Tools of Directing Documentary
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Learning outcomes of the course unit
The course covers a large spectrum of documentary films that are diverse in theme and genre as well as relevant to contemporary world events, so as to present how the director of each film has approached the subject of his or her film from a practical standpoint. The selected films are award-winning documentaries at major international festivals (Cannes, Berlinale, Venice, etc.) and represent a variety of directing styles.
The goal is to bring attention to the unseen work taking place behind the realization of a documentary by analyzing specific scenes and focusing on how it was envisioned, filmed, and edited by the documentarist. The course addresses essential issues encountered by every documentary director: access to characters, choice of form and structure, editing, and visual language. These will be discussed in detail, with reference to case studies and an emphasis on causes for a filmmaker's approach to theme or subject. Often, the director's approach will be presented through his or her own words in interviews or books.
Students will be exposed to case studies of director approaches to documentaries in the digital era. What is the border between fiction, fictionalization, and reality?
What is real and what was staged by the director? Many viewers equate documentary cinema with “capturing” an untouched reality and are unaware of how the camera's presence directly interferes with reality. Likewise, film students tend to underestimate the role of manipulation in a documentary director’s approach. Exploring these issues and exposing the director’s actual practice is a main course goal, as it helps to challenge superficial perceptions and leads to a deeper understanding of the practice.
The course will expose students to films that are relevant to currents trends in documentary filmmaking and use these films to analyze:
- Access to characters
- Approach to topic, story, style and structure
- Camera work and cinematic language in reference to editing and shooting
Mode of study
Screenings of selected scenes, analytical and practical analysis of film form, topic exposition, structure, and camera style. Deconstruction of full documentary scenes from the point of view of the director on set. Active discussion in class.
Prerequisites and co-requisites
- Joshua Oppenheimer - A double case: The act of killing and The look of silence in comparison. Two recent documentaries with different approaches to the same subject. How to portray a genocide from the perspective of the murderers (The act of killing) and the victim (The look of silence). An objective sociological approach and an intimate humanistic approach. Director's special access to controversial characters.
- Laurent Bécue-Renard - Of men and war. The impact of strictly observational filmmaking. The need for a long-term shooting plan. How important is pre-production research on the field? How to gain trust and access in a closed-off community? The role of editing in reconstructing and reordering reality. The case of a documentary film with no specific main characters i.e. community as protagonist.
- Roberto Minervini - Low tide and Stop the pounding heart. Examples of documentaries directed in a fictional style. What is the border between fiction and documentary? How to recognize a staged scene? Is it possible to use the cinematic language of fiction in documentary? Minervini presents one of the most interesting contemporary directors to intermix fiction and documentary.
- Documentary in experimental cinema or video arts - blending forms. Analysis of Ben River's films This is my land, Origin of the Species, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's own eyes, and Artavazd Peleshyan's Seasons.
- Bernard Levy - Peshmerga and Abbas Fahdel Homeland: Iraq year zero. Problems of the anthropological and ethnographic representation of a different culture in Western documentaries. Analysis of the ethnocentric approach as compared to a local perspective: two points of views on the recent wars of Syria and Iraq.
- Frederick Wiseman - In Jacksons Heights. Cinema of institutions. How to film inside a public institution? How to gain access? The relationship between the filmmaker and the subject space.
- Wang Bing - Man with No Name. Tools of purely observational documentary. An extreme approach with no crew and no interaction between filmmaker and subject.
- Patricio Guzman - The Pearl's button. What does it mean to direct an essay documentary? Relationship between voice-over and images in a complex mix of modes.
- Nicholas Philibert - To be and to have, Les Blank - Gap -Toothed Women. Is it possible to make a documentary without an apparent conflict or confrontation? Tools of narration in community representations.
Recommended or required reading
Guy Gauthier - Le documentarie un autre cinéma
Bill Nichols - Introduction to documentary
Bill Nichols - Respresenting Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary
Assessment methods and criteria
Conditions to a successful completion are participation in class, attendance (3 possible absences) and a written essay of minimum 2 pages on one or more documentaries presented during the course. Focusing on a few scenes is strongly recommended. Send your work to: firstname.lastname@example.org till May 20.
Schedule for winter semester 2019/2020:
|Date||Day||Time||Tutor||Location||Notes||No. of paralel|
|Tue||14:50–16:25||Francesco MONTAGNER||lecture parallel1|
Schedule for summer semester 2019/2020:
The schedule has not yet been prepared
The subject is a part of the following study plans
- Academy Preparation Program - Cinematography (optional subject)
- Academy Preparation Program - Animated Film (optional subject)
- Academy Preparation Program - Directing (optional subject)
- Academy Preparation Program - Documentary (qualification subject, optional subject)
- Academy Preparation Program - Editing (optional subject)
- Academy Preparation Program - Photography (optional subject)
- Academy Preparation Program - Screenwriting (optional subject)