The Digital Documentary

Spring 2018 // R 6–8:45 PM // HCC 407
Jesse Stommel // @Jessifer //

Why do documentary films get made? What do their makers hope these films will do in the world? Does the film released in a multiplex do something categorically different in the world from the one released online? How do stories get told across what might otherwise just be a series of talking heads? How can editing be used in didactic, conversational, or narrative ways? Once we’ve found a story to tell, once we’ve shot and edited a film, how do we get people to watch it? Does the way we draw viewers to a film change how they respond to or engage with it?

This course will explore these questions and more as we get our hands dirty in the filmmaking process. The course will focus on documentary filmmaking for social change. We’ll discuss example documentary films (viral, short-form, and feature-length), talk through the technical properties of various kinds of cameras, learn approaches to both formal and guerilla-style filmmaking, and we’ll experiment with the documentary form individually and in groups. We’ll emphasize collaboration, modeling the processes through which most documentaries get made, from conception to shooting, editing, marketing, and release. We’ll be ambitious throughout, erring on the side of taking risks and failing big, as we seek to uncover the hows and whys of documentary filmmaking.

There is not a traditional textbook for this course. We will do some reading that gives us points of entry to studying film and the issues these films raise, but the course will center around our discussions and what we uncover.

The Internet (all our texts will be linked directly from the course schedule)

Depending on what motivates your interest in documentary and how you approach your work for this class, you may want to buy/read one or more of the following.

Patricia Aufderheide, Documentary Film: a Very Short Introduction
John Hewitt and Gustavo Vazquez, Documentary Filmmaking: a Contemporary Field Guide
Jon Fitzgerald, Filmmaking for Change
Kurt Lancaster, DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video
Gustavo Mercado, The Filmmaker’s Eye

You will watch most of the films on your own in preparation for class. All of these are available free or can be rented online for just a few dollars. In addition to our required texts, plan to spend about $20-30 on rental fees for these films. (Watch films together to save money.) Films that aren’t available online for less than $5 will be screened in class.

Blackfish (83 min) [screening in class] [Netflix] [Amazon]
Cameraperson (102 min) [Amazon Prime]
Stories We Tell (109 min) [Amazon Prime]
Encounters at the End of the World (99 min) [Netflix] [Amazon]
High School (75 min) [screening in class]
13th (100 min) [Netflix]
The Hunting Ground (103 min) [Amazon] [Netflix]
Citizenfour (114 min) [Amazon]

Additional short films linked from the schedule and available online.

Nothing in this syllabus will be set in stone or taken for granted. The instructions and outcomes laid out here are a beginning, something we’ll treat roughly as the course proceeds. This is not a map, but rather a direction in which we’ll point ourselves at the outset with the goal of vigorously rewriting the syllabus as we go, discovering what we’ll learn together as we learn it, questioning what we’ll do even as we begin to do it.

In this course we will:

  • Practice reading documentary films individually and collaboratively, analyzing and interpreting through and beyond our immediate impressions.
  • Investigate the interconnections between documentary films and other genres, online and otherwise.
  • Examine how documentary films have and can be put to use for more than just entertainment, but also as information, history, cultural documents, advocacy, and activism.
  • Consider how notions of authorship work in (and are challenged by) a collaborative industry/art like filmmaking.
  • Experiment as filmmakers ourselves. This is a course about critical thinking and also critical making.
  • Have epiphanies.

This course will be as much about breaking stuff as it is about building stuff. There will be discussions online and face-to-face. The final assignment for the course will be a film screening organized by us with 10+ films we’ve made individually and collaboratively.

• Participation. This is a collaborative course, focusing on discussion and work in groups. The class will be a cooperative learning experience, a true intellectual community. And so, you and your work are, in a very real sense, the primary texts for this course. In order for us to work together as a community, we all have to come prepared to participate. If you can’t finish work for any reason, chat with me (and your collaborators) in advance.

• Instagram, YouTube, and Slack. Throughout the term we’ll be using Instagram and YouTube as our primary methods for sharing our work outside our class. We’ll be using Slack for class communication and for sharing our work with each other.

• 7 days. 7 B&W photos of your life. No people. No explanation.

• 1 minute documentary. A single voice. 20 cuts.

• 3-10 minute documentary that does work in the world. A group of 2-5 people. Marketing. An artist statement.

We’ll talk at more length about each of these assignments as the term proceeds.

You will collaborate with your peers on many of the assignments you complete for this course. If you have questions about the various ways collaboration can work, feel free to chat with me at any point.

This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the discussions, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions.

Slack: You should create a Slack account at our class’s domain as early as possible. The mobile app is handy.

Instagram: We’ll be sharing work throughout the term via Instagram. We’ll also use Instagram as a way to promote our final films. If you’re uncomfortable using your personal Instagram account for whatever reason, feel free to create a new account just for our class. The account you use will need to be public, so we can all easily find each other’s work.

#digdoc: Whenever you share anything related to our class on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, use the hashtag #digdoc to contribute to our distributed conversation.

The UMW Honor System is the ethical guideline for this class, and it defines our core beliefs and expectations as a community. You can find extensive details about the UMW Honor System online here.

The Office of Disability Resources has been designated by the University as the primary office to guide, counsel, and assist students with disabilities. If you already receive services through the Office of Disability Resources and require accommodations for this class, get in touch with me as soon as possible to discuss your approved accommodation needs. I will hold any information you share with me in the strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise. If you have not contacted the Office of Disability Resources and need accommodations, click here or call 540–654–1266.

The majority of your work for this course will live publicly on the web within open platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. If you would like to remain anonymous, I encourage you to use a pseudonym. If you don’t want to include a photograph of yourself, you can upload an avatar to represent you. Think carefully about these choices.

Authorship is a hotly contested topic in the academy. At what point do we own the words we say and write or the images we create? In literature and digital media, creative influence, collaboration, and borrowing are usually acceptable (even encouraged). So, what sort of statement or warning about plagiarism would be appropriate in this class? Let me go out on a limb and say: in this class, I encourage you to borrow ideas (from me, from the authors we read, from the films we watch, from your classmates). But, even more, I encourage you to truly make them your own — by playing with, manipulating, applying, and otherwise turning them on their head. In the end, it’s just downright boring to rest on the laurels of others. It’s altogether more daring (and, frankly, more fun) to invent something new yourself — a new idea, a new way of thinking, a new claim, a new image. This doesn’t give you license to copy something in its entirety and slap your name on it. That’s just stealing. Instead, think very consciously about how you’re influenced by your sources — by the way knowledge and creativity depend on a sort of inheritance. And think also about the real responsibility you have to those sources.

Critical thinking is like eating, something lively and voracious, something that drips and reels. It isn’t (and can’t be) virtual. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, we must increasingly find ways for this work to happen online. We must bring our subjects to life for both ourselves and our digital counterparts. Learning must fire every neuron — must touch us at the highest levels of consciousness and at the cellular level. No matter where it happens, this is what learning must do. It must evolve — and revolt.