Priyanka Maharaj

Modality || ‘The Creators’


Whether you watch documentaries out of genuine topical interest or just out of pure curiosity, there is without a doubt, an endless array of documentaries out there to watch; often buried underneath junk on the internet. Documentary filmmakers are able to instinctively, creatively and in most cases, factually document anything from people, places, animals, hobbies, the list could go on. Some doco makers, like Michael Moore, believe documentaries are or at least should be “films,” [I have shared my opinion on this quote in an earlier blog post.] Although there is a clear distinction between fictitious films and factual documentaries, just like narrative films, documentary has its own, now more conventional, structures available to doco makers to utilise. Here is where I’ll introduce to you the term – ‘Modality’.

The online version of the Oxford dictionary explains the term succinctly;

“A particular mode in which something exists or is experienced or expressed.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this term in relation to documentaries is a little confusing. So let’s for the sake of you and I, narrow it down to two differing ideas of modality; the first being Bill Nichols’ categorisation of documentary into 6 distinct modes, the other being Michael Renov’s concept of rhetorical modality. As a practical application, I’ll later corroborate these two ideas to a short documentary found on YouTube called,“The Creators.” 

Bill Nichols is an American film critic and theoretician and is the pioneer behind the 6 modes of documentary. In his book, Introduction to Documentary (2010,P.158), Nichols explains that these six modes, “establish a loose frame-work” and “sets up conventions” however it is important to note that these modes are left to the filmmakers to “emulate in other voices,” or in other words- left to the interpretation of the filmmaker. These particular modes are;

Expository mode – Argumentative; assertions reinforced by evidence.

Observational mode – Don’t Mind Me; unobtrusive camera which set out to capture the true “everyday” life of a subject.

Participatory mode – I’m going on a journey too; emphasises the relationship with filmmaker and subject. Often from the filmmaker’s point of view; narration may be included.

Poetic mode – Metaphorically Deep; often abstract. Visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, description, and form are important components.

Reflexive mode – I am making this; draws attention to the ideas and conventions create by filmmakers, emphasises that filmmakers construct representations of reality.

Performative mode – Feel my Feels; expresses the subjective or expressive aspect of the filmmaker’s involvement, emotions that are created are most important.

Michael Renov is a professor of Critical Studies and is the creator of rhetorical modality of which he explains in his book, Theorizing Documentary (p.21). Renov conceptualises documentary motivations? into “four fundamental tendencies of documentary… or rhetorical/aesthetic functions attributable to documentary practice.” 

To Record,Reveal, or Preserve – Just Be In The Moment – To replicate the historical real, to capture reality in that time.

To Persuade or Promote- Pretty Sales – Almost like a corporate video, to sell a view point.

To Analyse or Interrogate – Need to make sense – Emphasising the need to inquire/question around particular [controversial] subjects.

To Express – What is its purpose? Too Look pretty – An aesthetic piece to take the audience on a visual journey.

It is a lot to take in, so let’s look at these two ideas practically. I recently was watching some of my favourite Youtubers’, when I stumbled across a documentary surrounding a few of them. “The Creators” was directed by Nanette Burstein in 2015 –

“provides a glimpse into the lives of the internet’s biggest stars, seen from a different angle.” 

I adored Zoella and after watching this documentary it was very insightful to see a new light on her personality and her creative process. With an understanding of Bill Nichols six modes of documentary, its often difficult to categorise documentaries as filmmakers will use multiple elements from multiple modes. After viewing ‘The Creators,’ I feel like it would fit nicely under the performative mode. There are 4 Youtuber’s and each of their stories relating to their Youtube journeys are explored chronologically and intertwine amongst each other smoothly.

This shows that the director went into film this documentary with personal but direct questions, the director wanted to get similar content from all 4 YouTubers’. They all explain how they started youtube, how they grew to such popularity, the different walks of life they came from and the trails they have and still do face in the spotlight. As the audience there is the connection built between the subject and you, you tend to get excited when the subject is excited about hitting 3 Million subscribers and you feel empathetic when the subjects talk about their hardships such as having to deal with a lack of privacy and anxiety. Generally the performative mode is said to be “well-suited to telling the stories of filmmakers… offering the chance to air unique perspectives without having to argue the validity of their experiences.” Its evident that the director has utilised elements of this mode to portray all characters positively. You may be wondering how this documentary may not fall under observational, both modes have elements that are similar. It is the use of interviews and B-roll sets within this documentary that doesn’t allow it to be an observational doco because the questions and visuals are obtrusive and direct the documentaries intention.

In regards to Michael Renov, this documentary conceptualises the to Persuade or Promote idea exclusively. How it does this, is through the interviews, the questions are direct and what I assume the director intended with this film, was to show “behind the scenes” of the Youtube creators and their personalties, to not only promote them to a larger audience but to show their humanity, that famous internet people also have struggles.  This documentary doesn’t fit under the other ideas because;

To Record,Reveal, or Preserve – Just Be In The Moment – This idea relates to Bill Nichols observational mode and as stated before, there isn’t alot that is observational as a lot of it is constructed, b-roll or interviews.

To Analyse or Interrogate – Need to make sense – This documentary doesn’t intend to raise questions or intrude into further their personal lives.

To Express – What is its purpose? Too Look pretty – The film relies on the words of the subject just as the visuals are motivated by the subject.

So there we have it, we’ve managed to gain a deeper understanding of Bill Nichols’ categorisation of documentary into 6 distinct modes and Michael Renov’s concept of rhetorical modality and we’ve explored this with a practical application with the viewing and review of the Youtube short documentary, ‘The Creators’.


References –

Bill Nichols. (2016). Wikipedia. Retrieved 11 May 2016, from

Documentary mode. (2016). Wikipedia. Retrieved 11 May 2016, from

Modality – definition of modality in English from the Oxford dictionary. (2016). Retrieved 11 May 2016, from

Nanette Burstein. (2015).

Nichols, B. (2010) Introduction to Documentary, 2nd Edition. USA: Indiana University Press.(p.158)

Renov, M. (1993). Theorizing Documentary.  Retrieved 11 May 2016, from

Six Principal Modes of Documentary Filmmaking – Meridian Stories. (2016) Retrieved 11 May 2016, from