Mapping Nichols’ Modes in Documentary Film – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Helvetica

Barry Natusch, Nihon University, Japan
Beryl Hawkins, Temple University, Japan
Published: July 2014

Citation: Natusch, B., & Hawkins, B. (2014). Mapping Nichols’ Modes in Documentary Film – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Helvetica. IAFOR Journal of Media, Communication & Film, 2(1).


Bill Nichols’ “modes” theory of classifying documentary films by describing them in terms of poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive and performative “modes” is well established as an analytical model. Nichols’ mode taxonomy is generally used to broadly describe the predominant mode present throughout a film and therefore operates at a macro level. It is proposed, however, that Nichols’ concept of modes is also applicable at a micro level. By this is meant that in-depth scene-by-scene analysis is also possible in terms of Nichols’ modes in order to better
understand the film structure and the director’s vision. To demonstrate the proposed approach, Nichols’ theory of modes is used to analyse the structure of two recent films, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Klayman 2012) and Helvetica (Hustwit 2007) by categorizing scenes in terms of modes. It is shown that this empirical approach is useful for filmmakers and film critics and justifies the influential position of Nichols in film theory.


Ai Weiwei, Helvetica, documentary films, Bill Nichols, narrative