Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Documentary Film: Telling It Like It Is?


Has a nonfiction film ever challenged your beliefs, transformed your perspective, or left an emotional aftershock? Was that the intention of the filmmaker or an unforeseen consequence? Documentaries, once considered the “broccoli” of the film world (good for you, but not necessarily palatable) have attained popular currency in recent years. They offer compelling stories, characters that defy description, and a lingering emotional resonance. Contemporary nonfiction films enlighten, engage, and sometimes infuriate their viewers. In this seminar, we will analyze documentary as a vehicle for awareness and understanding, and as an artistic expression. Privileging films that explore salient social issues within the U.S., topics will include disability, gun culture, abortion, LGBTQ, criminal justice, homelessness, Black Lives Matter, and environmental issues. Styles of documentary to be explored include the film essay, advocacy film, hybrid forms, verité, personal storytelling, mock docs, and experimental approaches.

Why do nonfiction films function as a Rorschach test, eliciting divergent responses? We will peel back the veneer of documentary as we decode storytelling strategies and consider how the nonfiction filmmaker frames a situation, an issue, or an individual through a particular aesthetic and an articulated point-of-view. We will watch feature documentaries (online, outside of class) that represent a wide range of subject matter and formal approaches. The films will serve as a springboard for discussing the relationship between documentary and truth, the implied contract between filmmaker and audience, and the topic represented in the film. Participants will develop visual literacy skills (through screenings, written assignments, course reading, in-class discussion) and learn to critically engage with the documentaries they watch. The course goal is to transform the student  into a curious and perceptive viewer of nonfiction films. 

Meet the Instructor(s)

Jan Krawitz

"I am a documentary filmmaker and a voracious viewer of all styles of film. I made my first (8mm, silent) film  in high school but I never imagined that my nascent interest would evolve into a career.  I “stopped out” of college after my sophomore year and during that academic hiatus, I realized that I could combine my intention to become a social worker with my growing interest in documentary film. My filmmaking has provided a passport to people, places, and experiences that would otherwise remain off limits. My documentaries have been exhibited at film festivals including Sundance, the New York Film Festival, Visions du Réel, Edinburgh, and South by Southwest. My most recent film, Perfect Strangers (about an altruistic kidney donor), received a national broadcast on the PBS series, America Reframed. An earlier film, Big Enough, a documentary about dwarfs, was broadcast on the national PBS series P.O.V. and in eighteen countries. As a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Documentary Branch, I view several hundred documentaries a year -- although I am also a fan of fiction films."