Documentary: The Genre Explained

Thanks to Netflix, documentaries have been dominating the field of media and entertainment. This genre, often overlooked in the past, has found a new life and captivated audiences worldwide. In this exploration, we delve into the depths of documentary filmmaking, uncovering what makes this genre unique and why it has become a powerful medium for storytelling.

What is a Documentary?

A documentary is a non-fictional film or video that educates its viewers about an issue. These videos aim to capture real-life events, people, and issues. This genre provides a window into the world, offering viewers an opportunity to explore diverse subjects ranging from wildlife and history to social and environmental issues.

Six Types of Documentaries

Documentaries come in many formats, and the categorization of documentaries into specific types is not a strict or universally agreed-upon system. In 1991, Bill Nichols, an American film critic, categorized documentaries into six types:

  • Expository
    An expository documentary is a narrated documentary that speaks directly to the audience to educate them about a certain topic or issue. This type of documentary is solely based on facts and are heavily researched. The cinematographer plays a large role in filming shots that would match the narrations. A great example of an expository documentary is Nanook of the North (1922) by Robert J. Flaherty.  
  • Poetic
    A poetic documentary is all about documenting human emotions and feelings. This type of documentary focuses more on personal storytelling and often has themes of grief and nostalgia. It also relies a lot on visual storytelling, using striking visuals to create a sensory experience for its viewers. There’s also a unique soundscape in poetic documentaries to help viewers immerse in the poem conveyed. A modern example of poetic documentary is Frozen in Fear (2022) by Oinam Dorren and Mattias Löw. In a nutshell, poetic documentaries have avant-garde visuals and an emotionally evoking narrative.
  • Observational
    An observational documentary aims to document the everyday life and does not contain any interviews or narration. Also known as observational cinema, cinéma vérité, and fly-on-the-wall technique (although some people dislike this term), this type of documentary observes a subject and has a sense of realism. The filmmaker assumes a passive role, refraining from interference or manipulation of the events being recorded. Instead, the camera acts as an impartial observer, documenting the nuances, interactions, and complexities of the subject matter. Observational documentaries also have little to no voice-overs. A great example of an observational documentary is Grey Gardens (1975) by Albert and David Maysles.
  • Participatory
    A participatory documentary is characterized by its involvement of the filmmaker in the video’s narrative. The filmmaker may be behind the camera and be heard as a voiceover or is in the frame directly addressing the viewers or the interviewee. While some documentaries edit out the interviewer’s questions, a participatory documentary includes it as the filmmaker will also be a character in the documentary. Chronicle of a Summer (1961) by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch is a participatory documentary.  
  • Reflexive      
    A reflexive documentary is all about the filmmaker-audience relationship, inviting the audience to reflect on the topic of the documentary. It will include almost everything: the behind-the-scenes footage, the editing, the interviews, and even the pre-production and post-production process. Reflexive documentaries frequently show the production team and doesn’t attempt to make themselves emotional. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov was the first reflexive documentary ever made.
  • Performative
    Performative documentaries are a bit like reflexive documentaries in a way that they also involve the filmmaker. They also tend to be more personal and subjective as the filmmaker is the centrepiece of the documentary, much like the center spread of a magazine. Notable in this genre is director Nick Broomfield, recognized for his work on documentaries like Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003).  

Those are the six primary types of documentaries as theorized by Bill Nichols. However, the world of documentaries is vast, and there are numerous subgenres waiting to be explored. We’ll talk about two of them in the next section.

Docudramas and Docusoaps

There are two subgenres of documentaries: docudramas and docusoaps. These genres seamlessly blend reality with dramatic elements, offering viewers a captivating lens through which to experience real-life events and situations. While we’re not experts on these types of documentaries (yet), we do know a thing or two about them.

  • Docudrama
    A docudrama is a fascinating hybrid genre between a documentary and a drama. In this style, real events are portrayed with a dramatized touch, often incorporating reenactments of actual occurrences. Docudramas aim to provide a captivating and informative narrative by combining the factual basis of documentaries with the storytelling techniques of traditional dramas. A notable docudrama is Zodiac (2007) by David Fincher, the crime thriller about the infamous Zodiac Killer terrorizing North California.
  • Docusoap
    On the other end of the spectrum, docusoaps (documentary soaps) emphasize the dramatic and entertaining aspects of real-life situations. In simpler words, docusoaps are reality TV that are partially scripted. Unlike docudramas, docusoaps are less concerned with historical accuracy and more on creating engaging narratives. A well-known docusoap is Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which documents the daily lives of the Kardashian family.

The Power of Documentaries

Now that you know the types and subgenres of documentaries, let’s explore the benefits of watching and making documentaries.

  1. Documentaries are a great way to educate yourself. Documentaries often shine light on issues you don’t know about and watching them is a great way to open one’s mind. Whether it’s about the environment or simply a documentary that shows the hard work that goes into construction, a documentary educates through its unique ability to present real-world information in a compelling and accessible manner. Unlike traditional educational content, documentaries use storytelling, visuals, and real-life examples to convey information.
  1. Documentaries improve public relations. Beyond personal enlightenment, documentaries have the potential to enhance public relations for businesses. A documentary can boost your company’s image and public relations by showing that you care about social and environmental issues. By doing so, you are also demonstrating your commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR), and the public will be impressed by this.
  1. Documentaries gives a voice to the unheard. Everyone is entitled to the freedom of speech, but there are still many voices unheard. Documentaries serve as a platform to amplify voices that are often marginalized or silenced. Not only will this help them voice out their opinions, but this will also encourage other people to speak up on various issues.
  1. Documentaries inspire people to act. Documentaries have the power to inspire action. By presenting real-life challenges, success stories, or advocacy for change, documentaries can motivate viewers to take action. Whether it’s adopting sustainable practices, contributing to a cause, or getting involved in community initiatives, documentaries can ignite a sense of responsibility and drive positive change.


In conclusion, documentaries are not just a form of entertainment; they are powerful vehicles for education, advocacy, and social impact. Whether you're a viewer seeking enlightenment or a filmmaker aiming to make a difference, documentaries offer a unique and impactful way to engage with the world around us.  

At VISIOLAB, we understand the impact of documentaries. That's why we specialize in creating compelling documentary videos that educate, inspire, and amplify voices. If you have a story to tell or a message to share, consider the powerful medium of documentaries with VISIOLAB. Let's work together and create visuals with vision.  

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