Documentary and Social Change

Course Description:

For well over a century, non-fiction film has figured prominently in the public sphere as a powerful means of persuasion. Since its inception, documentary film has begged the question of social change. John Grierson, an early theorist/filmmaker who labeled non-fiction film “documentary,” believed that the genre should have serious social purpose because of the medium’s instrumental potential. This course is a survey of documentary art and activism in the United States with a particular focus on the transformative potential of the genre with the introduction of the porta pak in the late 1960’s, the development of video collectives, activist and public access television and culminating in video’s role in the WTO protests, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the events preceding and following September 11th. We will focus on documentary texts that most closely engage—whether in practice or method—the activist documentary impulse. Our purpose is to become more acquainted with how documentary film and video functions in the process of social change. As a result, this course will engage the intersection of visual culture, cultural studies and documentary studies. Through readings, screenings and discussions, you will examine the blurring lines between art, documentary, journalism and activism. Additionally, the course is primarily studies but there will be opportunities for creative production work to emerge from the course.

Some Suggested Questions for Discussion and Writing:

  1. How do images, sound, and spoken word function within the general context of non-fiction communication?
  2. What is activist documentary film and video? How do documentary texts function in the political struggles for social justice?
  3. What is the relationship between social movements and the visual culture of documentary film and video?
  4. Does documentary film and video publicize social injustice or act as an instrumental text?
  5. How do counter-publics function to create social change from/with documentary text?

Course Requirements

Research Paper: The first four weeks we will explore the problematic, questions and theoretical grounding for Documentary and Social Change. You will write one 10-page research paper of your choice on the topic. You will pick a topic, generate a research question, choose a film(s) to ground your ideas and provide well-developed analysis. It must be a thesis driven essay, well researched, focused and topic approved by the instructor. You will be expected to have at least 10 source citations and most should be from scholarly journals. 100 points

Creative Assignment: We will explore documentary as a movement with artistic impulses. You will choose a movement or impulse and develop a creative project around it. I would like you to embrace, respond to or (re)create the artistic impulse through an original media project. I encourage you to think how the camera could be used as a tool of social change. Please use the equipment you have readily available to you. Each student will have a production pod but will turn in his or her own 3-minute project or the equivalent. 100 points

Journal Discussion Assignments: We will be engaging in class discussions about the scope, function, strategies, consequences and public negotiation of documentary. You will be expected to contribute to our discussion AND comment on the input of others. Your journal assignments are designed to help you with preparing for these discussions. You should have your journal assignments completed before class. You may choose to keep a journal in a traditional composition book or online with a blog. This will be a place where you can informally explore your own ideas about contemporary documentary, respond to the reading and write documentary reviews. What is required each week:

Film Critiques: Each week you will be expected to choose a documentary artifact that engages, in your estimation, a unique contribution to documentary and social change. You will watch one documentary each week and complete a critique the work.

Reading Response: You will write a journal entry specifically addressing each assigned reading, drawing connections with other readings, thinking historically and extracting the key ideas. You will also include questions for discussion.

Each week the journal assignment is equivalent to three double spaced pages of writing. This is how I will asses your preparation for class. I will be grading the thoughtfulness of your entries, your attention to the specific assignment details, your application and understanding of documentary as well as your willingness to contribute to the ideas of others. Journal assignment = 200 points

Final Seminar Project: You will do a creative or research project on a genre, collective, or approach to contemporary documentary. The project will require original research and thought. You are encouraged to extend one of your previous class assignments. If you were writing a paper, this assignment would translate into a 15-18-page research paper. If you are doing a creative project, the scope of the project will be determined by the instructor and approved ahead of time. Total points 200

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