Contemporary Documentary Film (DOCST 270)

Instructor: Nicholas Pilarski
Office Hours: By appointment via

The objective of this course is to bring theory into dialogue with contemporary documentary. You will explore the form’s history and ways non-fiction film has been conceptualized over the past cen- tury. A series of readings and assignments will inform various theoretical and historical frameworks that influence contemporary filmmakers to challenge and appeal to modern audiences. Assignments will aid in the investigation of ways in which formal, structural, and aesthetic affordances impact documentary production.

By investigating films recently screened at the Full Frame Film Festival (America’s largest exhibition of non-fiction cinema) and “landmark” nonfiction films, you will gain an understanding of documentary as a medium. The goal of this course is not so much to learn about the whole of documentary history, nor is it a survey solely focused of production techniques. It is designed to help you think about and learn how artists navigate the complex relationship between theory and practice. It brings attention to formal techniques while becoming critical viewers who understand aesthetic and ethical implications of practical and artistic choices made in the process of documentary film/media production.

We will be mindful of the historical context from the emergence of the medium to various iterations of contemporary documentary. Special attention will be paid to the perspective of the documentary maker.

Students will be expected to develop informed views on the following topics:

• documentary structure and voice

• perspectives of makers, funders, subjects, distributors and audiences

• “truth value” in documentaries

• subjective autonomy and/or collaboration in documentary

• historical feminist and minority perspectives on documentary

• subject rights and the ethics in documentary film

• relation of documentary to narrative form

• censorship and documentary's relationship to dominant ideology

• historical issues that have surrounded the use of narration, sound, music, editing, etc.

• formal techniques used by filmmakers

• funding, distribution, and other forms of economic “gatekeeping”

• philosophical and methodological differences between observational, reflexive, minimalist, formalist, poetic and other types of documentary

As you explore the various topics listed above you will participate in class exercises, lectures, screenings, and discussions to gain an understanding of the historical techniques cultivated by filmmakers and media artists. Ultimately you will produce a short documentary project, term-paper, or hypothetical documentary “pitch” as a final project. In doing so, you will be expected to be conscious of how production techniques can be crafted to illuminate critical discourse or express a particular subjectivity of the world.

Requirements and Grading

Class Attendance and Participation (26 points total)
This is a discussion-based class. Active participation in class dialogue and in-class exercises will ac- count for more than one quarter of your grade.

Weekly Journal Responses (6 responses, 0-4 points awarded for each response, 24 points total) Post a 250-500 word response uploaded to Sakai about the film(s) we viewed in class that week. Posts should not be summaries, but rather, thoughtful and creative responses. These entries are meant to be flexible and allow for you to respond to your own interests in relation to topics covered in class. You may choose to investigate formal techniques in film(s) that you found effective/ineffective (editing, mise-en-scène, cinematography, narration, sound design, etc.), pose questions and/or expand upon readings/films/lectures covered in class, or critically investigate other topics that relate to con- tent covered in class.

Responses will be graded as followed:

4 points: Demonstrates originality, critical thinking, and deep engagement with the issues posed in the films/lectures/readings.

2 points: Demonstrates effort to engage with the films/lectures/readings but does not reflect critical thought and/or relies heavily on summaries of class content.

0 points: Shows clear lack of effort or failure to complete response.

Responses are due on Sakai by 8 p.m. on Sunday. One point will be deducted from responses received later than 8 p.m. on due date. One point will be deducted for each additional day response is late.

Quizzes: (3 quizzes, 0-5 points, 15 points total)
Final Project (35 points) choice of one of the following:

  • Final Paper: Based on approved topic of your choosing

  • Documentary Proposal: A written proposal for an original documentary film/website/

    audio-project/etc. based on a subject of your choosing

  • Short Documentary Project: Prior experience with A/V recommended but not required.

    If this option is of interest, but you lack technical proficiency, please schedule an appoint- ment with me early in the term so I can point you toward resources that will aid in the com- pletion of your project.

    Detailed information for these choices will be provided later in the semester. One-on-one checkin required at mid-term where you will present your project idea.


    No late assignments accepted without a verified medical excuse. You can find information and pro- cedures for “Illness, Short- and Long-Term” on the Trinity College web site:




Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition (Indiana University Press, 2010) http://

Copies have been ordered and can be found locally at: Regulator Bookshop
720 9th St
Durham, NC 27705

Additional reading will be made available for download on SAKAI.

Further Reading

Fox, Broderick. Documentary Media: History • Theory • Practice. (Allyn & Bacon, 2010).

Collecting Visible Evidence, ed. Jane Gaines & Michael Renov (Minneapolis: University of MN UP, 1999).

Theorizing Documentary. ed., Michael Renov (New York: Routledge UP, 1993).
Ascher, Steven, and Edward Pincus, The Filmmakers Handbook (Plume, revised 2010). Barsam, Richard M. Non Fiction Film. A Critical History (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992).

Duke Recourses and Accommodations

Services for Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities who believe they may need accommodations in this class are encouraged to contact the Student Disability Access Office at (919) 668-1267 as soon as possible to better ensure that such accommodations can be implemented in a timely fashion.

Writing Studio

The Writing Studio offers Duke students free help with any aspect of their writing - from brain- storming to drafting to revising to preparing a final paper. This is a wonderful resource designed to help you become better writers and draft more successful papers. Students should schedule appointments in advance by using the on-line appointment calendar at Face-to-face appointments and online appointments through E-Tutor are available. Tutors will be available to meet with students at 112 Perkins Library, Monday through Thursday.



Class One – Wed 5/16

Introduction to the Course | Introduction to Documentary

Class Two – Thursday 5/17

Documentary Form | Documentary Analysis I

View: The Perfect Human(J.Leth, 1967)

The Five Obstructions (L. v. Trier | J. Leth, 2003)

Class Three - Monday 5/18

Documentary Form | Documentary Analysis II

Read: Bordwell / Thompson, “Analyzing Film Style”

Yale Film Analysis Guide ( Please download and watch example clips

View: White Earth (J. Christian Jensen 2013)

Last Day of Freedom (Dee Hibbert-Jones, 2014)


Class Four – Tuesday 5/19

Origins|Evolution to the Contemporary

Read: Erik Barnouw,Documentary: History of the Nonfiction Film,231-253. Nichols, Introduction and Ch. 1, “How Can We Define Documentary Film?”

View: Curated selections

Class Five - Thursday 5/21

Documentary History |Movements and Modes I

Read: Nichols, Chapter 6,“How Can We Differentiate Among Documentaries? Categories, Models, and the Expository and Poetic Modes of Documentary Film”

View: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)

Class Six – Tuesday 5/26

Documentary History |Movements and Modes II
Read: Nichols,Chapter7,“How Can We Describe the Observational, Participatory, Reflexive,and Performative Modes of Documentary Film?”

View: The Act of Killing(Joshua Oppenheimer,2012)

Class Seven – Thursday 5/28

Documentary Practicum I | Rights as Filmmaker and Planning
Read: Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers “Best Practices in Fair Use”

Fox, “Crafting Your Story” View: Curated selections

In Class: Quiz on Film Terms (See Study Guide)

Class Eight – Monday 6/1

Documentary Practicum II | Exploring Audio-visualities
Read: Fox, “Audio-visualizing the Documentary”
View: Curated selections
Schedule: Book one-on-one meetings for final project pitch via

Class Nine – Tuesday 6/2

Documentary Ethics I
Read: Nichols, Chapter 2, “Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking?” View: War Photographer (Christian Frei, 2001)

Class Ten – Thursday 6/4

Documentary Ethics II
Read: Butler “Gender is Burning”

Althusser “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

Watch at Home: Zizek “The Pervert's Guide to Ideology" View: Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
In Class: Quiz on Documentary Modes

Class Eleven – Tuesday 6/9

Documentary and Policy
Read: Nichols, chap. 8, “How Have Documentaries Addressed Social and

Political Issues?”
View: The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, 2012)

Special: Skype with Kirby Dick’s Assistant Editor, Sally Volkmann

Class Twelve – Thursday 6/11

Poetic Politics in Documentary
Read: Renov, “Toward a Poetics of Documentary” Watch at Home: Godfrey Reggio Interview on Singularity View: Visitors(Godfrey Reggio,2014)

Class Thirteen – Monday 6/15

Subjective Optics | The Essay Film
Read: Renov, Michael. “The Essayistic” View: The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2014)

Class Fourteen – Tuesday 6/16

Funding, Distribution, Gatekeeping, and the Industry
Read: Fox, “Distribution Strategies: From Movie to Movement” Watch: Curated selections
In Class: Final Quiz | Documentary Theory

Class Fifteen – Thursday 6/18

Beyond the Full Frame Theatre|New Media
Read: Manovich, "How Media Became New" & "What New Media is Not"
Wired Magazine “Apple Bans Phone Story Game”

Download and Play:
Phone Story:

View: A Song For Viggo (Simon Karlsson, 2015)

Class Sixteen – Monday 6/22 Last Day of Class

Last Day of Class - Research and Documentary Presentations