Reframing the Documentary

For the first time in several years, I will be teaching Fayetteville State University’s senior seminar in the spring. The course fell into my lap late in the semester, so I haven’t had the time to prep that I would normally want, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to explore a set of research questions in detail with my students. The last time I taught this course–way back in 2007 (!)–I focused on the theme of “Documenting Injustice,” a phrasing that I hoped would encompass a wide range of activist, narrative, non-fiction texts in a wide range of media. Because the course is taught in a fairly traditional English department, I wanted not only to include a focus on literary texts but also to respect approaches based in textual analysis. Thus, while I’d enjoy teaching a course on the political economy of digital cinema (say), I don’t think my students would receive the “capstone” experience this course is supposed to represent.

That being said, the students who have signed up for the course know that I am the “film guy” in our department and know a little about my interests. So, with that in mind, I have decided to do an updated version of that course, which I am tentatively calling “Reframing the Documentary,” in part to entertain some slightly different questions about various forms of non-fiction. For the previous course, I sought to discuss a wide range of media forms–written non-fiction, photography, and film–and I’ll maintain that cross-media focus this time. Once again, I will require my students to read Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, texts that explore different aspects of documentary and observation with the goal of some sort of social change. But unlike last time, I am going to add David Eggars’ category-defying narrative, Zeitoun, in which he tells the story of a Syrian-born Katrina survivor, writing from Zeitoun’s voice.

In addition, I want to introduce some significant case studies on photography, such as the Dorothea Lange “Migrant Mother” photographs, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier,” and others. I’m planning to avoid directly studying most of the recent controversial photographs (especially the Abu Ghraib photos), although I may teach at Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Instead, I’d like to look at some of Morris’s essays on older photographs, possibly including this essay on whether photographs lie (new to me: Morris’s New York Times essays on photography have been anthologized in a book). Or, more likely, that I will be teaching The Thin Blue Line, Morris’s blog posts on documentary re-enactments. I’ll supplement this discussion of Morris with screenings of either Strange Culture or Road to Guantanamo (or both).

From there, I ams till trying to decide how to engage with some of the “limits” of documentary. By that, I mean definitional limits, rather than where documentary itself is limited. I will likely include the animated Israeli documentary, Waltz with Bashir, and I’m thinking about doing a couple of mock documentaries, most likely Confederate States of America, and, thanks to some recent research by a former student, the boundary-defying film, The Watermelon Woman. One other area of emphasis will likely be autobiography, and I’m leaning towards Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, if only because I am familiar with it and because its production history is pretty catchy.

Finally, given some of my own recent work on “transmedia documentary,” I will likely finish with a couple of recent documentaries that used online media to expand the limits of what counts as a documentary, including The Age of Stupid. Following up on this idea of “transmedia documentary,” I’d very much appreciate any suggestions about online videos, photography series, or articles that depict aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement. One “text” that I would certainly like to discuss would be the “We are the 99%” tumblr blog, but I may also set up a discussion of how iconic images of #OWS, such as the macing incident at UC Davis, have been remixed or repurposed.

I recognize that this post is all over the map–and mostly consists of a list of possible texts–but I am still brainstorming to some extent, trying to decide how, exactly, I want to frame this course. I am looking forward to doing an in-depth study of documentary, activism, and narrative, but I’d welcome any reminders about texts that I’ve neglected, including short essays, short stories, or other explorations of how we document our lives and how we use non-fiction images, sounds, and narratives to represent significant social and political events. Feedback (on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments) is welcome.


  1. Ryan Claycomb Said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    Another avenue you might consider is documentary theatre–there’s a lot of good stuff out there, from WPA Living Newspaper plays to The Laramie Project to more contemporary stuff–you could, for example, compare the the Film *The Road to Guantanamo* to Brittain and Slovo’s play *Guantanamo: honor bound to defend freedom* or the 1992 documentary *I Am My Own Woman” to Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife.”

    Both plays, at least are interestingly constructed, and in comparison to the films raise important questions of genre and medium about both.

  2. Chuck Said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    These are some great ideas. I’m especially intrigued by the WPA “Living Newspapers.” I’ll have to take a quick look at some of these other plays, though.

  3. Brett Boessen Said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

    Have you considered simulations as a possible avenue here? Of course there are “persuasive games,” like The McDonalds Game and September 12th, but I’m thinking more about educational and historical Sims that ask the player/user to understand something about a time and/or place (or idea/concept) through interaction and exploration. Could be a really interesting comparison for your students.

  4. Chuck Said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    I have thought about “documentary games” in the past, mostly via the controversy over “JFK Reloaded,” but that’s a good idea. I haven’t done a lot of research on games, so it would require some (useful) background research on my part.

  5. Lisa Said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    Speaking as your former student, this sounds like an amazing
    class, and I think you will be a challenging and amazing facilitator of that material.

  6. Chuck Said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    Thanks, Lisa. Sorry for not replying sooner, but I’ve been distracted by holiday stuff.

  7. Reframing the Documentary — Fayetteville State University College of Arts & Sciences Teaching Blog Said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    […] post in which I am doing some public brainstorming about my plans for a new syllabus (again, this is republished from my personal blog). I’m getting closer to mapping out this particular course, but I would […]

  8. Chuck Said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    Here is my current updated schedule:

    Week One:
    January 10-12:
    T: Introduction to Course
    H: Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” ER.
    View Matthew Brady photographs

    Week Two:
    January 17-19:
    T: Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, selections (including photographs), OL.
    H: Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, see especially chapters 24-25, OL.

    Week Three:
    January 24-26:
    T: Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother” and other FSA photographs, OL.
    H: Robert Capa, “Falling Soldier” (photograph)
    “New Doubts Raised Over Famous War Photo,” OL.

    Week Four:
    January 31-February 2:
    T: Federal Theater Project, “Living Newspaper,” OL.
    H: Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1-98.

    Week Five:
    February 7-9:
    T: Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 101-93.
    H: Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 197-252.

    Week Six:
    February 14-16:
    T: Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 255-316.
    H: In-class screening: Pare Lorentz, The River, movie (1938), available on

    Week Seven:
    February 21-23:
    T: Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 317-416.
    H: Screening: Night and Fog (1955), dir. Alain Resnais.
    Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “Documenting the Ineffable,” ER.

    Week Eight:
    February 28-March 1:
    T: Screening, Medium Cool (1969), dir. Haskell Wexler.
    H: Reading: Michael Renov, “The ‘Real’ in Fiction,” ER.

    March 6-8 No Class, Spring Break.

    Week Nine:
    March 13-15:
    T: Screening: Winter Soldier (1972), dir. Winterfilm.
    View: “Make Your Own History: Documents from the GI Resistance, 1969-1975,” OL.
    H: In class screening: 1970s activist videos from TVTV and Paper Tiger TV
    “1972 GOP Convention Four More Years” and “Herb Schiller Reads The New York Times”
    Reading: TBA

    Week Ten:
    March 20-22:
    T: Screening, The Thin Blue Line (1989), dir. Errol Morris.
    H: Linda Williams, “Mirrors without Memories,” ER.

    Week Eleven:
    March 27-29:
    T: Screening: Roger & Me (1989), dir. Michael Moore.
    Reading: Paul Arthur, “Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments),” ER.
    H: Dave Eggars, Zeitoun, Part 1

    Week Twelve:
    April 3-5:
    T: Dave Eggars, Zeitoun, Part 2
    H: Dave Eggars, Zeitoun, Part 3.

    Week Thirteen:
    April 10-12:
    T: Screening:Strange Culture (2007), dir. Lynn Hirschman Leeson.
    H: Reading: TBA

    Week Fourteen:
    April 17-19:
    T: Screening: Watermelon Woman (1996), dir. Cheryl Dunye.
    H: Reading: TBA.
    Final Paper due at the beginning of class.

    Week Fifteen:
    April 24-26:
    T: Screening, The Age of Stupid (2009), dir. Franny Armstrong.
    Reading, Chuck Tryon, “Digital distribution, participatory culture, and the transmedia documentary,” OL.
    H: Occupy Wall Street, We are the 99% Tumblr. Other OWS documents via

    Final Exam:

  9. Raul Nino Said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 8:13 am

    I think your approach and examples are too much focused towards linear documentaries. There are exceptional documentary projects such as Gaza/Sderot ( ,Prison Valley ( and Highrise ( that have been primarily created for online viewing instead of theatrical. Moreover, these same online versions have been screened in documentary festivals such as IDFA ( and even linear versions has been made afterwards.

  10. Chuck Said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    I agree. I may tweak the syllabus to add more non-linear stuff.

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