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6 Documentary Types: A Quick Breakdown

A documentary is not a film genre; it’s a storytelling medium. Understanding the medium’s distinct types will allow you to leverage its capabilities. 

In the digital age, documentaries occupy not only theaters and television but also social media. With 70% of the population watching documentaries on a monthly basis, the medium has not lost steam since its development. This article will discuss the documentary as a medium, its difference from fiction films, its value to filmmakers, and the six different types you can experiment with.

Documentary as a Medium

In art, “medium” has a broad meaning. It is often used to describe the materials an artist uses. In this case, we will be referring to “medium” as the art form an artist practices. This can be sculpture, painting, or printmaking. Identifying the appropriate medium for your piece is key to your storytelling.

In filmmaking, there are stories best told through documentaries instead of fiction. These are stories that deal with urgent attention and require a call to action. Documentaries similar to “Honeyland (2019)” and “Flee (2021)” have utilized the medium to express a need for change. This film shows the urgent need for a sustainable approach to honey collection. Meanwhile, “Flee” draws attention to the distressing effects of war on children. By fictionalizing these stories, the truths of the main protagonists will lose their power.

Similar to fiction filmmaking, documentaries use cinematic language in narrating their stories. So, what are the key elements that distinguish one from the other?

Fiction and Nonfiction

We dissect works of literature into two factions: fiction and nonfiction. Documentary films fall under the nonfiction category. Each category has its own distinct identities and types. These perspectives help shape the stories they tell.

Fiction is a product of imagination. These are fabricated stories set in fantasized worlds inhabited by made-up characters. In filmmaking, fiction films are guided by screenplays and are staged to envision the script. On the other hand, nonfiction deals with reality. These stories are set in the real world and told through the lens of real people. In filming documentary films, the filmmakers are guided by outlines and questions in capturing their participants. In practice, documentaries are not stage, and the subject is shot as it is.

Neither one nor the other is a better category. The story’s quality falls on the filmmaker. A concrete and complete vision is key to identifying which category will suit your story best.  

Documentary Types and Examples

Now that we have discussed the brief history of the medium, here are the six types of documentaries and their examples.

1. Poetic Documentary

This documentary type often does not have a linear narrative. This is a series of images accompanied by music to provide its audience with a surreal experience. Instead of finding an objective truth, this type focuses on curating a unique artistic style. This is individualistic and experimental in form. Watch War is a Tender Thing (2013) by Dir. Adjani Arumpac.

Examples also include:

2. Expository Documentary

The majority is most likely familiar with this type of documentary. Expository documentaries aim to uncover truths and persuade their audience. This type often has a narrator to guide the audience through the narrative. It is also commonly seen on the news. Watch A Thousand Cuts (2020) by Dir. Ramona S. Díaz.

Examples also include:

3. Observational Documentary

This type of documentary intends to observe and document the world as it is. In this type of film, the filmmaker attempts to remain invisible and aims to capture the world untampered. Filmmakers use this type in an attempt to search for an objective truth from a multitude of perspectives coexisting in an unadulterated narrative. Watch Aswang (2019) by Dir. Alyx Ayn Arumpac.   

Examples also include:

4. Participatory Documentary

This documentary type shows the filmmaker on screen. The filmmaker interacts with the subjects, has their own character arc, and is a crucial subject of the narrative. Involvement can be as little as an off-screen voice from the filmmaker or the filmmaker’s immersion in the environment where their participants live. However, this type can often tamper with the main participant’s truth. The filmmaker’s direct involvement can influence how the participants will act and interact with each other. Watch Paris Is Burning (1990) by Dir. Jennie Livingston.

Examples also include:

5. Reflexive Documentary

The reflexive documentary focuses on the filmmaking process. This type takes the audience through how the filmmakers produced the film instead of showcasing the lives of their participants. It also aims to show the complexity of a story based on the difficulties experienced in the production process. Watch Biggie & Tupac (2002) by Dir. Nick Broomfield.

Examples also include:

6. Performative Documentary

This documentary type mixes and experiments with the aforementioned types. The main goal of performative documentaries is to subject the audience to a viewing experience that will force them to respond emotionally, may it be sadness, guilt, or anger. In addition, this type centers its stories around crisis situations, political figures, and historical events. It also aims to showcase the impact of these stories on various minority groups. Watch Bowling for Columbine (2002) by Dir. Michael Moore

Examples also include:  


It is important to take note that the documentary is not a sub-genre of the film; it is an independent medium. Similar to other art forms, documentaries require a unique perspective. Being aware of its different types will allow you to experiment with it, leverage its strengths, and help shape the perspective you want to communicate. Remember, perspective is key to effective storytelling.


M2.0 Communications is a video production agency in the Philippines that has been helping brands tell compelling and meaningful stories. Visit our case studies page to learn more about what we do.

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