Bill Nichols defines the documentary tradition as the convergence of four elements in conjunction with compliance to the expectation of documentary viewers that a documentary film tell a story about something that actually happened to real people, within their same diegetic world). The elements that came together to evolve a tradition of cinematic documents into documentaries were: indexical documentation (or fidelity to reality), poetic experimentation, narrative storytelling, and rhetorical oratory.
It’s evident, as illustrated in his text that the narrative storytelling was first introduced to non-fiction film with little concern about indexicality by filmmakers like Robert Flaherty, but that the ability and willingness of audiences to engage with the narrative in his films made it clear that a narrative structure could be a powerful tool in structuring non-fiction as well as fiction films. In his prescient cinematic niche, Flaherty straddled the indefinable chasm between fiction and documentary, as perhaps was only possible before documentary conventions became more codified, and audience expectations more rigid.
The move toward including elements beyond indexicality, along with the development of a reliable fiscal base for documentary production (pioneered by John Grierson), created an environment where the documentary tradition could thrive, and multiple practitioners could explore means and modes of imbuing films with the distinct voice of their makers.
Each of the 6 modes of documentary filmmaking discussed in Nichols’ chapter describe a way for the filmmaker to use or define their voice, imbuing the indexical documentation that is inherent in film or video with the other three elements that render the indexical subjective and constructed: poetic experimentation, narrative storytelling, and rhetorical oratory.
Nichols’ modes include, first, the Poetic, wherein the formal elements of filmmaking are used to a heightened sensory effect, which was possibly the dominant mode in Flaherty’s Louisiana Story – where the plot was extremely loose and fluid, (and was apparently scraped together by Flaherty’s exasperated editor during the two years of filming) but the individual shots and juxtapositions were richly laden with meaning and detail. The Louisiana Story (1948)is far more poem than story. (And possibly more story than documentary, as the ties to indexicality are few). But the poetic mode seems to nearly always surface when filmmakers have chosen documentary subjects they already have an affinity for. It figures strongly in affinity-for-sub-culture documentaries like The Endless Summer(s)(1966,1994,2000) or Dog Town and Z Boys(2001), or even in Ballerina (2006) each of which portrays a performance culture with a nostalgic attention to the nuance of successful technique, primarily through framing, editing, use of slow-motion, and music.
The fourth mode (I’ll come back to #3) is Participatory mode, where the interaction between filmmakers and their subjects becomes an active part of meaning making in the film. Regret to Inform (1998) is a film where the premise of the film is the filmmakers experience interacting with subjects in Vietnam, where her first husband had been killed years earlier during the war. The film is entirely dependent on the presence and present interactions of the filmmaker for its existence.
The fifth mode is reflexive, calling attention to the conventions of film production. A fun example of this is Animals are Beautiful People (1975) which abuses montage editing and voiceover narration to a hilariously self-aware effect. But its also used more subtly as early as Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
The sixth mode is performative, which emphasizes the subjectivity of the filmmaker’s involvement with a subject. My memory of Born into Brothels (2004) feels somewhat compatible with this mode (while it also possesses clear use of expository and participatory modes) – wherein the filmmaker was regularly addressing her emotional response to the information, footage, experiences and relationships she was encountering, as well as intentionally evoking performances (photographs) from her subjects, and where the purpose of sharing her own subjective emotion was to invoke social change. Her relationship with her featured subjects became an allegory for an entire social problem.