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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Samuel M. Yum
BIS 347
Bothell Campus

History of American Documentary Films

Exploration of the important technological and cinematic innovations of non-fiction films within their cultural contexts, and examination of theoretical issues such as objectivity and the blurred line between fact and fiction. Stresses the skills necessary for the critical evaluation and interpretation of documentary films.

Class description

This course is part survey and part critical interrogation of American (and other English language) documentary cinema and the multiple historical, technological, and economic changes that have made contemporary practices vital and innovative today. During the first half of the quarter, we examine historical traditions that have defined documentary film through the last century — from conventions of visualizing realities with early photographic equipment and narrative storytelling in the 1920s, to experiments with cinema verite and direct cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, to video and digital media in our present age. Critical and theoretical readings complement our in-class screenings throughout and inform us as we develop a framework for analysis. In the latter half of the course, however, we address the explosion of documentary work produced since 1980, including films and filmmakers at the confluence of new technologies and changing ideological positions that continue to redefine and push boundaries of documentary cinema in both form and substance. A “history of…? course can never be exhaustive or complete, and will always be selective in content. Our aim is to understand the major trends and developments in documentary film through time in a broad but recognizably American historical, social, and cultural context.

Student learning goals

To explore the following questions: ▫ How do films represent reality? ▫ What assumptions do we have about the nature of reality and our ability to document it? ▫ What assumptions do we have about the nature of filmic images as documentation? ▫ How do documentary films function as cultural productions? ▫ How does a growing category of documentary or non-fiction film reflect current cultural processes?

To learn to construct effective descriptions and analyses

To interpret and assess the visual and rhetorical strategies of historical and contemporary documentary film practice

To understand historical trends and innovations in American documentary film

General method of instruction

Weekly in-class screenings, lecture, discussion

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

Writing assignments, quizzes, class participation/contribution


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Samuel M. Yum
Date: 11/20/2012