Documentary Films in South Africa

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Documentaries and Their Modes

Documentaries are a unique approach to filmmaking in that they “address the world in which we live rather than a world imagined by the filmmaker,” (Nichols 2010, p. xi) so that they are more closely related to truth rather than to fiction. As such, they are perfect vehicles for South African expression, through which the voices that populate the nation’s discourse can be presented in particular ways. There are five distinct modes or types of documentaries out of the traits and conventions that permeate the documentary tradition to date, and each are better-suited to bring to light certain aspects of our culture than other forms of expression.


Expository documentaries are the type that are most closely associated with the genre, and the most common mode used. Expository documentaries emphasize on verbal commentary and argumentative logic and speak directly to the viewer through a narration or a voice over (Fox 2016). The perspective comes from a single source and the action of the documentary is interpreted in light of this view. This reflects on the editing in the expository type, which is concerned with narrative continuity, rather than spatial or temporal. Nichols (2010) describes this type of editing as evidentiary editing, where images or footage act in a supporting role to what is being said, with the goal of presenting these as evidence toward a fact. That being said, expository documentaries make for great educational material, and can tackle aspects of culture and society, e.g. the AIDS epidemic, in a very academic or educational way.


Whereas expository documentaries concern themselves with creating a narrative of facts, observational types allow its subjects to define the action through their mere observation. Observational documentaries emphasize “a direct engagement with the everyday life of subjects as observed by an unobtrusive camera” (Nichols 2010, p. 31). The camera is assumed to be non-present or invisible “on the scene,” so every action that happens is presented as happening as they are. Editing under this mode reflects this to a certain degree by minimizing narration, music, or interviews. The “on the scene” nature of the camera is left untouched, and the camera is presented as part and parcel of that historical world. In that regard, observational documentaries affirm “a sense of commitment or engagement with the immediate, intimate, and personal as it occurs” (p. 177). As such, observational documentaries have great potential in documenting the daily lives and experiences of indigenous peoples like the Khoisan, or alternatively, how children behave in school.


Participatory documentaries, on the other hand, directly engage its subject. In fact, the entire emphasis of this type is on the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject/s, which usually takes the form of an interview. The mode, according to Nichols, presents “the historical world as represented by someone who actively engages with others” (p. 182). Since this interaction between filmmaker and subject are central to the action, editing heavily features the encounter. Fox notes that temporal and spatial unity might still serve as guiding parameters of scenes and that it can also contain scores, so long as “the driving force of editorial choices” remain to be the “real-time interactions between maker and subject” (Fox 2016, p. 53). Participatory documentaries, as such, are a great way to take a sample of opinions from people regarding their views on modern social issues such as immigration, the Black Economic Empowerment policies, and state-owned enterprises.


Nichols (2010) describes reflexive documentaries as the most self-conscious and self-questioning mode of representation because it makes the viewer realize that s/he is watching a documentary, a film that is not an immediate part of his/her reality. As such, the goal of editing is to demystify the film and give the viewer a candid look at the processes, people, and ideas that underlie the documentary itself. By nature, reflexive documentaries have a broken fourth wall, so that the job of the filmmaker is to involve the audience in the filmmaking process. This type of documentary often ends open-ended, because “it is the viewer… who has to decide which version may be the truth” (Roscoe and Hight 2001, p. 21). Because the viewer is given access to the filming process, reflexive films tend to elicit a strong sense of reality, allowing viewers to have better judgment with regard to its content. In that sense, reflexive documentaries are flexible and can be used to document any social issue, e.g. the return of the death penalty, to give it a concrete sense of realness and contemporariness.


If expository documentaries are made to make logical discourse palatable and digestible, performative documentaries focus on the creation of narratives that impact affect more than intellect. The “realities” that the performative type presents are not spatial or physical in nature, but visceral, so that its goal is to have the viewer experience the world or an aspect of it in a particular way. The emphasis on lived or embodied knowledge and experience lends itself to editing as the inclusion of a genuine voice, i.e., a visible narrator who is usually a sufferer or a participant in the event or culture being depicted. But unlike in the participatory mode, the narrative created centers on the introspection of the narrator. All editorial choices reflect the deeply personal tone that results from this introspection. Performative documentaries, as such, are very suited for covering highly emotional social issues such as marginalization. For example, the narrator could be from a White farming community whose land had been dispossessed, and the documentary can explore his opinion on the dispossession.


Documentaries are a looking-glass of perspectives that problematize and expand on aspects of reality. They interpret those aspects and provide a particular slant, made more effective by the different documentary modes. That is why they carry such great potential for the expression of South African culture and may become venues for the presentation of common or hidden problems that plague society, as well as a source of potential solutions to those problems.


Fox, B. (2016). Documentary media: History, theory, practice. 2nd

ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. 2nd ed. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (2001). Faking it: Mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality. New York, NY: Manchester University Press.

September 25, 2023

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