Why do documentary films get made? What do their makers hope these films will do in the world? Does the film released in a multiplex do something categorically different in the world from the one released online? How do stories get told across what might otherwise just be a series of talking heads? How can editing be used in didactic, conversational, or narrative ways? Once we’ve found a story to tell, once we’ve shot and edited a film, how do we get people to watch it? Does the way we draw viewers to a film change how they respond to or engage with it?
This course will explore these questions and more as we get our hands dirty in the filmmaking process. We’ll discuss documentary films of all shapes and sizes (short-form, feature-length, interactive, and audio). We’ll be ambitious throughout, erring on the side of taking risks and failing big, as we seek to uncover the hows and whys of documentary filmmaking.
A class is a process, an independent organism with its own goals and dynamics. It is always something more than even the most imaginative lesson plan can predict. ~ Thomas P. Kasulis
Required Films and Texts
There is not a traditional textbook for this course. We will do some reading and watch a few things, but the course will center around what we build and our discussions about what we uncover.
You will need to rent several films throughout the term. There may be a small rental charge for these. Many are also available on streaming services like Netflix. (You can get a free trial month of Netflix, if you don't already have an account.)
The Internet (the rest of our readings and films will be available openly online)
Depending on what motivates your interest in documentary and how you approach your work for this class, you may want to buy/read one or more of the following.
Patricia Aufderheide, Documentary Film: a Very Short Introduction
John Hewitt and Gustavo Vazquez, Documentary Filmmaking: a Contemporary Field Guide
Jon Fitzgerald, Filmmaking for Change
Kurt Lancaster, DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video
Gustavo Mercado, The Filmmaker’s Eye
Nothing in this syllabus will be set in stone or taken for granted. The instructions and outcomes laid out here are a beginning, something we’ll treat roughly as the course proceeds. This is not a map, but rather a direction in which we’ll point ourselves at the outset with the goal of vigorously rewriting the syllabus as we go, discovering what we’ll learn together as we learn it, questioning what we’ll do even as we begin to do it.
In this course we will:
- Practice reading documentary films individually and collaboratively, analyzing and interpreting through and beyond our immediate impressions.
- Investigate the interconnections between documentary films and other genres, online and otherwise.
- Examine how documentary films have and can be put to use for more than just entertainment, but also as information, history, cultural documents, advocacy, and activism.
- Consider how notions of authorship work in (and are challenged by) a collaborative industry/art like filmmaking.
- Experiment as filmmakers ourselves. This is a course about critical thinking and also critical making.
- Have epiphanies.
I will be available for virtual office hours as necessary. Just reach out to schedule a video meeting, or feel free to engage via DM in Slack, which is the fastest way to get feedback or questions answered.
The Work of the Course
This course will be as much about breaking stuff as it is about building stuff. There will be discussions online and face-to-face. The final assignment for the course will be a film screening organized by us with 10+ films we’ve made individually and collaboratively.
This is a collaborative course, focusing on discussion and work in groups. The class will be a cooperative learning experience, a true intellectual community. And so, you and your work are, in a very real sense, the primary texts for this course. In order for us to work together as a community, we all have to come prepared to participate. If you can’t finish work for any reason, chat with me (and your collaborators) in advance.
Each week, the course schedule will walk you through the various activities of the week, including information about optional synchronous sessions. Watch our schedule and Slack for updates as we proceed.
Throughout the term we’ll be using tools like Instagram, YouTube, and Soundcloud as our primary methods for sharing work outside our class. We’ll be using Slack for class communication and for sharing our work with each other.
You may collaborate with your peers on assignments you complete for this course. I've created a channel in Slack called #looking-for-group, which you can use to find collaborators. If you have questions about the various ways collaboration can work, feel free to chat with me at any point.
This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the discussions, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions.
Digital Knowledge Center
If you run into technical difficulties at any point, you can get help from the DKC. The Digital Knowledge Center provides peer tutoring to UMW students on digital projects and assignments. Students can schedule one-on-one or small group tutorials with a trained peer tutor on a variety of subjects relating to common systems, technologies, and tools used in courses at UMW. Visit dkc.umw.edu for more info. or to make an appointment.
A good amount of the work for this course will be done independently or with a small group, as you'll each be working on a major digital project. Think of the rest of your peers as an audience for your work, as well as a source for feedback and encouragement. If you run into snags, feel free to draw on the expertise of your peers. This class will be as much about you teaching yourselves and each other as it is about me teaching you.
The work we do this term will be spread out across the Web. This site is our homeroom, so start off here at the beginning of the week, following the sequence of activities laid out on the schedule. Whenever you share anything related to our class on YouTube, Instagram, Soundcloud, Twitter, etc., use the hashtag #digdoc to contribute to our distributed conversation. Slack will give us a single place to share and get feedback on our work. Create a Slack account at umwdocumentary.slack.com as early as possible. The mobile app is handy.
Much of your work for this course will live publicly on the web within open platforms. If you would like to remain anonymous, I encourage you to use a pseudonym. Think carefully about these choices. We will discuss issues related to privacy and the open web extensively during this class.
UMW Honor System
You can find extensive details about the UMW Honor System here.
UMW’s Office of Disability Resources guides, counsels, and assists students with disabilities. If you have already met with the Office of Disability Resources and require accommodations for this class, feel free to chat with me about any modifications we can make to help your learning. I will hold any information you share with me in the strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise. If you would like to reach out to the Office of Disability Resources, click here or call 540–654–1266.
University of Mary Washington faculty are committed to supporting students and upholding the University’s Policy on Sexual and Gender Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence. Click here for resources or contact the Talley Center for Counselling Services, 540–654–1053.
Basic Needs Security
Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their learning in this course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. And also let me know if you are comfortable doing so, because there may be ways I can help.
Authorship is a hotly contested topic in the academy. At what point do we own the words we say and write or the images we create? In literature and digital media, creative influence, collaboration, and borrowing are usually acceptable (even encouraged). So, what sort of statement or warning about plagiarism would be appropriate in this class? Let me go out on a limb and say: in this class, I encourage you to borrow ideas (from me, from the authors we read, from the films we watch, from your classmates). But, even more, I encourage you to truly make them your own — by playing with, manipulating, applying, and otherwise turning them on their head. In the end, it’s just downright boring to rest on the laurels of others. It’s altogether more daring (and, frankly, more fun) to invent something new yourself — a new idea, a new way of thinking, a new claim, a new image. This doesn’t give you license to copy something in its entirety and slap your name on it. That’s just stealing. Instead, think very consciously about how you’re influenced by your sources — by the way knowledge and creativity depend on a sort of inheritance. And think also about the real responsibility you have to those sources.
Critical thinking is like eating, something lively and voracious, something that drips and reels. It isn’t (and can’t be) virtual. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, we must increasingly find ways for this work to happen online. We must bring our subjects to life for both ourselves and our digital counterparts. Learning must fire every neuron — must touch us at the highest levels of consciousness and at the cellular level. No matter where it happens, this is what learning must do. It must evolve — and revolt.