#1 – Introduction to Documentary

I would like to work in the expository mode of documentary.

Nichols (2010, p. 211) stated that expository mode of documentary ‘concerns about historical accuracy and verifiability’. As expository mode of documentary is didactic, fact checking is extremely important for all information, old footages, data, etc. Expository mode of documentary ‘uses images from many different times and places to illustrate a perspective or argument’ (Nichols 2010, p. 211).

For example, seven parts documentary series Why We Fight (1942) uses images from many different times and places to illustrate events that pulled the U.S. into World War II.


Expository mode of documentary emphasizes verbal commentary and argumentative logic (Nichols 2010). The narrator guides viewers through the documentary to address preferred meaning and explanation of the question and subject.

In documentary film Earth (2007), narrator Patrick Stewart speaks direct to viewers in the whole documentary to state the threats to polar bear, African bush elephant and humpback whale under the rapid environmental change. The professional and informative voice over of Stewart builds a sense of authority to ‘develop the viewer’s trust’ (Nichols 2010, p. 211).

I want to work in expository mode of documentary because I’m inspired by Chinese documentary series A Bite of China (2012). The heavily researched two- season TV documentary series introduces the Chinese local food culture and ingredients in the broad country. From south to north, the crew interviews different people to tell the story behind the food processing and cooking methods and which are still inherited.

Before I watched ‘A Bite of China’, I thought that expository mode of documentary only tells something historical, technological or natural. But ‘A Bite of China’ did a huge research and traced farmers and workers’ work to find out the connection between people and food on an emotional level. The informative documentary series did a good balance on education and the

The director used many close up shots to the people’s faces and food, emphasizing the people’s feelings and the cuisine in details. Long shots or very long shot are used to show viewers the specific locations for the precious ingredients. As the narration guided viewers in the whole documentary smoothly, viewers could absorb all information easily and directly.

But Nichols mentioned that ‘many filmmakers now chose to abandon all of the forms of control over the staging, arrangement, or composition of a scene made possible by the poetic and expository modes’ (2010, p. 172). Many filmmakers are making observation mode of documentary with ‘no voice-over commentary, no supplementary music or sound effects, no inter-titles, no historical reenactments, no behavior repeated for the camera, and not even any interviews’ (Nichols 2010, p. 172). They may think that expository mode of documentary is too ‘boring’.

In my opinions, observation mode of documentary’s presentation may not suit every viewer. Although the presentation of expository modes of documentary may be modelized, the ‘common’ and ‘normal’ expository mode of documentary is still needed for general public. Addressing message directly to viewers is sometimes necessary, and expository mode of documentary can also connect people and be interesting.


A Bite of China (2012), documentary, China. Distributed by China Central Television. Directed by Xiaoqing Chen.

Earth (2007), documentary, United Kingdom. Distributed by Lionsgate. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield.

Nichols, B 2010, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd edn, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Why We Fight (1942), documentary, United States of America. Distributed by Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures. Directed by Frank Capra.






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