(From: Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd Edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, as summarized by Sarah Childress, a Meridian Stories Innovator and Artist)

Expository mode

The primary purpose of the Expository mode is to make an argument. This is the model that is most often associated with documentary in general. The structure is grounded in a series of assertions backed up by evidence. The assertions are presented through verbal commentary from an invisible voice-over narrator, while images provide the evidence.

Examples: any Nature or American Masters documentary on PBS, History Channel documentaries, and older theatrical documentaries like The River, Night Mail, Spanish Earth, Nanook of the North

Observational mode

This mode uses the observations of an unobtrusive camera to create direct engagement with the everyday life of subjects.

Examples: Primary, Titicut Follies, Gimme Shelter, The War Room, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Participatory mode

This mode emphasizes the interaction between filmmaker and subjects. These films usually take the form of a series of interviews or other forms of even more direct involvement from conversations to provocations. Archival footage to examine historical issues is also included.

Examples: the films of Wernor Herzog, Errol Morris, and Alex Gibney, Exit through the Gift Shop, Man on Wire, The Cove.

Poetic mode

This abstract approach to documentary filmmaking emphasizes visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, description, and form. These films often bear a close resemblance to experimental and avant-garde film.

Examples: Night and Fog, Araya, Koyaanisqatsi, General Orders No. 9.

Reflexive mode

This mode, which includes the mockumentary format, calls attention to the assumptions and conventions that govern documentary filmmaking to increase our awareness of how films construct representations of reality.

Examples: Land Without Bread, The Man with a Movie Camera, This is Spinal Tap, F for Fake

Performative mode

This final mode highlights the subjective or expressive aspect of the filmmaker’s own involvement with a subject to heighten the audience’s responsiveness to the subject and to this involvement. These films reject objectivity and favor emotion.

Examples: the films of Michael Moore, Tongues Untied, Chile Obstinate Memory, Waltz with Bashir, TV shows like Cops