Prompt #3 – Introduction to Documentary

This reading is taken from Bill Nichol’s seminal book Introduction to Documentary which articulates the different modes of documentary. Narrowing it down to these modes can be seen as reductive but definitely a good way to look at documentary as long as you don’t see this as the only way. This reading is a quick summary.
Choose one mode and describe its hallmarks and why you might like to work in that way.

The Lumière brothers shot a scene from the back of a train in 1896 that marked the birth of film. The first raw footage shot by Lumière brothers are more like what we call documentary. Since then, documentary was given a definition that documenting some aspect of reality or maintaining a historical record, and sometimes called as cinema verite.

In the seminal book ‘Introduction to Documentary’, written by Bill Nichols(2010), he articulates the different modes of documentary including:

  1. The Observational Mode
  2. The Participatory Mode
  3. The Expository Mode
  4. The Poetic Mode
  5. The Reflexive Mode
  6. The Performative Mode

I know Expository Mode more than other mode because Expository mode is widely used in Chinese documentary. Expository Mode “emphasizes verbal commentary and argumentative logic” often using a narrator. The mode addresses the spectator directly with an employment of titles or voices that propose a strong argument and a perspective. It usually exposes a person or a topic. John Grierson stress the main role of Expository Mode is educating people. However, Expository Mode is the best way to give audience explanations with images by God of Voice, which is regard as an omniscient perspective. For example, Chinese Science and Education program released a TV show called Human and Nature which covers a wide array of subjects from environmental protection, wild creatures, geology and biology. The commentary in the documentary alongside with its images plays a significant role in giving new a meaning and introduction to audience. This mode is very easy to deliver the filmmaker’s idea and talk to audience directly.

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#4 Prompt – No Direction Home

An opening scene can sometimes be seen as a precursor to the rest of the film. Describe all of the information released in this beautifully constructed 2 min sequence edited by Thelma Schoonmaker that opens Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film, No Direction Home. What do you think Scorsese and Schoonmaker have told us about the rest of the film?

The documentary ‘No Direction Home: Bob Dylan’ traces the life and music of a singer-songwriter (Bob Dylan) and his impact on American popular music and culture from 1961 to 1966. ‘The footage was accumulated over years,’ said by Martin Scorsese, the director of the documentary, ‘The ultimate challenge is how to find the story.’

The documentary start with a live show. The lyrics, ‘no direction home, I gotta be alone’, directly brings out the theme and the name of the documentary. The live show reveals that the person who stands on the middle of the stage with an electric guitar and a harmonica is the core role of the documentary and who will be seen in the rest of the film. His musical talent had fully explained his influence to the American popular music during that period of time.1   

Then a mysterious piece of  footage pops out with some half – veiled trees that in a hazy and indeterminate fog which gave me a sense of loneliness and homelessness. I don’t know where is it. Maybe the way to Dylan’s home or a deeper meaning to show the theme of the documentary. Regard camera as Dylan who is standing in the bad situation that he can not see anything, he can not find way out to present the harsh time in his life.


Dylan talks openly about his earlier life. The trees, the house, the old picture and the gramophone record in black and white color and the slow pan and zoom in shot are following the off-screen voice and background music. Surely, it is Dylan’s voice that he was talking about his childhood and something important to him. Moreover, the black and white still image and footage play a significant role in telling his experience.


Thelma Schoonmaker’s skillful editing of interviews, archival footage, and performance film brought us a historical, nostalgic and times-changing portrait of an American idol and American culture. The result is a work of remarkable scope and insight that captures, as far as possible, the essence of a man, his music and poetry, and his vanguard era. As Scorsese says, “There is no other musical artist who weaves his influences so densely to create something so personal and unique.”



Roger Ebert, 2005, ‘No direction home: Bob Dylan’, viewed at 3 June 2015, <>.