Course Description

History of Documentary Film surveys the major developments from the first factual films of 1895 to the present. The course covers major movements within the film genre, including factual film; ethnography, war, propaganda, documentary, and compilation films; films on art, direct cinema, cinema verité; films from the third world, and films from emerging social movements.

Because it is impossible to survey the entire history of documentary film in a single semester, we will be focusing on two broad themes in pre–World War II era and in the post-World War II era.

  1. In the years leading up to World War II in the 1940s, most documentary films were nationalistic in tone and in scope. Documentary films were often produced by governmental agencies that promoted the nation to its own people and to others around the world. They focused on the “big stories” of the nation. Part of this was due to the expensive nature of producing films. But it was also a function of the sociopolitical environment in the West and beyond. One could argue that this nationalistic fervor contributed to World War II and 70 million deaths. We cover this in modules 1–6.
  2. After World War II, filmmaking technology became less expensive to procure and less cumbersome to use. There were also new venues for exhibiting documentary films. And perhaps most importantly, there was a recognition that a progressive, cooperative spirit could realize peace among nations, although the Cold War would challenge that project. Documentary film in this era told many more stories than it ever had before. These films gave voice to communities and peoples who never could speak before. We cover this in modules 7–12.

The midterm exam divides the modules and our coverage of these broad themes.

Remote Online Course

This course will be conducted remotely over the Internet.

Most learning activities will be asynchronous, meaning that you will complete these on your own time. This includes readings, screenings, quizzes, essays, and exams.

In addition, there will be a certain number of synchronous activities, including a weekly discussion session on Zoom where we discuss the major issues relating to that week’s module on the history of documentary film.

Instructor

Juan Monroy

Office Hours

I will be available for individual meetings on Wednesdays and Friday, between 12:00 – 1:00 PM, US Eastern Time. Sign up for an appointment at least one day in advance at:

https://juanmonroy.com/prattofficehours

After you sign up, I will email you a Zoom Meeting link for you to join the meeting.

Assignments

Please complete all of the assignments by the date noted on the course schedule

Assigned Readings

Assigned readings are listed in the course schedule below and available from the following sources:

  1. Grant, Barry Keith and Jeannette Marie Sloniowski. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings on Documentary Film and Video, new and expanded ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014.

  2. McLane, Betsy. A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd ed. New York and London: Continuum, 2012.

    • Amazon
    • Pratt Online Bookstore
    • Reserve from Pratt Library: the links for the chapters in the course schedule are for PDF scans from Pratt Library

Reading Quizzes

Each week, I will post a reading quiz on Canvas. The quiz will consist of true-false and multiple choice questions.

Complete each quiz by the dates noted on Canvas.

  • Ten of twelve quizzes are required
  • Weight: 20%

Screenings

Watch each of the films listed in the course schedule below. You will need to authenticate with your Pratt One Key credentials to access these screenings.

All films produced prior to 1930 are silent and are identified as such. Any music or other sounds was added years later. The soundtrack you hear should not be considered part of the original filmmakers’ work.

Some titles are available to stream from commercial services, such as The Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Kanopy, and others. Where available, I have linked to Just Watch, a service that aggregates the availability of online streaming for most movie titles.

I also have a Letterboxd list of relevant films for our course, including lists of eligible films for each essay:

  1. Essay 1: Prewar Documentary and National Identity
  2. Essay 2: Documentary Film and the Archive

Live Discussion Sessions

We will have an hourlong, weekly discussion session on Zoom, at the following time:

  • Section 1: Tuesdays, 1:00–2:05 PM on Zoom

In these sessions, we will review the major issues relating to that week’s module on the history of documentary film and closely examine how the films we studied represent reality in an innovative way.

Students will be assigned to a breakout room to analyze an excerpt from a film we have studied for this module. The excerpts (“clips”) are posted in Canvas under the respective module.

These sessions will be recorded and made available only to students in our class upon request.

Essay 1: Prewar Documentary Film and National Identity

An analytic paper on at least one documentary film, made prior to the end of World War II, screened in class that addresses how national identity is articulated.

Essay 2: Documentary and The Archive

An analytic paper that compares how the past is resurrected through the use of archival footage in contemporary documentary films.

Exam 1

The first exam, covering our study of documentary film through World War II, will consist of two parts:

  1. Identification of film stills from films screened in class, requiring you to identify and explain the clip in the context of the film.
  2. Short answer questions, requiring you to engage the screenings and readings related to the major movements and trends in documentary film we covered in class.

Details:

  • Available on Canvas
  • Due: see due date on Canvas
  • Weight: 20%

Exam 2

The second exam, covering our study of documentary film after World War II, will consist of two parts:

  1. Identification of film stills from films screened in class, requiring you to identify and explain the clip in the context of the film.
  2. Short answer questions, requiring you to engage the screenings and readings related to the major movements and trends in documentary film we covered in class.

Details:

  • Available on Canvas
  • Due: see due date on Canvas
  • Weight: 20%

Course Schedule

Complete each assigned activity—readings, quizzes, and screenings—by the date listed for each module.

Module 0: Introduction

In this introductory session, we will meet each other on Zoom, at the time noted below. I will discuss the format of the course, our approach to studying documentary, and our goals for understanding the history of non-fiction filmmaking.

Module 1: Beginnings

Module 2: Experimental Film and Modernity

Module 3: Documentary and the Soviet Revolution

Module 4: British Documentary Movement

Module 5: US Documentary and the New Deal

Module 6: Wartime Documentary

Module 7: Post-War Documentary and Internationalism

Module 8: Cinéma Verité and Direct Cinema

Module 9: Political Activism and Documentary

Module 10: Compilation and Personal Essay

Module 11: New York and Documentary

Module 12: Documentary Fiction and Truth