Documentary Modes

UCR Osher / OLLI
Winter, 2020 (distance)
Tuesdays – Nov. 3-Dec. 8 from 2-3 PM

Devin Orgeron
Emeritus Professor, Film History and Theory
North Carolina State University

A short, guided tour through the history of nonfiction filmmaking, this course has two primary goals: 1) to give enrollees a forum to discuss a selection of key documentary films from around the world (though focused on the U.S.) and 2) to introduce students to the various ways in which nonfiction films address and/or attempt to move the viewer. Along with a selection of films from the birth of the cinematic medium, films we will engage with might include: Nanook of the North, The Plow that Broke the Plains, Salesman, Fast Cheap and Out of Control, and I am Not your Negro, etc. This course will be conducted over Zoom and students, except where noted, will be required to view films on their own before discussion. Most are readily available on popular streaming platforms and I have made them (except our final film) available for free on our course website. Weekly meetings will be about an hour in length.

  • Films (except our final film) are on the course website.
  • I will also send an email with appropriate links each week.


Weekly Film Schedule

Week 1
Tuesday, Nov. 3
Actualities and Films of Fact
Muybridge, The Lumieres, Edison

In this unit, we will explore the beginning of cinema and its close relationship to the concept of reality. There will be no pre-class screening to do on your own… we will watch a few short segments together.


Week 2
Tuesday, Nov. 10
Early Documentary Milestones and Questions of Veracity
Nanook of the North (1922) Robert Flaherty

Flaherty’s film is a good place for us to start our investigation of the form in earnest. A phenomenon of 1920s popular culture, Nanook remains a vexing document. Simultaneously influential and problematic, the film allows us to begin to question what we think we know about documentary in general.


Week 3
Tuesday, Nov. 17
New Deal Politics and the Rhetoric of Nonfiction
The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) Pare Lorentz

Documentary’s relationship to propaganda and political influence is an important part of its history. Lorentz’s film will guide as we pull this thread. We will spend some of this session looking at brief segments of other politically motivated documentary films in an effort to get a handle on the INFLUENCE cinematic form has on the viewer.


Week 4
Tuesday, Nov. 24
Salesman (1969) Maysles Bros.

The 1960s were an especially important time in the history of documentary film in part because of technological innovations that were made around this time. Briefly, film equipment got lighter and more transportable and film stocks got more responsive, meaning that filmmakers could work in conditions that would have previously been difficult…maybe impossible. The Maysles’ oddly compelling look at a group of bible salesmen is a great example of what has come to be known as the “verité” style or Direct Cinema.


Week 5
Tuesday, Dec. 1
Variations on the Talking Head
First Person (2000-2001) Errol Morris

Season One

Episodes 1 (stairway to heaven), 5 (the parrot), 7 (smiling in a jar)

FYI– Season Two

Since The Thin Blue Line (1988), Errol Morris has been this country’s most prolific and celebrated documentary filmmaker.  And much of his style is predicated upon the power of conversation.  While the style is sometimes derisively called “talking head,” Morris’s variation is more complex.  These episodes will allow us to discuss this method and a variety of other tricks in Morris’s bag.
Week 6
Tuesday, Dec. 8
Biographical Documentation the Power of “Footage”
I am not your Negro (2016) Raoul Peck

Peck’s 2016 film is an excellent example of the artistry and skill involved in using archival footage to tell a story. We will look at some other examples of this important mode of documentary communication (Ken Burns included!).