In his discussion of documentary origins (Introduction to Documentary, second edition. Indiana University Press, 2010), Bill Nichols argues that documentary starts to emerge as a recognizable practice when films speak with “voices” of their own. Documentaries do not “reproduce” the world by capturing sounds and images from the real world, he argues, they “represent” it, shaping the meaning these sounds and images create in a number of ways (through editing, sound, mise-en-scene, cinematography, film style). As such, they offer perspectives on the world.
Furthermore, Nichols provides a set of tools for analyzing the controlling power (the “voice”) behind the combination of images and sounds that make up the documentary. He identifies 6 modes—poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, performative—that serve as conventions for representing the world.
Over the course of the semester, we have (or will have) looked at a number of documentary sub-genres—the social/political documentary, the nature documentary, the sports documentary, and the rock documentary. We have seen and discussed not just contemporary examples but historical examples as well. In this paper I would like you to select one of these sub-genres and analyze how the contemporary example presents its perspective on the world under consideration comparably and differently than the historical example.
Step 1. The sets of films:
SOCIAL/POLITICAL DOCUMENTARY: Harvest of Shame (available online) and Iraq in Fragments (http://www.veoh.com/watch/v17848912nxZa27gs?h1=Iraq+in+Fragments/)
Step 2. Analyze the films by answering the following questions about each film:
What is the overall goal of the film? I.e. what argument does it seek to make about the world? What role does the object under consideration (nature, sport, music, etc…) play in this film? How does the way the film was made and the cinematic strategies it employs (reference Nichols’ modes here, whether you think the film fits “cleanly” into one mode or not, and make use of the “elements of film) support and/or shape that argument?
Step 3. Assess the differences:
Is one model more convincing, more powerful, more pleasurable than another? Does each speak appropriately for its purported goals or for its contemporary moment? Has something been lost or gained in the contemporary example?
Writing about film:
I have posted a pdf on “the elements of film.” This is a short description of the elements of film and how to go about isolating them, thinking about them, and being prepared to write about them.
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