Documentaries explore controversial ideas and open people’s minds. They’re a central part of life, and popular culture, because everyone wants to know how other people live, and it’s human nature to want to understand the stories of others.

Netflix has been instrumental in bringing documentaries to a mainstream audience, and true crime shows have been particularly popular in the last few years. So, if you want to be a documentary maker, there are plenty of opportunities to build a successful career.

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the most common types of documentaries, so you can get a better idea of the work that goes into producing, directing and distributing a film.

The Six Types of Documentaries

There are six kinds of documentary styles in general, and some are more popular than others. Let’s take a look at them.

Poetic Documentary

This type of documentary is all about aesthetics. The filmmaker tries to evoke an emotion or feeling in the audience by using beautiful shots and music.

The poetic documentary often tells a story, but it’s not always clear what the story’s point is. This type of film can be very subjective, and it’s up to the viewer to decide what they think about it.

Artistry is everything with poetic documentaries because the visuals take over any narrative. Overall, this documentary-type attracts a niche audience because most people like to follow a story and a poetic style is more open to interpretation.

Man Of Aran 1934: One of the most famous poetic documentaries, Man of Aran, was directed by Robert Flaherty and focused on the daily lives of people living on the Aran Islands. It was one of the first successful documentary films and didn’t focus on traditional narrative, instead using visual imagery to tell the story.

Participatory Documentaries

This type of documentary is all about giving the viewer a voice. The filmmaker wants to create a space for the audience to share their thoughts and experiences and start a dialogue.

Participatory documentaries often take the form of interviews or roundtable discussions, where people from all walks of life can share their stories.

In many cases, documentaries in the participatory style have the opportunity to go viral on social media because they allow viewers to interact with the content.

Louis Theroux: If you’ve seen a Louis Theroux documentary, you’ll understand what the participatory theme is all about. These documentaries are so popular because they provide viewers with a whole story and explore different points of view.

Expository Documentaries

This type of documentary is all about telling a story. It’s the most common style, and it works well in situations where there are facts to share with the audience.

For example, expository documentaries are great for explaining scientific theories or historical events because they focus on sharing information verified by other sources. The filmmaker will often use visual aids to help tell their story too.

Planet Earth: This nature-based documentary is one of the best examples of how expository film can work well when you need to explain something complex to an audience that might not understand it very clearly otherwise.

Reflexive Documentaries

Reflexive documentaries are unique in that they explore the relationship between a director and an audience. It’s all about showing how a particular person or event is affected by the presence of a camera crew.

The audience can feel as though they’re eavesdropping because there’s an element of voyeurism to these documentaries. While many documentaries look polished, a reflexive documentary allows viewers to look behind the scenes and connect with the director.

Nick Broomfield: One of the UK’s most decorated documentary makers, Nick Broomfield takes viewers on a journey with him, showing how he arranges interviews and creates the documentary.

Observational Documentaries

Observational documentaries are all about capturing real-life events as they unfold. The filmmaker doesn’t interfere with the subjects and instead allows them to tell their own story.

This type of documentary is often used in news reporting because it gives a raw and unedited view of what’s happening. It can be challenging to make an observational documentary enjoyable, but it provides a unique perspective on the world when done well.

Big Brother: While Big Brother is a reality TV show, it’s one of the best examples of observational documentation. The fly on the wall series shows participants going about their everyday lives, and that’s exactly what observational documentary makers try to achieve.

Performative Documentaries

Performative documentaries are all about the filmmaker and subject relationship, instead of making it about the audience or participants.

This type of documentary is excellent for exploring emotions and feelings because it allows the viewer to see how someone responds when they’re put on the spot. It’s also a great way to show off talent or give people a chance to share their stories unconventionally.

Supersize Me: This documentary changed the way people felt about food, and it’s a classic example of a performative documentary. Morgan Spurlock takes centre stage as he spends 30 days eating nothing but McDonald’s to see how it impacts his health.

Choosing A Documentary Style For Your Production

style documentation

While there are six main types of documentaries, they often overlap. For example, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield create both participatory and reflexive documentaries, and most films have some poetic theme in the form of music and imagery at some point.

If you’re planning on bringing a story to life through creating a documentary, it’s essential to consider whether you would benefit from documentary production services or are happy to go it alone.

Some people believe that a documentary is more straightforward to produce than a movie or TV show, but that couldn’t be further from the truth as documentaries are all about explaining different points of view and capturing a viewer’s attention without all of the dramatics.

It’s human nature to explore relationships, loss, life and even crime, which is why documentary makers have great careers. When they’re done right, documentaries can be the perfect way to showcase your skills as a filmmaker and build a loyal audience.