COM 338-01 (22212) Documentary and Experimental Film and Video
Steven Alan Carr, Ph.D.
Course Syllabus
Spring 2008


NF 141 M 6-8:45 PM


KT G44 TR 12-1:15 PM



NF 230 H

Office Hours:

TR 1:30-2:45 PM, and happily by appointment

Office Phone:

(260) 481-6545


Personal Website:

Required Texts:

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington IN: Indiana U P, 2001.
Rothman, William. Documentary Film Classics. New York NY: Cambridge U P, 1997.
Additional readings may be made available from within Blackboard via HTML or PDF file formats. See below for more information.

Last updated 15 Feb 2008

A general set of course policies ( accompanies this document. Please make sure to read it as well, as it governs both what is expected from you, and what you can expect from me.

Course Content and Goals

This course traces the historical development of documentary and experimental traditions of film and video, noting their departure from narrative and especially Hollywood film, as well as the aesthetic, political, and social implications of these differences. Special emphasis will be given this semester to the history of documentary filmmaking. You will be expected to 1) know the difference between a fictional narrative and a documentary film; 2) identify and summarize major documentary traditions, and explain how these traditions exist in relation to narrative traditions; 3) know the primary concerns and debates shaping documentary film practice and theory; and 4) apply terms and concepts introduced in COM 251 Introduction to Electronic Mass Media to analyze documentary films; and communicate this analysis effectively, both in discussion as well as in written assignments.

Prerequisites and Intended Audience

COM 251 Introduction to Electronic Mass Media. The intended audience consists of junior level or higher Communication majors in the Media and Public track.

Assessments and Assignments

Exams (100 possible points): You will take a midterm (ME) and a non-comprehensive final (FE). Both the midterm and final will build upon readings, in-class discussions, and online activity. Both exams will consist of written essays. Both the midterm and the final each will count 50 possible points toward your final grade. The midterm must be completed outside of scheduled classtime.

Response Papers (100 possible points): At least ten (10) times throughout the semester on scheduled dates, you will be required to post a brief (250-500 word) response paper (RP) on Blackboard that draws from the week's assigned reading to respond to films screened for that week. Each paper counts 10 possible points toward your final grade. These are due at the end of the screening through midnight of the next day following the week's screening. Each response paper offers a critical response to the films screened. These papers should show engagement with both the screening and the assigned reading by presenting evidence of careful notes taken during the screening referring to specific parts of films, by employing specific terminology used in the reading to discuss the films screened, and by paraphrasing and quoting from significant passages in the week's reading. Please refer to the attached worksheet for examples of questions you can use when responding to these films. You will not receive written feedback from the instructor on these submissions, unless specifically requested in writing.

Forum Reports (100 possible points): At least ten (10) times throughout the semester on scheduled dates, teams of 5-7 will collaborate in synthesizing each response paper into a brief (250-500 word) forum report (FR). Team members are expected to bring a hard copy of the response paper to class. Each team will have approximately 30 minutes of in-class time to identify a significant question or issue raised in the response papers that directly pertains to the screening and assigned reading for the week. The forum report will list all members of the group who directly contributed to it; state the question or issue raised by the group; explain how the question directly relates to the screening and reading; and offer a synthesis of the position papers represented in that group. Each team will designate a facilitator to be responsible for collating and submitting this report on Blackboard at the end of class through midnight of the next day after the scheduled class meeting. Attendance and the initial quality of the position paper submitted will be used as an index to help assess an individual grade for this assignment. You will not receive written feedback from the instructor on these submissions, unless specifically requested in writing.

Forum Discussions (20 possible points): At the end of 30 minutes time, the instructor will solicit one team to present and model their forum discussion (FD) to the entire class. Teams are encouraged to prepare materials before class. The team will present a question developed during the 30 minutes in-class meeting time, write their question on the chalkboard, and then sit in a circle in the center of the room. Each team member will briefly (no more than 3 minutes) summarize his or her position paper in relation to the group's question. After all team members have summarized their position papers, other students will be invited to respond to the group's initial question. Throughout the semester, each student will be responsible for participating in two (2) of these team presentations to the entire class on an assigned date and worth an additional 10 possible points per presentation. Presentations will be made only on the assigned date of a forum. You cannot redo or make up this assignment, and you will not receive written feedback unless specifically requested immediately after the presentation. Individual grades for team members will be assessed on the basis of participation in leading class discussion, as well as on how well the presentation communicates the following: the substantiality of the question or issue itself, its relevance to the reading, and how well it extends a concept or concepts from the reading. Due to variations in team memberships, you may present more than once as part of a different team. In that case, only the highest grades for the in-class presentation will be counted.

Analysis Paper (80 possible points): You must write a final, argument-driven analysis paper (AP) conducting a close analysis of a single scene from a feature-length documentary film, a scene from an episode of a television documentary, or an entire short documentary. Your choice of documentary must be approved by the instructor. This paper will be submitted in parts - including a proposal and abstract (AP1 - 10 points), a shot-by-shot breakdown of a selected documentary film (SP2 - 20 points), a sample paragraph from the body of the paper (SP3 - 10 points), and a final draft (SP4 - 40 points) - at various intervals throughout the semester. Written feedback will not be offered on SP3 and SP4 unless specifically requested and submitted 2 weeks in advance of the due date. The analysis paper will conduct a close analysis of a short film existing within the avant-garde tradition. There is no page or source minimum requirement. The successful final draft will include, all in the same file, the following: an introduction that states a problem, explains its significance, and clearly states a central thesis; an explanation of each theory or concept covered in the paper, with appropriate citations; three to five (3-5) paragraphs (paragraph=key statement, plus 3-5 additional sentences) with each paragraph advancing and developing the central thesis; a conclusion that reconsiders (as opposed to restating) the central thesis in light of the body of the paper; and a works cited page that demonstrates the breadth and diversity of sources used in the paper. The final paper will be evaluated on the basis of its relevance to a topic central to documentary; the substance and significance of the thesis; how well the paper engages the theories and concepts discussed; the thoughtfulness and originality with which the paper synthesizes these concepts; the overall structure, readability, clarity, and effectiveness of how well the paper advances its argument; and the ability of the paper to draw from multiple theoretical perspectives. With regard to the last criteria, make sure you can demonstrate that your list of sources used in the paper can demonstrate how you were able to engage with multiple perspectives.

Your participation is worth 100 possible points or 20% toward your final grade. This participation will be assessed primarily, though not exclusively, on the basis of what you do during our scheduled class meetings. You will not receive feedback on your participation unless specifically requested. The burden of proof is on you to maintain detailed, accurate, and clearly presented records of your contributions to the success of the class. Although you are not required to do so, you are strongly encouraged to maintain evidence of these contributions throughout the semester. This data can include evidence of preparation (such as detailed, original notes), letters of support from other students, written self-evaluations of your performance, etc. Should a difference of opinion arise with regard to the level of your performance, you will be asked to produce these records upon request. Failure to participate in class, regardless of attendance, will directly impact this portion of your grade. Questions regarding participation raised earlier in the semester will receive far greater consideration than questions raised later in the semester.


Your final grade will be determined based on the following criteria:

Ten (10) Response Papers (RP) @ 10 pts ea.

100 points (20%)

end of M screening through 12 AM midnight of next day

Ten (10) Forum Reports (FR) @ 10 pts ea

100 points (20%)

end of R class through 12 AM midnight of next day

Two (2) Forum Discussion Presentations (FD)

20 points (04%)

in class, as marked with FR

Midterm Exam (ME)

50 points (10%)

M 17 Mar @ 6 PM

Argument-Driven Analysis Paper(AP1,AP2,AP3,AP4)

80 points (16%)

R 14 Feb; 6 Mar; 27 Mar; 1 May

Final Exam (FE)

50 points (10%)

T 6 May 1-3 PM

Participation (P)

100 points (20%)



500 points (100%)



(Above Average)


(Below Average, But Passable)






0 - 299

Tentative Course Schedule


M 14 Jan

NF141 Screening: Capturing the Friedmans (HBO, 2003)

Originating Traditions of Documentary  

T 15

KTG44: Introduction to the Documentary Tradition

R 17

KTG44: Course Introduction and Overview

M 21


T 22

KTG44: Pre-Cinema and the Documentary as Novelty

Barnouw ch 1

R 24

KTG44: Viewing and Writing About Documentary Films

Nichols ch 8 and Corrigan

M 28

NF141 Screening: Nanook of the North (Pathé, 1922); Regen (Capi-Holland, 1929); A Propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

Barnouw 31-51; 71-81
Rothman ch 1
Due: RP1 (T 1/29 @ 9 PM); FR1 (F 2/1 @ 1:30 PM)

T 29

KTG44: Documentary as Ethnography - From Nanook to the City "Symphony"

R 31

M 04 Feb

NF141 Screening: Man with a Movie Camera (Amkino, 1929); The River (Paramount, 1938)

Barnouw 51-71
Bordwell and Thompson 128-46
Due: RP2, FR2

T 05

KTG44: Documentary and Rhetorical Form

R 07

M 11

NF141 Screening: Las Hurdes-Land Without Bread (Buñuel, 1933); The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews (n.d., 1944); David Holzman's Diary (Direct Cinema, 1967); No Lies (Direct Cinema, 1974)

Rothman ch 2
Nichols ch 1
Due: RP3, FR3; ; AP1 (2/14 @ 12 PM Noon)

T 12

KTG44: Documentary and the Cinema of Deception

R 14

Defining the Documentary: Institutions, Practitioners, Texts, and Audiences

M 18

NF141 Screening: Inside Nazi Germany (RKO, 1938); excerpt from The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Kino, 1993); Prelude to War (OWI, 1943) ; Night Mail (GPO, 1936)

Fielding ch 8
Due: RP4, FR4

T 19

KTG44: Institutions - Newsreels, Propaganda, and Government Film

R 21

M 25 NF141 Screening: Night and Fog (Argos, 1955); The Nazi Plan (U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1945); excerpts from The Sorrow and the Pity (NDR-SSR, 1969) and Shoah (New Yorker, 1985) Rothman ch 3
Due: RP5, FR5
T 26 KTG44: Practitioners and Texts - Memory, Atrocity, and the Holocaust Film
R 28
M 03 Mar NF141 Screening: In the Year of the Pig (Pathé, 1969); The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (First Run, 1980) Nichols ch 2
James ch 5
Due: RP6, FR6; AP2 (3/6)
T 04 KT G44: Texts and Audiences - Archival Footage and the Rise of the Radical Documentary
R 06
T 11
R 13
Ethnography, Observational Cinema, and Documentary Voice
M 17 NF141 Screening: Chronicle of a Summer (Pathé, 1961); Les Maîtres Fous (Pléiade, 1955); Les Tambours d'Avant: Tourou et Bitti (CNRS, 1967) Rothman ch 4
Due: Midterm (3/17 @ 6 PM); RP7, FR7
T 18 KT G44: Shared Anthropology and the Cinema Verité of Jean Rouch
R 20
M 24 NF141 Screening: Portrait of Jason (Filmmakers Distribution, 1967); The Blood of Beasts (Franju, 1949) Nichols ch 3
Due: RP8, FR8; AP3 (3/27)
T 25 KT G44: Documentary Voice and the Reality of the "Real"
R 27
M 31 NF141 Screening: Primary (Drew, 1960); A Happy Mother's Day (Leacock, 1963); High School (Zipporah, 1968) Rothman ch 5
Due: RP9, FR9
T 01 Apr KT G44: Direct Cinema and the American Answer to Cinema Verité
R 03
M 07 NF141 Screening: The Mystery of Picasso (Lopert, 1956); Demon Lover Diary (Kreines-DeMott, 1980) Nichols chs 4-5
Due: RP10, FR10
T 08 KT G44: Beyond Cinema Verité - Meta-Observation and the Reality of Not Being There
R 10
M 14 NF141 Screening: Don't Look Back (Leacock-Pennebaker, 1967); Monterey Pop (Leacock-Pennebaker, 1968) Rothman ch 6
T 15 KT G44: Rockumentary and Countercultural American Cinema Verité
R 17
Narrative, Montage, and the Blurred Lines of Realism
M 21 NF141 Screening: Roger and Me (Warner Bros., 1989); Tongues Untied (Frameline, 1990) Nichols ch 6
T 22 KT G44: Participatory and Peformative Narratives in Documentary
R 24
M 28 NF141 Screening: The Thin Blue Line (HBO, 1988); Sink or Swim (Women Make Movies, 1990)

Nichols ch 7
Due: AP4 and all revise and resubmits (5/1)

T 29 KT G44: Narrative and the Mixed Modes of Documentary
R 01 May

Some Differences Between Documentary and Hollywood Narratives





Individual or Collective


Primary Intent/Motive

Not for Profit

For Profit


Actuality / Non-Fiction
Narrative or Non-Narrative
"Real" People / Life

Larger Than Life



Easy to Watch




Textual Units

Shorter or Feature-Length
Series or Individual Works

Remakes and Sequels

Audiences and Distribution




Individualistic / Amateurish

Differentiated by Genre


8mm, 16mm, video
Camera or Camera-less (found footage)

35mm or Digital



Highly Regulated


Relatively Hard to See

Relatively Easy to See

Questions to Ask When Looking at Documentaries

The following questions have been adapted from other introductory guides to aesthetic analysis. Almost all of these concepts were covered in COM 251 Introduction to Electronic Mass Media. Since COM 251 is a prerequisite for this course, throughout COM 338 you will be expected - as often as you can - to demonstrate your facility with these questions when discussing or writing about documentaries. You need not like all of the films screened in order to earn an A in this course, but even if you like none of the films in this course, how well you use these questions to show engagement with the screenings will determine a passing grade.

  1. When was the film or video made? (Corrigan) Does it belong to a particular documentary tradition, or a particular moment in time, or both?
  1. What is the title, and what does it mean in relation to the work? (Corrigan)
  1. What was your initial response? Do you like the work? Does it make you think or does it encourage you to look? Does it do both? After watching the complete work, did your response change during the screening? If so, how? (Acton)
  1. How does the film or video start, and what is its relation to the rest of the work? (Corrigan)
  1. On what image does the film or video conclude, and what is its relation to the beginning and rest of the work? (Corrigan)
  1. Which elements of the film or video strike you as unfamiliar or perplexing (Corrigan)? If you find the entire experience unfamiliar or perplexing, identify and describe as many aspects unique to the film or video as possible, using the following categories as a guide: (Bordwell and Thompson)

Form and Structure of the Whole
Similarity and Repetition; Difference and Variation; Development; Unity and Disunity; Narrative or Non-Narrative Elements 

Setting; Costume and Makeup; Lighting; Staging of Action

Tonality of Image; Speed of Motion; Perspective; Framing (Dimensions; Shape; Onscreen and Offscreen Space; Angle, Level, Height, and Distance of Camera; Mobility); Duration of Shot

Graphic, Rhythmic, Spatial, and Temporal Relations Between Shots

Rhythm, Fidelity, and Space

  1. How is this work similar to or different from other films or videos you have seen, including Hollywood and foreign films? (Corrigan)
  1. What type of form does the work most closely resemble? A piece of investigative journalism? A painting? A narrative film, or something else? (Acton)
  1. Can you see any aesthetic or pictorial qualities to the work, such as composition, space, form, tone, or color? (Acton)
  1. Does the work have a defined subject? If so, what kind of subject? Is the subject a story? Or is it a figure or object depicted? Or is the subject about you and your reaction as a viewer to the work? Is thinking about the work more important than the meaning of the work, or the ostensible subject depicted? (Acton)
  1. Are there any striking patterns in the work, such as a camera movement, long take, or abrupt transition? Which three or four patterns are the most important ones? (Corrigan)
  1. What is your role as a spectator? How active was your involvement with the work? How active do you think your involvement was supposed to be? (Acton)

Works Cited

Acton, Mary. Learning to Look at Modern Art. New York NY: Routledge – Taylor, Francis, 2004.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson.. Film Art: An Introduction. 8th ed. Boston MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Corrigan, Timothy J. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. 6th ed. New York NY: Pearson, Longman, 2007.