Documentary: What is the Expository Mode?

Documentary - British Documentary Movement - Reflexive Mode - Participatory Mode - Observational Mode - Performative Mode - Observational Mode - Documentary Mode - Mode - Expository Mode - Poetic Mode

The Expository mode stresses the importance of creating an impression of authenticity and having a well-supported argument.

Unlike the Poetic Mode, the Expository Mode of documentary addresses the viewer directly and does this through the use of titles and/or voice-over to add a perspective or argument to what is shown in the film. A common feature found in this mode is the “voice of God” commentary (narration without seeing the person in the film). The commentary gives an impression of omniscience and therefore causes the audience to associate it with objectivity. Expository mode gives the idea that it is able to judge things in the historical world without actually getting caught up in them; the tone of these documentaries is often authoritative.

Imagery in this style of documentary is used to support what is being said as a way to “illustrate, illuminate, revoke or act in counterpoint to what is said.” The commentary on the other worked as a way to organise the images and make sense of them. When it comes to editing in expository mode documentary, there is less of an emphasis on creating patterns and rhythms and more on keeping the continuity of the argument and perspective. This is known as evidentiary editing.

The Expository mode is one of the six modes of documentary outlined by Bill Nichols.

The History

Documentaries started gaining actual recognition in the late 1920s, early 1930s. John Grierson was a pioneer of the genre and also was able to secure government sponsorship for his films in Britain. He saw the value film had in bringing governmental issues like poverty and inflation to light and used the expository mode to get his point across to the audience. This approach has been criticised by film theorist Brian Winston who felt that early documentary filmmakers took “a romantic view of their working-class subjects” and failed to create change.

Notable Filmmakers – Expository Mode

  • Jon Grierson
  • Humphrey Jennings
  • Pare Lorentz
  • Frank Capra
  • David Attenborough

Notable Works

March of the Penguins

March of the penguins is a French documentary that displays the annual journey penguins take to their breeding grounds where they find a mate and start a family. It is important to note that only the English version exhibits features of the expository mode by using Morgan Freeman as a narrator speaking in the third person (voice of God). In the original French version, the story is told from the perspective of the penguins who speak form themselves in the first person.

The Plow That Broke The Plains

The Plow That Broke The Plains is an American documentary that discusses the effects of uncontrolled farming on The Great Plains of the USA and Canada. This destruction of the soil ultimately led to the Dust Bowl.  Although only 25 minutes, this documentary is highly engaging. With narration from Thomas Chalmers and music by Virgil Thomson, this film gives a great insight into a more traditional form of documentary that was popular in the past.

The Blue Planet

The Blue Planet is an 8 episode documentary series that grants audiences a look into the world’s most amazing oceans and the life found within them. With each episode being 50 minutes long, viewers are able to explore life underwater guided by narration. The sound design and stunning cinematography add to the beauty we see when discovering the different creatures of the ocean. I would highly suggest watching the British version, as the rich voice of David Attenborough adds to the magical feel each episode provides.

Song of Ceylon

Produced by John Grierson (a lead figure in some of the first British and Canadian documentaries), The Song of Ceylon documents life in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Audiences get to see the environment, the people, and the religious practices of the country. The film uses the narration of Lionel Wendt and was shot on location in Sri Lanka.

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