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Name: Section: _______________ Date: ________________
Environmental and Social Issues – Documentary Rhetorical Analysis
Introduction Documentary film is probably one of the first mediums that come to mind when we think about “documenting reality,” yet it is also one of the most complex formats for encapsulating our world in an informative, impactful, and artistic context. Documentary films use a variety of methods—images, words, sounds, and diverse cinematic techniques—in order to present an argument or thesis. This analysis asks you to view one of several documentaries with arguments related to one or several related environmental or social issues.
Your task will be to analyze the rhetorical and persuasive strategies employed by the filmmakers in the construction of the film’s thesis and argument. The analysis will take the form of a paper between 4 – 6 pages in length, and you must figure out some way to be creative in your analysis. This could be something in addition to your paper like a poem, drawing(s), graphic design(s), concept map, photograph(s), short story, short video or the creative element(s) could be integrated into the text of the paper itself.
Background Bill Nichols, Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University, introduced the theory of documentary modes in 1991 as an attempt to theorize documentary practice. His book, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, applied modern film theory to the study of documentary film for the first time. Nichols proposed that there was a mostly direct linear progression from the early documentaries of the 1930s to the present day, starting with relatively straightforward expository documentaries, and evolving progressively into observational, interactive and, finally, reflexive documentary styles.
More recently, Stella Bruzzi, Professor and Dean at University College London, has questioned Nichols’s idea of a simple chronological progression through various documentary modes. She argues that all types of documentaries have existed in different periods, and she adds another
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mode – the “performative”. In her 2000 book, New Documentary: A Critical Introduction, Bruzzi writes, “Traditionally, documentaries strove to represent reality as faithfully as possible. They relied upon the realist assumption that it was necessary to disguise the conventions used in making the documentary and so appear to offer a window on the world. Conversely, the new performative documentaries herald a different notion of documentary “truth” that acknowledges the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film.”
The principal documentary modes can be summarized as below and may be a helpful guide as you begin to consider the film we watch together in lab. Please consider and use some of this information as part of your analysis.
Table 10.1. Documentary Modes and Their Key Attributes.
Mode Important Attributes or Characteristics
The expository mode
• ‘Voice of God’ narration directly addressing the viewer • Direct relationship between images and voice-over • Interviews used only in support of the film’s argument • A conventional, linear narrative structure • A narrator who also may appear as a ‘character’ in the film
The observational mode
• A non-interventionist or ‘fly-on-the-wall’ presentation style • Unobtrusive camera work, appearing to offer a ‘window on the world’ • Relatively long takes, suggesting that nothing has been ‘cut out’ • Zoom lenses and hand-held camera following the action • Editing which gives the impression of ‘lived’ or ‘real’ time • Speech which is overheard and not directed to camera or audience • Synchronous sound • Only diegetic music (originating in the documentary’s world)
The interactive mode
• The acknowledged presence of the camera and crew • The filmmaker(s) speaking directly to her/his subjects • An emphasis on monologues and dialogues • Representation of multiple, often conflicting, viewpoints • Editing which maintains logical continuity • No definitive argument, leaving the audience to decide
The interactive mode
• Acknowledgement of the medium to problematize it • Discussion of the problems of making the documentary • Making explicit the process of representation • Making explicit institutional issues (such as who is funding the film)
The performative mode
Where the documentary maker ‘stars’ in his/her own film, is also self-reflexive, such as Nick Broomfield in Kurt & Courtney (1998).
While it is useful to keep all these styles in mind, many documentaries, even early ones, don’t fit rigidly into a single category. The classic Housing Problems (1935), for example, is expository in that it includes interviews to the camera, and interactive in that it has several different voice-overs; it is also observational. Michael Moore’s films offer more examples of documentaries with hybrid structures that blend multiple documentary modes
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Figure 10.1. Direct Action Principles Sign from Oceti Sakowin Water Protectors Camp, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota, November 2016.
Procedure, Goals, and Lab Report Guidelines 1. The class will watch one of the following documentaries together in lab. Students should be
prepared to take detailed notes on: a) the multiple layers of the film’s central argument/thesis/ message; and b) examples of specific rhetorical choices the filmmakers made that advanced elements of the core argument/thesis/message.
2. After watching the film together, students and instructor will compare notes and engage in a discussion to try to articulate the multiple layers of the film’s argument. Students should continue to take detailed notes from the group discussion.
3. Students should write a rhetorical analysis paper at home that: 1) exposes and describes the fundamental argument/thesis of the film; and 2) documents how the filmmakers advance the argument with the use of images, words, graphics, sounds, music, editing, narrative elements, color schemes, etc.
4. A couple of important notes: 1) first lay out the film’s argument with rich details…the argument should probably have 4-8 key threads described that weave together to create the overall thesis. 2) be sure to cite specific elements/examples from the film to support your articulation of the film’s argument and rhetorical structure. You should cite specific scenes, choices, and concrete examples from the film and then describe how that rhetorical element or choice reinforces one or several of the threads of the argument. The paper should probably be 4 – 6 pages in length in order to complete a thorough analysis.
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Table 10.2. Environmental Studies Documentaries with Topics of Focus
Title Year Director(s) Issues Explored
Standing Silent Nation 2006 Suree Towfighnia Environmental justice, indigenous
history, racism, agriculture
The 11th Hour 2007 Nadia Conners, Leila Conners
Sustainability, biodiversity loss, climate change, waste, pollution,
Merchants of Doubt 2014 Robert Kenner Climate change, politics
Racing Extinction 2015 Louis Psihoyos Biodiversity loss
The True Cost 2015 Andrew Morgan Environmental justice, capitalism,
consumerism, waste, pollution, human culture
Before the Flood 2016 Fisher Stevens Climate change
Seed 2016 Jon Betz,
Agriculture, biodiversity, environmental justice, capitalism,
Chasing Coral 2017 Jeff Orlowski Biodiversity loss, climate change,