FLMS1212: Truth, Reality and the Documentary Film


Institute of Humanities and Creative Arts


Truth, Reality and the Documentary Film

 Module Outline

Seminars: Thursday 9:15 – 12:15

Module Tutor: Dr. Paul Elliott




Module Description:

Since the 1990s, the documentary film has become a cinematic staple, covering everything from experiments in eating fast food (Super Size Me, 2004) to revisions of the Vietnam War (The Fog of War, 2003). This module looks at the rise of the documentary film and discusses it in relation to ideas such as truth, representation and narrative. We look at some of the most emotive films produced by America and Europe as well as considering the place of forms like propaganda and cinema-verite on the construction of the modern cinematic language. As we shall discover, many of the films we will be looking at have shaped the Western world and changed people’s lives forever.


Intended Learning Outcomes:

By the end of the module, students will be able to:

  1. Understand the basic theoretical arguments surrounding the documentary.
  2. Explore the historigraphic developments of the documentary.
  3. Discuss the relationship of documentaries to their socio-cultural contexts.
  4. Display a basic level of competence in researching and formulating a distinct academic thesis relating to the documentary.


Attendance Policy:

 It is expected that you will attend all taught sessions, in the same way that attendance is expected in the workplace. Indeed regular attendance has a significant impact on student engagement, understanding and successful completion of University courses. Furthermore non-attendance will significantly affect your ability successfully to complete a module and may jeopardise your ability to undertake re-assessment in the event of failing a module.

It is your responsibility as a student, just as it would be if you were an employee, to ensure that you are punctual and that your attendance has been recorded on the register each week.

Should you, for some unavoidable reason, be unable to attend a scheduled session (for example if you are ill) then you must send an email to ihcastudentabsence@worc.ac.uk . Please include in your email  your name and student number, the module code and name, the date of the missed session, and your reason for missing it. You should make sure that you copy the module tutor into the email and also contact your module tutor to make arrangements to catch up on any work you have missed.

Notification must be received within 6 days of the date of the missed session.

Alternatively you can inform IHCA of your absence via the telephone. Please ring 01905 542015 (Shirley Adams) with the required details.

Students with two or more unexplained absences may be required to attend a tutorial/ interview with the module leader, course leader or head of division to discuss their progress.


Learning Contract:

On this module you are expected to be courteous and attentive to your fellow classmates and to the module tutor. You are also expected to undertake the required reading each week and to view the film or films under question. Failure to do either of these things will severely impede your success on the module.

The use of mobile phones will not be tolerated in classes, lectures or screenings. Please turn off all phones before the lesson starts.

Please feel free to email me with any queries you have regarding the module, I will try to reply within 3 working days. My office hours will be posted on the door of my office, however I am always open to seeing students at other times if you make an appointment.   



 Set Texts (You should purchase these books):

Cousins, M. 1996. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London. Faber and Faber.

Saunders, D. 2010. Routledge Film Guidebooks: Documentary. London; Routledge.


Essential Reading (You will need to photocopy or read sections of these books):

Beattie, K. 2003. Documentary Screens. London: Palgrave.

Grant, B.K. and J. Sloniowski (eds). 1998. Documenting the Documentary. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Nichols, B. 2002. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: University of Indiana.


Further Reading (You will find these books useful):

Aitken, I. (ed) 1998. The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology. Edinburgh. University of Edinburgh Press.

Austin, T and W. da Jong. 2010. Rethinking Documentary. New York: McGraw Hill.

Barsam, R, 1972. Non-Fiction Film Theory. New York. Plume.

Ellis, J and McLane, B. 2005. A New History of Documentary Film. London. Contiuum.

Renov, M. (ed). Theorizing Documentary. London: Routledge.

Ward, P. 2006. Documentary – The Margins of Reality. New York: Columbia University Press.


Module Calendar (please note, subject to change):

Week Date Film
1. Introduction 29th September 2016 The Jinx – Episode 1 (Jarekci, 2015)  
Required Reading


Saunders, D. 2010. “The ‘D’ Word: Definitions, ‘Obligations’ and ‘Functions’” in Documentary: London: Routledge, pp. 11-32.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing[1] Beattie, K. 2004. “Chapter 1: ‘Believe Me, I’m of the World’: Documentary Representation” in Documentary Screens. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.10-26.

Corner, J. 1996. “Documentary Theory”, in The Art of Record. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 9-30.

Vaughan, D. 1988. “Television Documentary Usage”, in Rosenthal, A. (ed), New Challenges for Documentary, 1st Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 34-47.


Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922)

Catfish (Joost and Schulman, 2010)

Las Hurdes (Bunuel, 1933)

Week Date Film  
2. Storytelling 6th October 2016 Capturing The Freidmans (Jarecki,  2003)  
Required Reading Austin, T. 2007. “’The Most Confusing Tears’: Home Video, Sex Crime  and Indeterminacy in Capturing the Freidmans” in Watching the World: Screen Documentary and Audiences. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 84-109.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Nichols, B. 1985. “The Voice of Documentary’ in Nichols, B. (ed), Movies and Methods vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nichols, B. 1991. “Telling Stories With Evidence and Argument”, in Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 107-133.

Rafter, N and M. Brown. 2011. “”Pornography in Foot-High Stacks”: Labelling Theory and Capturing the Freidmans”, in Criminology Goes to the Movies. New York: New York University, pp. 119 – 137.


March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005)

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple (Nelson, 2006)

Mugabe and the White African (Bailey and Thompson, 2009)

Week Date Film  
3. The Ethics of Intervention 13th October 2016 The Good Woman of Bangkok (O’Rourke, 1991)  
Required Reading Williams, L. 1999. “The Ethics of Intervention in Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok”, in Gaines, J and M. Renov (eds), Collecting Visible Evidence. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 176 – 189.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Kilborn, R. 2003. “Staging the Real: New Modes of Reality Formatting”,     in Staging the Real. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 152 – 185.

Nichols, B. 1991. “Axiographics: Ethical Space in Documentary Film”, Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 76 – 106.

Wright, P. L., 2009. The Documentary Handbook. London: Routledge.


Rain in My Heart (Watson, 2006)

The Bridge (Steel, 2006)

Shed Your Tears and Walk Away (Lewis, 2009)

Week Date Film  
4.    Kino 20th October 2016 Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)  
Required Reading Feldman, S. 1998.”Man With a Movie Camera” in Grant, B.K. and J. Sloniowski (eds), Documenting the Documentary. Detroit: Wayne State University, pp. 40-54.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing








Barnuw, E. 1993. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, J and B. McLane. 2005. A New History of the Documentary Film. London: Continuum.

Vertov, D. 2006. “Man With a Movie Camera”, in Cousins, M and K. MacDonald (eds), Imagining Reality. London: Faber and Faber, pp.50-56.


Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman, 1927)

Rain (Ivens, 1929)

A propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

Week Date Film  
5. Propaganda 27th October 2016 Why We Fight: Know Your Enemy (Capra, 1945)  
Required Reading Lasswell, H. 1995. “Propaganda”, in Jackall, R. (ed), Propaganda, London: Palgrave, pp.13-25.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Aufderheide, P. 2007. Documentary: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barnouw, E. 1993. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meyerson, J. 1995. “Theatre of War: American Propaganda Films During the Second World War” in Propaganda, London: Palgrave, pp. 225 – 259.


Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1935)

London Can Take It (Jennings, 1940)

Why We Fight: Prelude to War (Capra, 1942)

Worcester Week  
Week Date Film  
6. Direct Cinema 10th November 2016 High School (Wiseman, 1968)  
Required Reading Saunders, D. 2007. “Bringing Life to the Wastelands: The Beginnings of Direct Cinema” in Direct Cinema. London: Wallflower Press, pp. 5-24.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Atkins. T. 1976. Frederick Wiseman. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Beattie, K. 2011. D.A. Pennebaker. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Benson, T.W. and C. Anderson. 1989. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

Mamber, S. 1974. Cinema Verite in America. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Saunders. D. “Looking Forward” in Direct Cinema. London: Wallflower Press, pp. 57-83.


Primary (Drew, 1960)

Salesman (Maysles and Maysles, 1968)

Grey Gardens (Maysles and Maysles, 1975)

Week Date Film or Title of Session  
7. The Mockumentary 17th November 2016 This is “Spinal Tap” (Miller, 1984)  
Required Reading Roscoe, J and C. Hight. 2005. “Building a Mock-Documentary Schema” in Rosenthal, A. and J. Corner (eds), New Challenges for Documentary. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 230-141.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing De Seife, E. 2007. This Is “Spinal Tap”. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nichols, B. 2001. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Plantinga, C. 1998. “Gender, Power, and a Cucumber: Satirizing Masculinity in This is Spinal Tap”, in Grant, B.K. and J. Sloniowski (eds), Documenting the Documentary. Detroit: Wayne State University, pp.318-332.


The Rutles: All You Need in Cash (Idle and Weis, 1978)

Borat (Charles, 2006)

Morris: A Life With Bells On (Akhurst, 2009)

Week Date Film


8. New Documentary 24th November 2016 Touching the Void (MacDonald, 2003)  
Required Reading


Bruzzi, S. 2000. “Introduction” in New Documentary. London: Routledge.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Chapman, J. 2009. Issues in Contemporary Documentary. London: Polity Press.

Ellis, J. 2012. Documentary: Witness and Self Revelation. London; Routledge.

Rothman, W. 2009. Three Documentary Filmmakers: Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, Jean Rouch. New York: Suny Press.


Mr Death (Morris, 1999)

Touching the Void (MacDonald, 2003)

Dear Zachery: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kuenne, 2008)

Week Date Film


9.Documentary Superstars 1st December 2016 Bowling for Columbine (Moore, 2002)  
Required Reading


McCreadie, M. 2008. “The Professor and the Rabble Rouser” in Documentary Superstars. New York: Allworth Press, pp. 53 – 74.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Kahana, J. Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary. New York: Columbia University Press.

Moore, M. The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader. London: Penguin.

Sharret, C. and W. Luhr. 2005. “Bowling for Columbine: A Review” in  Rosenthal, A. and J. Corner (eds), New Challenges for Documentary. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 253 – 259.


Super Size Me (Spurlock, 2004)

McLibel (Armstrong and Loach, 2005)

Manufacturing Dissent (Caine and Melnyk, 2007)

Week Date                          Film


10. Tutorials 8th December 2016 No Screening
Christmas Vacation 12th December to 2nd January 2017  
Week Date Film  
11. Mondo  5th January 2017 Mondo Cane (Miller, 1964)  
Required Reading Moliterno, G. 2014. “Mondo Cane and the Invention of the Shockumentary” in Bondanella, P. (ed). The Italian Cinema Book. London; BFI, pp. 172-180.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Bring, J.T. and J. Oppenheimer (eds) . 2012. Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence. London: Wallflower.

Kerekes, D and D. Slater. 1993. Killing for Culture. New York: Creation Books.

Moliterno, G. 2014. “Mondo Cane and the Invention of the Shockumentary” in Bondanella, P (ed). The Italian Cinema Book. London: BFI, pp. 172 – 180.


Primitive London (Miller, 1965)

Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio, 1982)

Working Man’s Death (Glawogger, 2005)

Week Date Film  
12. New Media 12th January 2017 Zeitgeist (Joseph, 2007)  
Required Reading Birchall, D. 2010. “Online Documentaries” in Austin, T and W. de Jong (eds). Rethinking Documentary – New Perspectives, New Practices. New York: McGraw Hill, pp. 271 – 278.  
Supplementary Reading and Viewing Beattie, K. 2004. “The Burning Question: The Future of Documentary” in Documentary Screens. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.204-216.

Chapman, J. Issues in Contemporary Documentary. London: Polity Press.

Juhasz, J. 2010.”Documentary on YouTube: The Failure of the Direct Cinema of the Slogan” in Austin, T and W. de Jong (eds). Rethinking Documentary – New Perspectives, New Practices. New York: McGraw Hill, pp.299 – 312.


911: In Plane Sight (Lewis, 2004)

A Life in a Day (MacDonald et al, 2011)

Britain in a Day (Matthews and Bensusan, 2012)



The DVD Library:

 The DVD library for FLMS1212 Truth, Reality and the Documentary Film is held in my office (BB191). All DVDs are available for a short term loan (1 day). You can view the film in the Pierson or on your own laptop but you must return the DVD on the day of the loan.

Information about how to access the films will be sent round via email in the week preceding the class.



Assignment One

Textual Analysis:

Explore the construction of truth and/or reality in ONE of the documentaries studied on this module. Pay specific attention to areas such as form, authorship and narrative.

 Length: 1500 words

Weighting:  50%



Assignment Two

Context Essay:

Examine the relationship between a specific documentary filmmaker/s and their socio-historical context. You should show knowledge of the specific area you are discussing (propaganda, Direct Cinema, The Documentary Movement etc.) as well as situating it in its historical context.

Length: 1500 words

Weighting: 50%


*Assignments will be graded within three weeks of submission*



 You should submit your assignments online via your SOLE page. Please be sure you are familiar with the submission process.

If thought necessary, your work may be entered in the Turnitin plagiarism checker.

For information regarding plagiarism, referencing, and general study skills please visit http://www.worc.ac.uk/studyskills/


[1] Supplementary readings will contain references to the main text under discussion or illuminate the theoretical framework. The suggested films exemplify the main points of the session.