Musings on the Participatory Mode.

In Introduction to Documentary, Nichols (2001) does well to summarise six major styles of storytelling prevalent in the world of documentary (reflexive, observational, participatory, poetic, expository and performative modes). Some interesting points that I did note were how each mode of documentary making was influenced by the introduction of certain technology at those particular points in time (e.g. introduction of compact cameras and voice recorders which gave rise to the observational modes), and how many other documentaries can be described as hybrids of the above forms.

I personally like the idea of the participatory mode of documentary making as it allows filmmakers to be part of the conversation in front of the camera, as well as being part of the audience simultaneously. Here filmmakers can interact directly with their subjects through openly reacting to certain things and expressing their opinion. This allows the filmmaker to guide or control the narrative or even further explore certain interesting aspects that weren’t part of the original narrative. For instance, Nichols gives the example of Marcelline Loridan’s monologue in Chronicle of Summer where she speaks on her journey through the German concentration camps. This monologue would not have occurred spontaneously but was possible due to the collaborative decision between the filmmaker and subject to discuss this history.

Interviews, which are quite prevalent in participatory-style documentaries, allow filmmakers to directly flesh out any ambiguities or confusions about certain events by asking specific questions and having the subject respond and personally clarify these ambiguities. Finally, I also appreciate the manner in which the participatory mode allows for or even encourages reflection. The filmmaker and subject can comment their sentiments on events occurring prior to or during filming. This way, the audience can gain insight on what it was like for the filmmaker while making the film. Likewise, by asking subjects for their sentiments towards events that occurs while filming or evening having them look back at themselves through watching the footage and gauging their reactions to themselves on screen, extra dimensions can be added to the final cut of the film.


Nichols, B 2001, Introduction to Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, USA.

Image: Courtesy of ©Java Alto.


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