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What Is an Expository Documentary

If you’ve ever watched Planet Earth or any of the BBC’s many other nature programs, you’ve seen an expository documentary. An expository documentary is designed to inform and educate the viewer. It explains concepts about our world differently from the way in which an observational, or participatory film handles a story.

An ‘Objective’ Account

An expository documentary is a form of documentary film – a documentary mode – that purports to give an objective account of people, places, and events – almost always with the use of spoken narrative.

The term comes from the American film critic Bill Nichols, who distinguishes five other documentary modes:

  • reflexive documentary
  • poetic documentary
  • performative documentary
  • observational documentary
  • participatory documentary

These styles have different approaches to creating meaning. Each of these styles aims to convey something about the world through different means.

Expository documentaries are based on information presented in an explanatory way. The term “exposition” means “to explain” or “to describe,” which makes sense because documentaries usually aim to educate viewers about a particular topic or issue.

Documentary film without nuanced journalistic sourcing risks being sensational, tendentious or broad-brushed.

Naomi Wolf

In addition to documentaries, the expository mode is often used in news programs, factual programs, and historical dramas. The main reason for this is to try to provide viewers with an evidential argument to convince them of a certain point of view.

The Devices Used By Expository Documentaries

There are some common features of expository documentaries that you’ll quickly recognize once you’ve seen a few of them.

First, they’re usually quite long. This is due to the amount of time it takes to explain the story the film is trying to convey to the viewers. Second, they’re usually very educational in their format and structure. This is because they try to build their arguments around the information. And finally, they usually use narration to do so.

Here are some of the key identifiers you can use to tell if a film is expository:

  • Evidentiary editing supports the central argument of the film. Subtitles and graphic elements are often used extensively. The editing style differs from other types of documentaries in that it’s often dry and matter-of-fact, rather than elegiac or intimate, as is the case with an observational or poetic documentary.
  • The narration is in the third person and makes extensive use of evidence and information. Even when spoken by an actor or narrator, the tone and style are often journalistic or quasi-journalistic. A formal narrative voice-over (V0) authoritatively explains the context and nature of the social world being portrayed. Viewers can get an overview of a situation from which they can draw their own conclusions.
  • Usually, however, a final conclusion is drawn. In-depth documentaries usually leave no questions or plot lines unresolved or completely open. The above overview serves to direct the audience to a particular point of view, guided by commentary.

Is There Any Such Thing As Objective Documentary Film?

Given the nature of expository documentaries, it’s important to emphasize that they aren’t neutral, objective representations of reality. Their perspective is clearly biased.

This is because all films are products of human perception, and documentaries must be viewed in this context. This means that they’re primarily concerned with how the audience might interpret the content of the film.

Every single decision that a filmmaker, or even a team of filmmakers, makes is a subjective decision. Starting with the choice of participants and shots, to the choice of lighting, camera angle, and music.

In documentary films, you’re a storyteller using found objects. You still have to have a story arc and all the elements that make a good story, It really helped me mature as a storyteller.

Garth Stein

That said, documentaries sometimes try to portray an event or phenomenon as truthfully as possible. In 1999, I was involved in the production of a 104-minute documentary called A Cry From the Grave.

The film is a powerful indictment of the Srebrenica war crime, committed by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic in 1995, as the Bosnian war was coming to an end.

Although the film definitely does not shirk the job of condemning the massacre, exposing the guilty, and honoring the victims – and therefore makes a judgment on what happened – it does tell the story blow-by-blow in as ‘factual’ a manner as possible and was careful to include different perspectives and testimony.

So, was it an expository film? Absolutely. An ‘objective’ film? Honestly, no.

The Expository Mode Is the Dominant Form of Documentary Filmmaking

Once you start telling a complex story in a documentary, especially if there’s little footage of the actual people or events, you have to deal with exposition.

Because anything else is a kind of cinematic navel-gazing that ultimately serves no one – neither the filmmaker nor the audience. And least of all to those who actually experienced the events of the story that the documentary depicts.

This is perhaps why many documentary filmmakers gravitate toward expository narratives – from nature films to historical films to crime films to films about current events.

The expository documentary usually takes a subject and uses interviews, archival footage, and other media to present information about it.

Some Examples of Expository Documentary Films

  • Nanook of the North (1922)
  • The Civil War (1990)
  • The Blue Planet (2001)
  • March of the Penguins (2005)
  • An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
  • The Dust Bowl (2012)
  • Our Planet (2019)

Expository documentaries are popular because they give viewers relevant, informative details about a topic in a short amount of time. In other words, they’re great for learning something new!

The Way Narrative Works in Expository Documentary

A documentary presents a nonfiction topic through narrative stories with facts, information, or interviews.

It may follow a linear story or jump around within the topic. The overall strategy is to provide the viewer with information and context to help them better understand the topic.

For example, a documentary on human trafficking might tell the stories of trafficking victims while explaining what human trafficking is, how people get involved, what happens when they do, and how people can stop trafficking.

Why Expository Films Are Regarded as Traditional

Exemplary documentaries are similar to what some people call traditional documentaries because they provide an overview or profile of a particular topic.

  • They are ‘objective’, not personal: An expository documentary aims at being evidential, with rhetorical content.
  • They present information logically: A meaningful documentary is well-structured, with transitions that make sense and lead the viewer from one idea to the next.
  • They’re based on facts, not opinions: They rely on information gathered through research, interviews, etc., rather than the filmmaker’s experiences or stories about the subject.

The downside is that it can be more difficult to bring an expository documentary to life on screen than in other “modes” such as participatory mode or observational mode films.

In some ways, a compelling expository documentary is a much more challenging form of filmmaking! The editing decisions on visual interpretation have to be every bit as subtle.

Less Reliance on Personal Experience

Expository documentaries differ from observational documentaries in that they don’t rely on direct personal experience or observational narratives to portray the subject.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers’ personal experiences and knowledge provide the background for how and why the film is made in the documentary style it is. Documentaries are made out of passion. So you can be sure that the makers of the film or series have strong feelings about the subject they’re exploring or the person they’re interviewing.

This affects not only the entire film but also the individual scenes and sequences within it.

A viewer watching a documentary shouldn’t only take away new knowledge, but also a clear understanding of how the documentary filmmaker feels about that knowledge.

The best films of any kind, narrative or documentary, provoke questions.

Edward Norton