Introduction to Documentary

Reflexive Mode of Documentary (Nichols 2004)

The key feature of Nichols’ reflexive mode of documentary appears to be its ability to draw the viewer’s attention to the documentary itself and how it is being constructed. Constantly aware of the fact that it can elicit a response from its audience, the reflexive documentary is able to get the audience to question what it is being shown, who is showing it to them, how and why. I believe that this mode’s ability to question the representation of the world it is showing, allows the audience to be more active and look closer at the subject matter.

I like the effect this mode is trying to achieve, particularly in the context of the documentaries I am currently being exposed to by popular platforms such as Netflix. While watching serial documentaries such as Making a Murderer (2015) and Wild Wild Country (2018), I start to become aware of the scope of the world they are attempting to captured and have the thought that I am probably only being shown the curated parts deemed most interesting and most relevant to the story that is attempting to be told by the producer, director, editor or distributor. I would love to know how much footage is actually captured and how much is used in the final edits. I think that it would be great to watch some of these interviews unedited, to see when interviewees correct themselves, what they are told to repeat, and hear the questions are asked to elicit particular responses. Because I am already questioning documentaries and their production in this way I believe that I would be naturally inclined to question my own process and let that influence the final product.

I believe that, depending on what is being explored, a reflexive documentary could employ tools and techniques from the other modes as it tries to question its own construction of events or subjects. I think this allows for a lot of creative freedom within the mode to make choices that would otherwise break the suspension of (dis)belief that is being requested. I could imagine that these documentaries could be edited to appear like something produced by Monty Python – a world that is deeply complex, that dances around the truth of the matter, because to try and see a subject or ask a question from one perspective is so absolute and reductive that I personally stop trusting the teller. And I lose this trust because I begin to feel like something is probably being withheld from me at the risk of bursting the story bubble.

But, I suppose this all depends on the original purpose of the documentary. Is it there to entertain or educate and inform? This is obviously a key question in documentary filmmaking, one that Michael Moore (2014) appears especially passionate about, his point of view being, ’The first rule of documentaries is: Don’t make a documentary — make a MOVIE. […] they [audiences] don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained.’ But he also articulates a very clear intention for his films beyond entertainment and information, ‘I don’t want people leaving the theater depressed after my movies. I want them angry. Depressed is a passive emotion. Anger is active. Anger will mean that maybe 5 percent, 10 percent of that audience will get up and say, “I gotta do something. I’m going to tell others about this. I’m going to go look up more about this on the Internet. I’m gonna join a group and fight this!”’ His films seem deeply personal and he is aware of how he is making them to reach an audience, which kind of sounds like Nichols’ reflexive mode as a mindset, ‘the processes of negotiation between filmmaker and viewer become the focus of attention.’

I think that each of the modes contribute to the construction of a documentary. The film that ends up being distributed would lend itself to one of Nichols’ particular modes, however, I imagine that thinking about the documentary in the mindset of each individual mode (rather than making a ridged decision from the outset) would serve to add value to the overall depiction of the subject.


Moore M 2014, ’13 Rules for Making Documentary Films’, Huffington Post, article, 17 August, viewed on 31 May 2018, <;.

Making a Murderer 2015, streaming, Netflix, USA, directed by Laura Ricciardi & Moira Demos.

Wild Wild Country 2018, streaming, Netflix, USA, directed by Maclain Way & Chapman Way.

Nichols B 2004, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd edn, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

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