An Analysis of Participatory and Reflexive Modes

Among the various documentary modes theorized by Bill Nichols, participatory and reflexive documentaries provide interesting comparisons when analyzed together. Participatory documentaries, as Nichols expresses in his book Introduction to Documentary, generally consist of interactions between filmmakers and the subject where live encounters guide the narrative. The filmmaker and camera’s presence significantly alter the atmosphere; therefore, participatory documentaries reach not always the absolute truth, but the truth of a filmed encounter due to this presence. Reflexive documentaries, on the other hand, are an assessment of what is being presented. Nichols explains that this mode brings self-consciousness and self-questioning to the forefront of the film. It is within reflexive documentaries that viewers are made aware of the very fact that they are watching a film. Reflexive documentaries assess howthe film is made, reminding us of how we often take documentary norms, such as interviews, as truth. Ultimately, participatory and reflexive documentary modes share many characteristics in common, and yet they likewise differ in a number of ways, making each mode significant in purpose.

By way of comparison, participatory and reflexive documentaries share a number of characteristics in common. Perhaps the most substantial similarity is that both modes highlight the filmmaker’s presence and involvement in a film and how that subsequently influences and alters what happens therein. While this dynamic is evident in many documentary modes, it is particularly emphasized in participatory and reflexive documentaries. Nichols states that interactions found within these types of films would not exist were it not for the camera (Nichols, 137-148). Take Sherman’s March, a participatory documentary as one example. Within this documentary, Ross McElwee guides the narrative with heavy reliance on captured interactions with individuals he cares about or is enthralled by. Multiple times throughout the film, when Ross sought to engage with his subjects, they seemed to act conscious of the camera, no doubt altering what they said and how they behaved. This is seen when Ross talks to his sister on one occasion when she isn’t inherently comfortable sharing on-camera the details of a surgery she had. Another example of where the filmmaker and camera play a role in dictating what occurs in the documentary is in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Throughout the film, the audience is made conscious of Vertov’s involvement in the film and film form when he is seen traversing around the city with a camera and tripod. Another moment is when the scene pulls out to reveal an editing room, where the very film being observed is being cut, altered, and edited. Without the camera, and without Vertov’s heavy involvement in the editing and in appearing in the scenes, the documentary wouldn’t be what it is. Whether the film is participatory or reflexive, they often highlight how the filmmaker is involved in the experience and process, and the way they can alter what occurs.

While participatory and reflexive documentaries share a number of things in common, they also vary in multiple ways. One such example deals with the time frame and period wherein the filmmaker’s involvement occurs. With participatory documentaries, a significant element of this involvement occurs in the very act of recording and interacting with their subjects. From initiating questions to participating in conversations, participatory mode documentaries capture live the involvement in a somewhat uncalculated, unanticipated way. This can be seen in Born into Brothelswhen Zana Briski initiates conversations and participates in the scenes alongside the subjects of the film, whether that be a visa official or the friendly children living in the red-light district. This live capturing of involvement on the part of the filmmaker sets participatory documentaries apart from reflexive documentaries. In reflexive films, the filmmaker’s involvement and interaction is a degree removed. Rather than appearing onscreen or instigating questions and conversations, the filmmakers in reflexive documentaries profess their involvement in the way they treat their work. Whether that be through editing, or film form choices made by the filmmaker, their treatment is manifest in different ways. In Surname Viet Given Name Nam, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s involvement takes a more behind-the-scenes approach as she chooses to stage interviews, alter the appearance of text on screen, or employ a voice-over element to the film. While it is displayed in a different way, Trinh T. Minh-ha remains involved in the film in a more removed way. This is just one way by which participatory and reflexive documentaries vary in style and delivery.

Reflexive and participatory documentaries share many similarities and yet likewise differ in a number of ways. Participatory documentaries place particular emphasis on the live interaction between filmmaker and subject, where the presence of the camera can influence what occurs and how subjects behave. Reflexive documentaries comment on the film-form aspect, as the filmmaker influences what occurs in a more removed, less-interactive-based way. While both modes vary in similarities and differences, they each contribute significantly to documentary film in the ways they deal with their subjects and content.

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Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington Ind: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print.

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