Documentary: What is the Participatory Mode?

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In a participatory mode documentary, the filmmaker plays an active role in the story and has meaningful exchanges with the people they’re filming. The documentary’s maker may make a cameo appearance during an interview, provide a voiceover from off-camera, or even appear on camera alone. The filmmaker’s involvement may have little effect on the story, or it may have a profound one.

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

The History

In Participatory mode documentaries, “the filmmaker becomes a social actor,” as Bill Nichols puts it. Even though the filmmaker doesn’t have any say in how the subject is portrayed, they nonetheless present their own take on events.

This style typically explores a broad topic or theme. For instance, the events leading up to the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre are examined in Bowling for Columbine (2002). On-screen, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore conducts in-person interviews with classroom instructors and students.

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