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MA2052 Documentary

Tutor: Dr JP Kelly

Teaching: 10 hours lecture, 10 hours seminar

Value: ½ unit

Availability: Autumn

This course examines the ideas that both audiences and filmmakers commonly use to discuss documentaries. Each week students will examine a single film whose construction highlights a particular issue, and will discuss it in conjunction with a selected written text. The aims of the course are:  

  • to understand the main issues in contemporary documentary;
  • to explore how particular filmmakers have addressed these issues in their practice;
  • to understand how we, as contemporary viewers, relate these ideas to our own viewing experience;
  • to explore, as far as possible, the diversity of possible responses to documentary films.

The course is constructed so that each student is required to post their comments on each film after it is screened. The following week’s seminar will discuss the film; the students’ postings; and the related reading. Each seminar will therefore have two presentations. Seminars therefore take place on Monday mornings, and screenings for the following week’s seminars on Monday afternoon, usually accompanied by a lecture.

The ideas which are examined fall into three related groups. The first is that of truth:

  • What is documentary?
  • What are the limits to what can or should be filmed?
  • What are the limits of construction and reconstruction, and where do they slide into dishonesty or fakery?

The second is that of performance and role-playing:

  • What happens when people know they are being filmed?
  • What kinds of performance are acceptable and even necessary?
  • Can truthfulness ever be established?

The third is that of our own experience and expectations as audiences:

  • What kinds of construction or even manipulation do we want in order to make factual footage comprehensible?
  • Can we cope with ambiguities?
  • What do we want from photographs, moving images and recorded sounds?
  • What happens when we see and hear exceptional or traumatic events through documentary?

The final session moves beyond these issues to open a further question: how can documentaries reach an audience?

On the way we meet Bob Dylan and hopeless alcoholics; Geri Halliwell and possible child abusers; a far right political leader and football hooligans; a murder confession and reactions to 9/11. To say that all human life is here, however, would be a hopeless exaggeration as the course also includes a famous fake.

Week 1: What is Documentary?

Screening and Lecture

Rain in My Heart

, dir. Paul Watson, BBC2, 21 Nov 2006, 21.00

Week 2: The Ethical Limits of Factual Filming

Screening and Lecture

MacIntyre Undercover

BBC1 10 Nov 99 21.30

Week 3: Undercover and Surveillance Footage: What do they mean?

Screening and Lecture

9/11: The Falling Man

  dir. Henry Singer

broadcast on Channel 4 on 16 March 2006 at 21:00

Week 4: Witness

Screening and Lecture

Geri dir: Molly Dineen

Broadcast Channel 4 on 5 May 1999, 21:00

Week 5: Sincerity and Performance

Screening and Lecture

Don’t Look Back, dir D.A.Pennebaker 1967

Week 6: Is Observation Possible?

Screening and Lecture

Capturing the Friedmans dir. Andrew Jarecki USA 2003

Week 7: Ambiguity

Screening and Lecture

The Connection dir. Marc de Beaufort, ITV 15 October 1997, 22.40

Week 8: Trust and the Connection Crisis

Screening and Lecture

The Thin Blue Line dir Errol Morris 1998

Week 9: Evidence and Reconstruction

Screening and Lecture

The Leader, his Driver and the Driver's Wife, dir Nick Broomfield 1991

[also at: http://www.channel4.com/fourdocs/archive/the_leader_player.html]

Week 10: Performance, Persona and Self


Walmart: the High Cost of Low Price, dir/prod Robert Greenwald, 2005

(for next week’s lecture)

Week 11: Guest Lecture, New Trends in Documentary Distribution: Nikki Nime

The course is taught by means of a weekly screening, one-hour lecture and one-hour seminar.  The course is structured in a way that might not be familiar. Each Monday, the seminars precede screenings rather than following them. Each Monday, therefore, the seminars will be discussing the previous week’s screening. This gives the opportunity for students to read the reading having seen the film. It also permits (and requires) everyone to post their own comments on the film that they have seen by the Friday of that week. The postings will be on the course Moodle site. Seminar presentations will then attempt to summarise the issues that have emerged from those postings. 

All components of the course are compulsory: students will be required to attend at least 70% of the course or they will automatically fail (unless an adequate medical or other certificate is produced). If a student misses a seminar presentation or does not do the required course work one week, this will count as a missed seminar. Final assessment is by means of one 4,000—5,000 word essay handed in at the beginning of the following term. Consideration will also be given to seminar presentations. Any work that is found to be plagiarised (whether through direct quotation or paraphrasing) will be failed. Please see the Undergraduate Student Handbook for further details about plagiarism.


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