Most documentaries are explorative films that aim to prove a point or reveal the truth. Poetic documentaries don’t fit into this box at all - instead, they’re all artsy, avant-garde pieces trying to convey a different message.

What’s so specific about this genre that makes it stand apart? Keep reading our article to find out!

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What is a poetic documentary?

The poetic documentary is one of the 6 modes of documentary filmmaking that uses avant-garde approaches to elicit a feeling or a mood in the viewer rather than prove a point or expose a story with a traditional linear narrative, like an expository documentary.

Poetic documentary filmmakers aim to give their viewers an emotional perspective on a topic by using rhythmic visuals that showcase an abstract interpretation of reality. There are several distinctive features of a poetic documentary that would help you recognize this genre - have a look at them below.

Poetic documentary mode characteristics

  • Emphasis on the visuals
  • Relies on color, tones, sounds, and mood
  • Arranges the imagery into rhythms and juxtapositions
  • Abstract and loose with narrative
  • Tries to create a feeling rather than show the truth

The history of poetic documentary

Poetic documentary as a filmmaking genre emerged from the City Symphony film movement in the 1920s. Back then, it was a response against the style and content of the fiction film genre that dominated the industry. Even though the poetic documentary as a genre existed since the 20s, the term itself was only coined in 2001 by documentary theorist Bill Nichols in his book “Introduction to Documentary”, along with other documentary modes.

5 examples of poetic documentaries

Rain (1924)

In this documentary, the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivans uses disconnected shots to show how it feels to experience a rainstorm in Amsterdam.

Man of Aran (1934)

This film offers a poetic vision of the daily life of people living on the Aran Islands near the coast of Ireland. Trying to show life as it is, the director was not concerned with adhering to the standard non-fiction restraints and fabricated scenes that would romanticize island life.

The taste of life (1979)

This half-hour color documentary is one of the most lyrical and heartwarming creations of all the Farocki films. It’s a series of street scenes: some shown silently, some with sync sound, that proceeds with musical variations around certain themes.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

This documentary by Godfrey Reggio juxtaposes slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and nature with a haunting score to reveal the effects that cities and modern technology have on human life.

World mirror cinema (2005)

Gustav Deutsch brilliantly manipulates found footage from the silent era and views every inch of the frame as a window onto hidden lives. The intercutting shots from other films present stories that expand beyond the glimpses of a moment’s screen time.

3 tips to make a poetic documentary

Focus on rhythm, composition, and shot design

Poetic documentaries don’t stick to maintaining continuity from scene to scene like we are used to seeing in regular filmmaking creations. The goal of any poetic documentary is to break from the standard rules and emphasize rhythm, composition, and shot design to create visuals that would evoke a new feeling and a new angle to a story.

Emphasize building the characters

Poetic documentaries are all about creating a mood, so in this genre, having a linear narrative isn’t necessary. Characters don’t go through traditional arcs, and the storylines don’t move to resolutions. However, the emphasis in the poetic documentaries is still on believable characters and the new angle they can provide to the theme, so make sure to spend some time on building your characters.

Avoid establishing an objective truth

Poetic documentaries don’t try to prove a fact-based truth - instead, they provide a subjective interpretation of a topic. Forget about journalistic-like documentary making: when creating a poetic one, go with your feelings and don’t shy away from abstract and experimental ways of conveying your message.

Learn Documentary filmmaking 101

Documentary filmmaking is an exciting dimension of the film industry, and there’s just so much to learn in this domain. Learn all the essentials of creating a documentary


What is a poetic documentary?

The poetic documentary is one of the 6 modes of documentary filmmaking that uses avant-garde approaches to elicit a feeling or a mood in the viewer rather than prove a point or expose a story with a traditional linear narrative.

How to make a poetic documentary?

1. Focus on rhythm, composition, and shot design, 2. Put emphasis on building the characters, 3. Avoid establishing an objective truth, and 4) arrange the imagery into rhythms and juxtapositions.

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