Week 3 - Learning Journal - Expository Documentary

This week, the focus was on the expository mode of documentary. As Nichols describes, the expository mode focuses on building an argument rather than aiming for the aesthetics or poetry of the frame as seen previously in the observational mode (Nichols, 2001, p.105). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “expository” as “serving to set forth the meaning of something” (OED, 2019). We can interpret this as exposing and explaining an argument for the viewer. This focus on an argument is important for expository documentary as Knowles says that the informational and educational impulses of early documentaries (following the public service broadcasting model in TV) helped to make the expository mode accessible and popular for all audiences.

              A major drive in the expository mode is narration, through “a voice of God” voice-over (where the presenter is not seen), or a “voice-of-authority” narration (where the presenter is visible), which is typically a male voice (Nichols, 2001, p.105). The difference between voice-over in expository and participatory is that the expository mode is carefully laid out and explaining things (mostly) after-the-fact in an informative way, whereas in participatory (taking “Encounters at the End of the World” as an example), the director was adding his own curious narration as he was going through the participatory process.

              Nichols also states the importance of “informing logic carried by the spoken word” over any other motive in the mode, claiming that “images serve a supporting role” rather than a main role in the other modes (Nichols, 2001, p.107). The visual side of this mode is still significant however, as it can help to demonstrate the arguments raised by the filmmaker, and the filmmaker can also choose to use the screen to show intertitles that are aimed directly at the audience.

              As the mode is very argumentative and persuasive, Knowles says that it makes the mode very didactic, meaning it is very instructional and forces the audience to think in a particular way, and that it can also sometimes be seen as patronising because of its excessive use of explanation, which leaves no room for ambiguity.

Screening – Night Train (Harry Watt and Basil Wright, 1936)

Night Train (Harry Watt and Basil Wright, 1936) was produced by the GPO Film Unit (General Post Office) as an informational video for the public explaining how post was circulated across the country overnight on Royal Mail’s trains. It’s certainly an interesting watch, as it shows many aspects of the postal service that most customers don’t see, such as the sorting offices’ pigeon holes, how mail sacks are loaded and unloaded on and off the train as it is moving, the signal boxes, and the high-pressure, fast-paced nature of the postal workers’ jobs.

              Throughout the film, a male narrator describes key moments within the film that the audience may not understand or providing some extra details that show how grand and royal the postal service is, such as “those letters were posted in Bletchley half an hour ago”. However, the narrator does take steps back throughout the film, allowing us to hear the dialogue directly from and between the workers. They do not interact with the camera, similarly to the observational mode, however the authoritarian voice of the narrator brings us back to reality and upholds the ‘truth’ of the situation.

              The orchestral soundtrack of the film presents the service as lively, happy and ‘royal’, even though the film has somewhat negative and pressuring scenes, such as when the Holyhead train is late and the worker shouts “where’s that Holyhead stuff?”. We could see this as the filmmakers persuading the audience that even though not everything may go to plan, the service is still an efficient system as a whole.

            To end the film, there is a poetic musical piece as the train heads towards the north. The poem glorifies the “night mail” with it reading: “letters for the rich, letters for the poor, the shop at the corner and the girl next door”. This shows just how much reach the service has and encourages the audience to have an appreciation for it. There’s a steady rhythm to the piece as well, which we can link to the steady beat of a steam train rolling down a track.

Screening – An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) is focused on Al Gore’s personal views and convictions about global warming and climate change, mainly focused on a concert he hosted to an audience in a venue. However, it does also follow him to the concert, as well as show his own research at home.

              Most of An Inconvenient Truth is a concert recording following Gore presenting to an audience, with his presentation containing archive material related to climate change, graphs that he has collated from his research, as well as engaging short clips relating to educating people about the issue. What makes An Inconvenient Truth a successful expository film is that Al Gore acts as a “voice of authority”, as Nichols describes it (2001, p.105), which is further helped with his credentials as a former Vice President of the United States. Al Gore has clearly researched into the topic and presents his presentation in a way that keeps the audience constantly engaged.

              What makes An Inconvenient Truth an expository film is the entire motive – Gore is trying to present his argument and evidence to the audience that something needs to be done about climate change, supported by graphs, clips and his own monologue. He doesn’t present counter-arguments, rather he uses them to support his point of view.

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