Implementing Documentary Films in a Film Studies Class


Documentary films have often been seen as elusive, unclear, biased, or boring. When thinking about the use of documentary films in the classroom, most people envision a social studies or science class. This vision is often complete with glassy-eyed students staring numbly at a documentary about World War I or cell growth. Thinking back to how documentary films were used during my own education, I cannot remember one that was not met with groans from both the students and teachers. They were simply a different way for the teacher to present necessary information without having to give a lecture. Often, we were asked to fill out note sheets as we watched to make sure we absorbed this necessary information. Does this sound like fun? Absolutely not. However, this is one of the biggest general perceptions about documentaries; they are boring, and made for informative purposes only. Another big misconception about documentaries is that many have a biased political agenda and the information cannot be trusted. When looking at documentaries through this viewpoint, many people reference filmmakers such as Michael Moore. Yes, it's true that some documentary filmmakers do have agendas, and are biased. However, this does not mean that we should refrain from watching them if they do not align with our own personal beliefs. Unfortunately, many people see documentaries as either lifeless and dull, or so skewed that they are not worth watching. This causes many people to steer clear of nonfiction films, whether they are viewing them or using them in a classroom. Admittedly, being fairly unfamiliar with documentary territory, I have not used these types of films in my lessons. However, with the proper documentary education and the abundance of resources at my fingertips, that is going to change. class.jpg
Why use documentaries? They have so much more to teach us than just information. To begin, documentaries are an excellent tool to use when examining the effects of editing on a film. Since most documentary filmmakers have a specific purpose in mind, whether it is to inform or persuade, their biggest tool is editing. Editing can be a difficult concept for students to grasp, even those enrolled in a Film Studies elective who have much more time to become saturated in film terminology. It is something that usually goes unnoticed, but in a documentary film it is one of the prime elements in telling the director's story. In congruence with this is the director's specific use of audio, visual, and text tracks. All of these three important elements are used very specifically to help further the filmmaker's purpose. While students do learn to focus on visual elements such as lighting and camera angles, and audio elements such as soundtrack or musical score, looking at them through a documentary lens can help make them more apparent and easy to understand. This is because their use and purpose is much more clear in a documentary film; a fiction film can have many different tones or voices, and can be more open to audience interpretation. With a documentary film, by observing all three tracks the audience is almost completely clear of the director's intentions.
Another great reason for using documentary films in the classroom is that they can teach volumes about persuasion, manipulation, and propaganda. Take, for example, films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Triumph of the Will, and Food, Inc. These films have a very clear message and bias towards one point of view. It is evident even from the opening scenes what the director wants us to think, feel, or believe. Documentary films have a power of persuasion that no fiction film can match. It is important for students to be aware of the plethora of nonfiction films that affect people's opinions and actions on a global level. Students need to be made aware, now more than ever, of the influences that the media has on their lives. Outside of a media, communications, or sociology class, the topic of persuasion and its effect on society tends to be limited in the classroom. One great way to bridge this gap
" to present film-based vignettes of actual examples of persuasive messaging and influential propaganda" (Simpson 2008). It is important, though, to remember to present the film and its style, not the viewpoint. This is one reason why documentaries can be tricky to use in a public school setting. Many administrators, parents, and even students can have objections to slanted and biased information being shown in a classroom. However, if approached from an objective context, using documentaries to teach persuasion and propaganda can be an extremely invaluable tool in the classroom. To ensure objectivity, "it is essential for the instructor to balance the documentary's concern or bias with a representation of the opposing point of view, either on film, tape, or by lecture" (Wegner 1977).
Finally, students need to have an education in documentary and nonfiction films so that they can acquire the skills to "read" all types of nonfiction. Nonfiction is everywhere - radio and television ads, newspapers, "reality" TV, billboards, the daily news, and of course, nonfiction texts. Students encounter nonfiction on a daily basis, but may not often stop to think about "how is this constructed, for what purpose, and from whose point of view?" (Golden, Reading in the Reel World, 2006) Golden advocates giving students "strategies for reading the world as it is presented to us," (2006), and documentaries are a great way to introduce students to messages and points of view in nonfiction media.
students.jpg Obviously, documentaries have a lot to teach us and our students. They can make important distinctions and illustrations about editing, and give excellent examples of how audio, visual, and text tracks work together seamlessly and purposefully in a film. They can be used to study persuasion and bias. They can help students make important connections to the world around them in a political, social, or cultural sense. Plus, once you really delve into the many styles and genres documentaries have to offer, they are fun to watch. Anyone who conducts even a small amount of research on using documentaries in a classroom will soon learn that they are a tool every teacher should be using. Educators have been using films in the classroom for decades; it is time to start branching out on what types of films we use, and learn to use them with purpose and meaning.
My unit plan on documentary films is designed specifically for use in a Film Studies elective class comprised of Juniors and Seniors. It will be taught after students have developed a working knowledge of film history, the three types of tracks, and film terminology (see Golden's Reading in the Dark Appendix A). The unit will be part of a larger unit on film genres. It will cover approximately 6 45-minute class periods.

Item Covered
Types of Documentaries
SWBAT identify documentaries based on their style/type
Methods of Persuasion
SWBAT identify ethos, pathos, and logos in various forms of media
Audio, Visual, and Text Tracks
SWBAT identify how these three tracks work together to create purpose and persuasion
SWBAT analyze persuasion in a documentary and other forms of media
Super Size Me
SWBAT identify type of doc, methods of persuasion, and use of tracks in this film



Baker, F. (2009). Using documentaries in the classroom. Retrieved from

Golden, J. (2010). Making visible the invisible: The role of editing in media analysis and language arts. Journal of Media Literacy Education , 2 (2), 159-168.

Golden, J. (2001). Reading in the dark: Using film as a tool in the English classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Golden, J. (2006). Reading in the reel world: Teaching documentaries and other nonfiction texts.

Phillips, N. C. & Teasley, A. B. (2010). Reading reel nonfiction: Documentary films for young adults. ALAN

Review, 37(3), 51-59.

Simpson, K.E. (2008). Classic and modern propaganda in documentary film: Teaching the psychology of persuasion. Teaching of Psychology, 35(2), 103-108.

Vankin, J., & Whalen, J. (2005). Based on a true story: Facts and fantasy in 100 favorite movies. Chicago, IL : Chicago Review Press.

Wegner, H. (1977). Teaching with film. 41 p.

Wilson, R.D. (2004). Documentaries for the classroom. Teacher Librarian, 32(2), 48.