Expository documentary features an omnipresent, omniscient and/or objective presence, typically expressed as narration to organize and present the content. The filmmaker generally does not appear on camera. This is the default genre for Docuseek2 titles. If a titles has not been categorized, it will show Expository as the genre.

Joris Ivens Rain (sadly, not available on Docuseek2) is the classic example of the poetic documentary genre. The film relies on the images, with little or no narration. If any narration is present, it too can be characterized as poetry. The filmmaker is actively organizing the material to create a poetic statement.

Essayistic documentary features an essay-like narration by the filmmaker. The films will often have a poetic quality, but rely on narration supported by the images to convey a message. Chris Marker’s films (see, e.g., The Case of the Grinning Cat) are good examples of essayistic filmmaking, or Allan Sekula and Noel Burch’s The Forgotten Space on Docuseek2.

Observational documentary attempts to provide a faithful record of some activity, as a fly-on-the-wall, with little or no narration or music. Where the poetic genre is organized to express a poetic vision, observational documentary attempts to show the thing-as-it-is.

Participatory documentary can be considered the opposite of observational — the filmmaker appears as an obviously active participant in the film, appearing on camera and interacting with the subject matter. King Corn or the films of Michael Moore are examples of the Participatory genre of documentary.

We use the category of Performance to refer to the record of a dramatic performance (e.g., a concert or play). Dido and Aeneas is an example of the performance film.

The Interview film is a record of a conversation, discussion or interview of one or more subjects. While this could be considered a type of performance film, the content is delivered directly to the interviewer through the speech of the interviewer, and not through the medium of music or drama or dance. As a popular television format, many of these recordings are available as videos. The films in the Philosophers: Debates and Dialogues series, the Islam Unknown series, or the Writers of Today series are examples of the Interview genre.

Dramatization recreates an event or person using actors in an attempt to enable to viewer to be “on the scene” of the event or present with the historical figure. One could debate whether this is properly a “documentary”, although the technique has been used effectively within documentaries that might fall in another genre. A Sense of Wonder dramatizes pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson during the final year of her life.

Documentaries that use a combination of modes or genres fall into a mixed genre. Disco and Atomic War combines
dramatizations to portray the narrator’s memory and imagination of events from his childhood to great effect, along with essayistic, expository and interview modes.

We have a couple of non-fiction animation films on Docuseek2. Since the most distinctive element of their presentation is the use of animation throughout, we added this as one more genre. See, e.g. Bully Dance or Marx for Beginners.

As noted above, we are in the process of assigning genres to the films in the Docuseek2 collection, so it may look like many films are mis-categorized as the default “Expository”. Let is know, and we will get that updated.