The Relationship between Mode, Form and Content in Documentary Films

The Relationship between Mode, Form and Content in Documentary Films

Bill Nichols is the American theorist responsible for developing the documentary mode as a conceptual scheme (Nichols 2).  It is a concept that aims at distinguishing certain characteristics and conventions of documentary film styles. The theorist identified six unique modes in his schematic script namely perfomative, reflexive, poetic, expository, observational, and participatory modes (Nichols 10). While his discussion progresses in a chronology of appearance, these types of films find their way back to themes and stylistic devices sourced from other modes. This article will provide a review of the documentary “Grizzly Man, 2005”. The main agenda behind this analysis is to find the relation between the documentary’s mode, form, and content. It also focuses on how these three film aspects have an influence on the documentary’s themes ideas and construction of reality. The analysis will also feature the strengths and weaknesses of the documentary’s mode, and the overall approach to the topic.

“Grizzly Man” is a documentary directed by German Werner Herzog, and narrates the life and death chronicles of a bear enthusiast known as Timothy Treadwell, who passed away tragically from an attack by a bear (Grant 67). The documentary comprises of some of Timothy’s visual recordings of interactions with the grizzly animals, and interviews of individuals involved with Timothy ad his profession as a bear enthusiast. Treadwell and his girlfriend Annie passed away after being feasted upon by a bear and the animals killed when their body parts were being retrieved. Herzog found Timothy’s footage and used it to produce the documentary. The production is based on the participatory mode in Bill’s theory. In this mode, the filmmaker or director interacts with the audience as opposed to observing them discreetly (Nichols Bill 32). It creates collaboration between the contributor and the filmmaker. The voice of Timothy is heard in the film, even though his persona is non-existent or passed away. Nichols expresses that in the participatory mode, actions happening in front of the camera become the guide of interaction between the audience and filmmaker. In a nutshell, it captures the raw essence of the film from Timothy’s original perspective.


Some of the prominent issues in the documentary include wildlife preservation, man versus nature, obsession, and self-discovery. The article will review the ideas regarding how it expressed the mode, form, and content.

  1. a) Wildlife Protection and Preservation

Timothy dedicated his life to working for the cause of conserving and protecting the bears. They face extinction because human beings are expanding their communities and promoting urbanization by doing away with their habitats. Less attention is paid to the film’s form or visual style because the videos are published in their original state. They are viewed in their raw, unedited state to establish its authenticity and the realness of the story. The aspect of participatory mode stands out more to appeal to the audience’s emotions and get them hooked to keep watching the true life story.

Regarding content, Herzog lets Timothy’s videos express their content. He only adds interviews from various people who were either bear experts or close to Treadwell. On the issue of preservation, the audience can identify with Timothy’s desire to campaign for the rights of the bear. They can “interact” with his through his videos. The participatory mode enhances the content of the films as the audience receives firsthand information from a former enthusiast. Some may even gain interest in the profession by being inspired by Timothy’s life.

  1. b) Man vs. Nature

According to the documentary, Timothy stated that he felt much more at home in the wild than among human beings. He says that civilization has denied him love, companionship, and understanding, and chooses to find them in the grizzly bear. He also seeks to connect with his inner bear, as he assumes the animals are capable of fulfilling his emotional beings more than humans. The participatory mode in this theme enhances the content. The audience freely views and listens to how Timothy is passionate about his cause and lives most of his life in isolation in the wilderness. The visual form also enhances the story because it presents real life situations, conversations’, and events.

However, the reality is that Timothy was still human, and the bears were still wild animals. He was attempting to cross nature’s eternal boundary but unfortunately paid the price with his life. The audience can build a mental picture of how Timothy failed at the end of the day. He desired so much to be a part of the pack, and felt like a bear within but forgot he was still human, and the bear still an animal. Form, mode, and content complement each other to make the audience aware of the seriousness of the cause. Timothy was an expert in dealing with bears, but at the end of the day, his prowess did not stop nature from taking its course.

  1. c) Obsessions and Addictions

Treadwell admits that he was a former alcoholic, and later on, quit on the day he got committed to the cause and devoted his life to serving and protecting bears. He viewed the transformation as a miracle and focused all his energy on his new cause. The documentary’s participatory mode allows for him to narrate his personal life experience. It enriches the content of the film because the audience views Timothy from a different angle. They can understand that his full devotion might have been an escape from facing life all over again as a reformed alcoholic. `The audience can also deduce that his lifestyle became his new addiction to deflect from his old one. Visual form strengthens the theme of obsession because they can view Timothy’s enthusiasm in dealing with bears. The documentary’s picture is not acted or edited. Therefore, the audience gets connects with Timothy’s authenticity.

  1. d) Self-identity

This theme is expressed by Timothy’s struggle to escape from the reality of humanity. He seems to be struggling with internal issues and uses his life with bears as an escape. He states that he failed at several things, for example, women, acting, and swimming. The viewers can see him create another world for himself by escaping humanity or human contact, and engrossing himself with the grizzly animals. His insecurity is manifested in his choice because he feels safe around the bear, a huge animal that offers the impression of security and protection. By getting attached to bears, he avoids the rejection that comes with getting attached to fellow human beings. The audio recordings also contribute to the participatory mode identified in the documentary and assist in building the theme and enriching the content.

Strengths and weaknesses of Grizzly Man’s Participatory Mode

In this documentary, the story relies entirely on Timothy’s narrations. One of the strengths in this is that it provides an authentic experience for the audience. They get first a firsthand account of the events as they happened and make their mind about what to consider based on the truth they see, and not what they’re made to believe. This mode also complemented the themes, and content of the documentary. The audience can justify, accept or refute the message in the production based on the factual information they receive.

The weakness of this mode as used in the film is that Timothy’s narration is his own. He paints the picture he wants people to see and gives his firsthand account of his own stories. The other disadvantage is that while the mode builds on the production’s themes and content, it compromises on the form or visual style. The documentary consists of a compilation of videos shot by Timothy, and they were not done for the purpose of producing a quality film but as personal journals. The film, therefore, has to compromise on the visual quality to clearly bring out the participatory mode of creating an interaction with the audience.

Reflexive vs. Performative Reality

The documentary can be viewed as representing both reflexively or performatively reality depending on individual preference or goal. For an animal enthusiast, the film may be reflexively compelling, whereas for an individual studying the relationship between man and nature, the documentary may appeal to them as empowering their knowledge. A person specializing in film may concentrate on the quality of the production, and in this case, the individual may find it lacking both aspects. Herzog attempts to incorporate both realities by giving a true story live account of Timothy while at the same time using people to give commentaries or opinions that promote knowledge empowerment.

Works Cited

Dormehl, Luke. A Journey Through Documentary Film. Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2012. Print.

Fry, Stephen, and Mark Carwardine. Inquisitive Documentaries. Collingwood, Vic.: Madman

Entertainment [distributor, 2013.

Grant, Barry K, and Jim Hillier. 100 Documentary Films. London: BFI, 2009. Print.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. , 2010.Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Print.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington.: Indiana

Univ. Press, 2010. Print.