Film 106: Introduction to Documentary Media
Screenings: Thursday 7pm to 10pm, Avery 110
Lectures: Friday 10:10am to 1:10pm, Avery 110

Professor Ed Halter
halter at bard dot edu
Office: Avery 322
Office hours: Thursday 4:00 to 6:00, by appointment


An introductory historical survey of the documentary, from the silent era to the digital age. Topics addressed will include: how to define nonfiction cinema and documentary, the social issue documentary of the 1930s, cinema verite, propaganda, ethnographic media, the essay film, experimental documentary forms, media activism, re-enactment, ethics, and the role of changing technologies.

Attendance at all lectures and screenings; two short papers, and an in-class final exam. The short papers will be approximately 5 pages each, and will be analyses of two documentaries not seen in class. The final exam will include short identifications and essays, and will be based on material found in the films, the lectures, and the weekly readings.

With permission of the instructor, you may replace your final exam with a final research paper on a topic of your choice, 15-18 pages. If you wish to do so, you must first set up an appointment to meet with me no later than April 13 to discuss, then turn in a one-page topic summary with preliminary bibliography of at least four sources no later than April 27. The final paper will be due during the in-class final exam on May 17.

In order to be counted for attendance purposes, you will need to sign the attendance book at the beginning of each lecture and screening. Attendance is mandatory at all lectures and screenings, and attendance to both will count towards your grade. Three absences or more and your grade automatically drops a full letter.

Please note that I don’t differentiate between “excused” or “non-excused” absences for this purpose, including illness and obligations to athletics, clubs, travel or other extracurricular activities. Should you foresee any problems meeting this attendance requirement at any point in the course, contact me immediately.

Many of the weekly readings will be taken from the following books, available at the Bard bookstore:

Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd Edition, 1993
Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd edition, 2010


Other readings will be linked from this syllabus directly or found on Reserves Direct. Please have your readings done by class and ready to discuss; it is recommended that you bring specific questions about anything you don’t fully understand or would like more information about.

Taking Notes
Since you will be able to use your notes during the midterm and final, it is highly recommended that you take notes (1) when reading, (2) at lecture, and (3) during the screenings. Please note that some of the films are not available on video, and therefore can’t be reviewed before your exams, so you own notes may be crucial. (If you have difficulty taking notes while watching a film, jot them down quickly after the film is over.)

Grading Rubric:
Short Paper 1:              25%

Short Paper 2:              25%
Final:                            50%


Week 1
February 2 – Screening
Thom Andersen, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (US, 1975, 59 mins)
February 3 – Introduction

Week 2
February 9
Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, Manhatta (US, 1921, 10 mins)
Ralph Steiner, H20 (US, 1929, 12 mins)
Robert Flaherty, Nanook of the North (US, 1922, 79 mins)
February 10
Barnouw, “Explorer” and “Painter,” 1-51 and 71-81
William Rothman, “Nanook of the North”
Nichols, "How Did Documentary Filmmaking Get Started?"

Week 3
February 16 – Screening

* Guest Filmmaker in person

Matt Wolf, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (US, 2008,  71 mins)

February 17

Nichols, "How Can We Define Documentary Film?"

Read articles on Wild Combination by David Noriega and Andy Beta.

Read the Teenage blog

Read Wolf's online project Another Portrait of Jason

Week 4

February 23 – Lecture

Barnouw, “Reporter,” 51-71
Dziga Vertov, “WE: Variant of a Manifesto”
Nichols, "How Can We Differentiate among Documentaries? Categories, Models, and the Expository and Poetic Modes of Documentary Film"

February 24 -- Screening
Walther Ruttman, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Germany, 1927, 62 mins)
Dziga Vertov, Man With the Movie Camera (USSR, 1929, 68 mins)

Week 5
March 1 – Screening

Arthur Elton and E.H. Anstey, Housing Problems (UK, 1935, 15 mins)
Pare Lorenz, The Plow that Broke the Plains (US, 1936, 25 mins)
Basil Wright & Harry Watt, Night Mail (UK, 1936, 25 mins)
Joris Ivens, Power and the Land (US, 1940, 38 mins)
March 2

Screening in class: Leni Reifenstahl, Triumph of the Will, (Germany, 1935, 120 mins)
Barnouw, “Advocate,” 85-139
Nichols, "What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of Their Own?"
John Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary”
Paul Rotha, “Some Principles of Documentary”

Week 6
March 8 – Screening
Humphrey Jennings, Listen to Britain (UK, 1942, 18 mins)
Frank Capra, Why We Fight: War Comes to America (US, 1943, 64 mins)
March 9

Screening in class:

Hearst Metrotone News, News Parade of 1934 (US, 1934, 10 mins)

Jam Handy Organization, All-American Soap Box Derby (US, 1936, 10 mins)

Barnouw, “Bugler,” 139-172
Nichols, "What Makes Documentaries Engaging and Persuasive?"
John Grierson, “The Nature of Propaganda”
André Bazin, "On Why We Fight: History, Documentation, and the Newsreel."
Nichols, "How Can We Write Effectively About Documentary?"

Week 7
March 15 – Screening
Georges Franju, Blood of the Beasts (France, 1949, 20 mins)
Alain Resnais, Night and Fog (France, 1955, 32 mins)
Albert & David Maysles, Salesman (US, 1968, 91 mins)
March 16
Barnouw, “Prosecutor” and “Observer,” 172-182 and 231-253
Nichols, "How Can We Describe the Observational, Participatory, Reflexive, and Performative Modes of Documentary Film?"
Interview with Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin on Salesman

* First short paper due, on a documentary made before 1950

Week 8
March 22 – Screening
Barbara Kopple, Harlan County, USA (US, 1976, 103 mins)
March 23

Screening in class: Frederick Wiseman, Basic Training (US, 1971, 89 mins)
Barnouw, “Catalyst,” and “Movement,” 253-261, 295-349
Nichols, "Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking?" and "How Have Documentaries Addressed Social and Political Issues?"
E. Ann Kaplan, "Harlan County, USA: The Documentary Form"
Peter Biskind, “Harlan County, USA: The Miners’ Struggle”

Week 9
March 29 – Screening
Robert Gardner, Forest of Bliss (US, 1986, 99 mins)
March 30
Screening in class: Trinh T. Minh-ha, Reassemblage (US, 1983, 40 mins)
Robert Gardner, “Anthropology and Film”
Trinh T. Minh-ha, "The Totalizing Quest of Meaning"

April 5 – Spring Break

April 6 – Spring Break

Week 10
April 12 – Screening

Akosua Adoma Owusu, Me Broni Ba (My White Baby), (Ghana/US, 2009, 22 mins)
Jennie Livingston, Paris Is Burning (US, 1990, 78 mins)
April 13
bell hooks, "Is Paris Burning?"
Caryl Flinn, "Containing Fire: Performance in Paris is Burning"


Week 11
April 19 – Screening
Chris Marker, Sans Soleil (France, 1983, 100 mins)
April 20
Screening in class: Harun Farocki, Inextinguishable Fire (West Germany, 1969, 25 mins)
Catherine Russell, “Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self”
Phillip Lopate, "In Search of the Centaur: The Essay Film"
* Second short paper due, on a documentary made between 1950 and 1990.

Week 12

*note: lecture and screening have been switched due to moderation week.
April 26
Screening in class: Elisabeth Subrin, Shulie (US, 1997, 37 mins)
Elisabeth Subrin, "Trashing Shulie: Remnants From Some Abandoned Feminist History"
Linda Williams “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary”

April 27 - Screening
Walid Ra'ad, The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs (US/Lebanon, 1998, 18 mins)

Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line (US, 1988, 103 mins)

Week 13
May 3 – Screening
Hara Kazuo, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Japan, 1987, 122 mins)
May 4
Jeffrey Ruoff, “Japan’s Outlaw Filmmaker: An Interview with Hara Kazuo”
Laura U. Marks, "I Am Very Frightened of the Things That I Film"

Week 14
May 10 – Screening
Paul Chan, Baghdad in No Particular Order (US, 2003, 51 mins)
Laura Poitras, My Country, My Country (US, 2006, 90 mins)
May 11

Paul Chan, Baghdad in No Particular Order website
Ian Bogost, "Newsgames," "Current Events," and "Documentary"

Other reading TBA

Week 15
May 17 – final exam
May 18 – no class


Online sources for viewing documentaries:

Google Video

BBC Documentaries
PBS Frontline
Internet Archive
National Film Board of Canada
UBUWEB: Film & Video


Documentary exhibitors

Flaherty Film Seminar
Full Frame
Hot Docs
International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Stranger than Fiction

Other resources

Center for Social Media: Fair Use & Copyright
International Documentary Association