Both media critics and everyday viewers have traditionally thought of documentary in contrast to narrative fiction film. The crudest divisions categorize documentary as serious, informational, educational, objective, and, most likely, political (to name just a few), while narrative fiction film is cast as pleasurable, escapist, and subjective. But when one examines the history of documentary, it becomes clear that such divisions rarely hold up. Instead, documentaries have consistently offered a number of appeals, mobilized a range of forms, and incorporated subjective elements.

This course is a survey of the history of documentary film and associated media. We will examine a range of documentary purposes (informational, educational, agitational, propagandistic, entertainment) and forms (poetic, diaristic, essayistic, reflexive, expositional, observational, didactic). We will pay attention to the ways in which documentary is funded, distributed, and exhibited differently than narrative fiction film. We will read histories, analyses and criticism of particular films, and theories of documentary. We will discuss documentary representation in a variety of media toward the goal of better understanding what constitutes “the real” in a time of shifting and partisan realities. We will see how scholars struggle to define documentary and how filmmakers continue to challenge documentary’s limits.

Dedicated students will come away from The Documentary Tradition with a critical overview of the history of the nonfiction film, an understanding of documentary theory and how that informs both filmmakers’ ethics as well as films’ claims of truth and persuasion, and an ability to write original research and analysis regarding this complex cinematic mode.

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