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Watching Reality – How Documentary Works

Level 1 (CQFW Level 4), 10 Credits.

Available Dates:

This course is currently not being offered in the academic year 2015 - 2016.

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Documentary film has scandalised, informed and intrigued audiences for a hundred years. New forms such as faction, docu-soap and reality TV maintain its claim to show us the truth about life. From Current Affairs to Fly-on-the-wall, documentary claims to show us life as it really is but paradoxically it employs artifice and selection to shape the experience it purports to present. Its very claim to veracity increases the urgency of understanding how documentary works on us viewers while its increasing reach and range makes it essential that we recognise the extent to which our worldview is affected by it.  This course provides a toolkit of critical skills for viewing documentary, enhancing appreciation and enjoyment. It will also serve as an introduction to the main aspects of documentary, its historical development and contemporary trends.

Overview of syllabus content

Week 1
Birth of Photography and Film

Week 2
Documentary hits the limelight: Robert Flaherty and the Russian documentarists

Week 3
The British Documentary Tradition. The 1930s and Second World War. Grierson, Riefenstahl and U.S. documentaries

Week 4
1950s/60s: Development of synchronous sound – inner thoughts exposed.

Week 5
Performative Documentary

Week 6
Investigative Documentary

Week 7
Reality Documentary

Week 8
Drama Documentary and Documentary Drama

Week 9
History Documentary

Week 10
Poetic Documentary

Who is this course for?

Anyone with an interest in the subject. No previous knowledge is assumed.

Learning and Teaching

This course is taught in 10, two-hour sessions, delivered on a weekly basis.
The material will be delivered via:

Coursework and Assessment

A viewing diary (60%) and documentary talkback (40%) to a total of 1500 words demonstrating an understanding of core elements of the course material. The documentary talkback consists of notes totalling 500 words OR a Verbal Presentation of 5 minutes in which the student ‘talks back’ to the documentary that has made most impact on them.

To award credits we need to have evidence of the knowledge and skills you have gained or improved. Some of this has to be in a form that can be shown to external examiners so that we can be absolutely sure that standards are met across all courses and subjects.

The most important element of assessment is that it should enhance your learning. Our methods are designed to increase your confidence and we try very hard to devise ways of assessing you that are enjoyable and suitable for adults with busy lives.

Reading suggestions

Patricia Aufderheide, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2007)

Erik Barnouw, Documentary, A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford University Press, rev. edn, 1993)

Sheila Curran Bernard, Documentary Storytelling for Film and Videomakers (Focal Press, 2010, new edn)

Mark Cousin and Kevin Macdonald, Imagining Reality (Faber, 2006)

Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Indiana University Press, 1991)

Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Indiana University Press, 2001; 2nd edn, 2010)

Simon Popple and Joe Kember, Early Cinema – From Factory Gate to Dream Factory (Wallflower Paperback, 2004)

Thompson and Bowen, Grammar of the Edit (Focal Press, 2009, rev. edn)
A helpful timeline of the invention of cinema and the most basic facts.
British Film Institute – wide resources. Check out the National Archive site.
Museum of the Moving Image

Library and Computing Facilities

As a student on this course you are entitled to join and use the University library and computing facilities. You can find out more about these facilities on our website under Student Information, or by ringing the Centre on
(029) 2087 0000.

Accessibility of Courses

Our aim is access for all. We aim to provide a confidential advice and support service for any student with a long term medical condition, disability or specific learning difficulty. We are able to offer one-to-one advice about disability, pre-enrolment visits, liaison with tutors and co-ordinating lecturers, material in alternative formats, arrangements for accessible courses, assessment arrangements, loan equipment and Dyslexia screening. Please contact the Centre on (029) 2087 0000 for an information leaflet.

Further Information

A range of further information can be found on our web site or in Choices.  This includes the times and dates of courses and an explanation of accreditation and credit levels.