Introduction to Documentary Studies

Spring – 2018YaleMatthew Jacobson

This mixed graduate/undergraduate seminar surveys documentary work in three media—film, photography, and sound–since the 1930s, focusing on the documentary as both a cultural form with a history of its own and as a parcel of skill sets and story-telling and production practices to be studied and mastered.  Readings and discussions will cover important scholarly approaches to documentary as a genre, as well as close readings of documentaries themselves and practitioners’ guides to various aspects of documentary work.  Topics include major trends in documentary practice across the three media, documentary ethics, aesthetics and truth-claims, documentary’s relationship to the scholarly disciplines and to journalism, and documentary work as political activism.  Class meetings include screenings/viewings/ soundings of documentary works, and discussions with working documentarians (including Gaspar Gonzalez, Jake Halpern, and Zareena Grewal).

The course offers a certain breadth across the documentary form, but its depth lies in the work of documenting violence—painful realities, suffering, sufferers, and in turn, human endurance, survival, and resistance.  We will consider the ways in which technologies of violence and technologies of documentary have evolved simultaneously, at times informing one another, and we will explore the ways documentary forms have been wielded both for and against causes of dispossession, war, and inequality, and in struggles of race, class, and gender.  We will also be thinking more generally about what documentary forms do, looking to scholars who have framed documentary work as any number of active and passive projects:  regarding, witnessing, encountering, preserving, recovering, communing, storytelling, advocating, or simply facing facts.  Readings and screenings will ask students to engage with the liberties and limits of documentary strategies to engage politically challenging themes, to raise awareness, and to bring about change. Four short assignments and a final project provide students the chance to explore these questions in relation to specific works of their choice.  Students’ final projects may take the form of a traditional scholarly paper on some aspect of documentary history or a particular documentary producer, OR an actual piece of documentary work—a film treatment, a brief video, a set of photographs, a sound documentary or script.

Introduction to Documentary Studies Syllabus