Contemporary Documentary:
Issues and Aesthetics

RTF 313-2, Spring 2004, MW 1-3. Louis 119

Chuck Kleinhans
office: 209 AMS; phone: 1-2255
Office hours Tu 3-5 and by Appointment

TA: Shannon Gore

Permission of instructor.  Prerequisite 313-1 (Doc. History) may be waived for some students.

The usual discussion of documentary stresses the social documentary tradition.  But in recent years many new kinds of documentary have proliferated, and the documentary mode has been redefined.  This course will look at a wide range of contemporary documentary forms, ranging from successful theatrical documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine and Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control to reality TV such as Court TV and the Food Network.  Often PBS documentary has been eclipsed in topic, boldness. and quality by HBO.  At the same time, the TV networks increasingly go for sensationalism over investigation.  The World Wide Web is a new site of documentary activity, and a revival of radio and audio documentary (with This American Life and other shows) has redefined the mode.

We will look at examples of new forms such as HBO’s Real Sex series and Taxicab Confessions, sensational forms such as Cops,  grassroots forms such as community work, personal and autobiographical documentaries, the revival of story telling forms, and comic and fake documentaries.  Throughout we will be investigating how the traditional concerns of documentary theory such as realism, authenticity, and commitment to public discourse have been redefined in contemporary times.

An important issue will be considering the voice of documentary, that is the rhetoric and discourse of the mode and how it has changed. We will interrogate what contemporary documentary discourse is, what its basic assumptions and styles are, and what that says about our own times.

All students will participate in Course Management System (Blackboard) assignments. (Details below.)  A longer project will be due for the final.  In some (rare) cases, creative work such as a video may be submitted, usually with a written explanation or context.  However, most people will write a research or critical paper based on a menu of topics.  Grad students are expected to do a 12-20 page paper, which can be customized to their special interests or research area.  For example, the economics of reality TV could be examined by looking at a TV show or channel, or the relation of specific films related to a social or political movement could be considered.   There will be no late papers/projects.  A final exam will be given during exam week to catch any stragglers; the highest grade that anyone taking the final in-class exam can get is a B (and that would be only if all other work in the course was an A).  In other words, it’s a good idea to get your final paper/project in on time and not use the default exam.

Required reading:
Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Indiana University Press) and assigned reading (on e-reserve, CMS, and in-class handouts).

Mon Mar 29
course intro.

Who is speaking? 1. the personal story.
Ghetto Life 101, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman with David Isay (recorded 3/93; premiered on WBEZ Chicago 5/93 in the Chicago Matters series, 32 min.).

Documentary Time 1.      
excerpts from Court TV.

Wed Mar 31
Nichols, pp.  xi-41  And for those who haven’t had the first half of the course, 82-98
Documentary Interviews and Places
Kleihans and Morris, “Court TV: The Evolution of a Reality Format” (CMS)

Documentary Spectacle and Narration
Winged Migration  (Jacques Perrin, France, 89 min.)

Mon April 5
read: Nichols, 42-60
CMS assignment: short report on radio/audio documentary or report on outside screening

Making  documentaries

a)discussion of  the making of  Winged Migration
b)Interviews and Stories
Taxicab Confessions (HBO, 1 hour)  excerpt
c) Personal documentary
Papapapá (Alex Rivera, 1996, 28 min.)

Wed April 7
screen on your own: Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002, 120 min.)
read: Nichols,  61-80; MacFarquhar, “The Populist” (handout)

Personal stories
Portland (Greta Snider, 1996, 12 min.)

Personality documentary
The Michael Moore documentary: Roger and Me, TV Nation, The Awful Truth, Bowling for Columbine (excerpts)  Michael Moore

CMS assignment--discussion of Bowling for Columbine due Saturday 5 pm.

Mon April 12
Nichols, 99-138

Michael Moore, 2--student panel

personal experimental/expository documentary
Lost Book Found (Jem Cohen, 1996, 35 min.) 

Wed April 14
Nichols  139-167; Raphael, “The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV” (handout)
Long Form Documentary

An American Love Story (selection) (Jennifer Fox, 9hrs. 50 min. (?) PBS. 1999)

Mon April 19
Truth claims and historical narration
Forgotten Silver (NZ, Peter Jackson and Cara Mertes, 1997)  (53 min.)

Wed April 21
read:  Renov, intro to Surveying the Subject (CMS))
handout: Roscoe and Hight (excerpts)
Williams, “The Ethics of Intervention” (handout)

documentary ethics
Good Woman of Bangkok (Dennis O'Rourke, Australia/Thailand, 90 min)

Mon April 26

documentary ethics, 2
selections from HBO Real Sex and other sex-themed documentaries etc.

COPS: Too Hot for TV (excerpt) Fox Television show, 1996
HBO: Real Sex 13 (excerpt) Home Box Office subscription cable TV
HBO: Hookers and Johns: Trick or Treat (d. Bill Owens), (excerpt) HBO series
MTV: documentary on legal prostitution in Nevada, cable TV
VH-1: Rock and Porn, cable TV
ABC Primetime: Young Women, Porn and Profits (2003), broadcast TV
(a pale version of an in-depth PBS Frontline documentary on porn)
Stripped Bare (d. Caitlin Manning, c. 1988), independent documentary (festivals, educational market)
Stigmata: The Transfigured Body (c. 1994), independent documentary (festivals, educational market)
Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break, c. 2002, independent doc’y, direct market

Personal Stories
Saddle Sores (Vanalyne Green, 1998, 20 min.)

CMS assignment on documentary ethics
topic questions for the final paper handed out.

Wed April 28
Long form--history [introduction by Shannon Gore]
42 Up (Michael Apted, U.K., 1998, 139 min.) [longer than allotted time]

Mon May 3
Documentary Voice:  home movies and Investigation
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003, 107 min.)

Wed May 5
follow up of Friedmans--30 min.

Reality TV
guest lecture:  Julia Lesage on Travel and Food

CMS--documentary ethics

Mon May 10
exposition and personalities
Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (Errol Morris, 1997, 82 min.)

Wed May 12 
representing history
Four Little Girls (Spike Lee, HBO, 1997, 102 min. 

Mon May 17
discussion: social/political/historical representation

Wed May 19
Socially Marginal, 1
The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000, 82 min.)
CMS assignment:  issues and activism

Mon May 24
Socially Marginal, 2
Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street (Steven Okazaki, 1999, 55 min.  for HBO)

Wed May 26 
new documentary forms
The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing (Carroll Parrott Blue, DVD Rom, 2003)

Mon May 31
no class--Memorial Day

Wed June 2
course evaluation
course summary
screening of creative work (all creative work for the course must be completed this date--no late projects).

Thursday June 10, 9 am.

all final papers and projects due...no incompletes, no extensions.  If you do not have your paper ready at 9 am, you MUST take the final exam: 9 am Louis 119.



1. due Sunday April 4, 5 pm.  A short (500 word) report on a radio/audio documentary or an outside (off-campus) screening (undergrads must clear their choice with Shannon Gore beforehand).  You can find various episodes of This American Life on their website; other choices can be found by the Third Coast Festival website.  WBEZ’s home page  can direct you to Chicago Matters programs on the web.  Off campus screenings can include the Gene Siskel Film Center (downtown Chicago), Chicago Filmmakers (northside), the Chicago International Documentary Festival (various locations), IMAX theatres (Navy Pier, Museum of Science and Industry), etc.

2. due Saturday April 10, 5 pm.  A short (500 word) discussion of some aspect of Bowling for Columbine.

People who participate in the Monday April 12 student panel on Michael Moore will have that count for two (2) short paper assignments.

3.  due Tuesday April 27, 5 pm.  A short discussion of documentary ethics, reflecting on Good Woman of Bangkok and Saddle SoresOr  an outside screening.

4.  due Sunday  May 9, 5 p.m.  A short discussion of documentary ethics, reflecting on Capturing the FriedmansOr an outside screening.

5.  due Sunday May 24, 5 pm.  A discussion of documentary and activism.

Student panel on Moore with an emphasis on Bowling for Columbine (one hour)

The panel will do its research by dividing things up into areas and assigning sections.  A suggested division might be: Moore’s bio, his personality, controversies surrounding him, his writings, the critical reaction to Moore (pro and con).  The other students will be contributing comments by Saturday April 10, 5 pm.  The panelists should incorporate those ideas into their own presentations.  Work on this panel counts for TWO CMS assignments.

resources for audio documentaries and outside screenings

Useful video/DVD rental
Evanston: Video Adventure (2 locations)
Chicago: Facets Multimedia (requires membership) is one of the largest video/DVD rental places in the country.  Especially strong in documentary and international items.

Chicago hosts a large international festival April 1-11 at various locations in the area.

Chicago is home base for a remarkable  and flourishing audio documentary renaissance.  Start at the basic site:
see archives for downloadable programs; the resources and links are very good: esp. advice on what recording and editing equipment to buy.

the longest running radio documentary organization produces a wide range of materials, many can be ordered on CD.

WBEZ’s landmark audio program combines investigation and storytelling based on life experiences.  The site allows ;you to download and stream programs using RealAudio player (a free downloadable software).  Check out the “how to” information, on making a program. presented in comic book format.

A wonderful site for an NPR project on recovering sound documents from the past.

Chicago’s central NPR station.  The website has ample links to various audio documentary resources.
audio library materials:

Course policies

This class is designed to give you the experience of looking at a wide variety of films/videos. Readings must be completed prior to lecture on the days indicated.  My assumption is that you can understand the readings and their relation to the screenings, lecture and discussion on your own.  Therefore, do not be deceived about their importance.  They are essential background, even though we do not directly discuss them in class most of the time..  You should expect to read the material very closely and to outline its major points.  This may involve reading the assignment more than once.  It is crucial for success in the course to keep up with the reading and attend all of the lectures and screenings. 

In all cases the screenings are “critical” screenings which may involve my making comments or pointing out details during the viewing.  My assumption is that you are a media professional-in-training and are totally capable of thinking on several levels at once: experiential and critical.

You are allowed only two unexcused absences.  On the third unexcused absence, you will receive an F on the attendance portion of y our grade, and the fourth unexcused absence will result in a further reduction of the final grade.

Undergrad grading is determined as follows:

1. attendance and participation (15 %)
2. CMS (Blackboard) assignments (35 %)
3, Final take-home essay or creative project. (50%)

Grad grading. Grad students are required to have a short meeting with the prof during the second week of class to set up an individual plan of additional screenings and readings (about one per week) and develop an essay or notes on a topic or specific film covered in the course.  This essay is to be written as an informative piece for an undergraduate audience.

1. attendance and participation (10 %)
2. CMS (Blackboard) assignments (25 %)
3. 1200 word essay or study plan (15%)
4, Final take-home essay or creative project. (50%)

A note on grading

Your grade on the written exercises, class presentations, and final paper will be based on your ability to integrate many of the issues discussed in class and the readings and screenings into an effective, coherent, well-written, and well-organized essay.  The purpose of the CMS assignments and final paper is to spur you to make connections between films and reading that t may not have been explicitly made during class discussions. Thus, a mere reiteration of what I or the writers have said will not by itself be an effective use of the essay exam or term paper format.

Grading criteria:

A    An “A” paper or exam represents effort far beyond the basic requirements of the course and is characterized by a bold and original thesis which the student supports with a range of examples from the films and readings.  The “A” essay is flawlessly, even elegantly written.  These essays are quite rare.

B   A “B” essay demonstrates an informed familiarity with all of the films and relevant readings and employs examples effectively to support the central thesis of the piece.  The writing should be forceful and effective with many previously hidden connections between the films and readings brought to light.

C  A “C” effort represents a coherent and effective reiteration of relevant material from the lectures and discussions accented by an effective use of reading where appropriate.  The writing is functional and effective with minimal problems in diction, grammar and mechanics.  The great majority of undergraduate essays usually fall within this range.

D  A “D” is characterized by minimal engagement with the most important topics from lecture and some use of the most obvious material for the readings.  Often, a “C” essay in terms of content is lowered to a “D” because of significant problems with effective writing.  In terms of content, the “D” effort often results from a desperate last-minute effort to engage with readings and/or films that the student has not seen or read or from significant absence from class discussion.

F  An “F” essay possesses none, or at least very few, of the redeeming characteristics listed above.  Typically, these are even more rare than the “A’s.”

All provisions of the School of Communications and Northwestern University codes and procedures for academic honesty are enforced.

Student Conduct in School of Communications Courses
All undergraduate students in SOC Courses are accountable for the information about academic integrity printed in the University Bulletin.  Students are also responsible for the following standards:
•Attendance is required in all Speech courses, and excessive absence is cause for failure.
•Credit will not be given for two courses that meet at the same time.
•To receive credit for a course, students must complete all of the work assigned.
•Assignments must be turned in on time and examinations must be taken as scheduled.  Students are not entitled to make up assignments or to grades of Incomplete unless the instructor has approved such arrangements in advance.

Statement for Students with Disabilities
In compliance with Northwestern University policy and equal access laws, I am available to discuss appropriate academic accommodations that you may require as a student with disability.  Request for academic accommodations need to be made during the first week of the quarter, except for unusual circumstances, so arrangements can be made.  Students are encouraged to register with Service for Students with Disabilities (SSD) for disability verification and for determination of reasonable academic accommodations.

Be aware:  Some of the films shown in this course affront established mainstream values: aesthetic, social, political, moral, religious, etc.  Some films contain (among other things) representations of nudity, violence, sexual activity (including prostitution and various perversions), illegal drug use, racial stereotyping, violence against children, reports of child sexual abuse, blasphemy, violence against birds, as well as mocking of political figures, official government policy, Christianity, normative heterosexuality, and patriarchal values. 

A note on terms: “Reality TV” has become a very broadly used term recently covering just about anything which involves the possibility of unexpected outcomes,  Thus game and contest shows such as Survivor, The Apprentice, and Fear Factor end up in the category.  For efficiency in this course we will set those aside, along with journalistic news shows and talk shows.  But we will include shows which include unscripted (but often foreseeable) events such as Real Life, Jackass, Cops, and dramatic reconstructions such as Cold Case Files, Unsolved Mysteries, and interview-heavy location reports such as Real Sex. Docudramas and drama-docs (UK term) are included as are mockumentaries.

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