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The Documentary Image: Politics, Ethics, and Pedagogy

This seminar examines the reality claim of documentary as it is deployed for different political aims, including: the construction and critique of an official historical record; personal and psychological exploration in diary films; appropriation by neoliberal humanitarian aims; community building and organizing efforts; and the ethics of representation as raised by widely-circulated images of violence. Documentary’s claim to “real” events has always been an unstable one, from John Grierson’s description of Robert Flaherty’s Moana (1926) as the “creative treatment of actuality” to our contemporary world of fake news and AI-generated imagery. Still, because of this claim to truth, documentary maintains immense rhetorical force, especially when it is used to bear witness, provide evidence, or facilitate personal and social transformation. Drawing from a wide range of documentary media, including contemporary and historical works by Rea Tajiri, Rithy Panh, Chantal Akerman, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Kirsten Johnson, Jean Rouch, the Berwick Film Collective, Arthur Jafa, and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and theoretical texts by Vivian Sobchack, Pooja Rangan, Michael Renov, Bill Nichols, Jeffrey Skoller, and Elizabeth Alexander, this course takes the perspective that documentaries are not only audiovisual texts to be unpacked, but tools that are capable of doing things in the classroom and in the world. The course is designed for faculty who utilize documentary media as either primary or secondary material in their teaching.

Participants of this seminar will:

  • Gain familiarity with different rhetorical modes and political uses of documentary expression
  • Examine the deep cultural investment in documentary’s claim to truth and authenticity
  • Access a wide range of independent, experimental, and international documentary media
  • Explore classroom applications of documentary media as an object of study and its potential as a critical pedagogical tool

Seminar Schedule. Seminars run Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a midday communal lunch. Seminar conveners may adjust the class schedule in response to participant needs. Special events may also be held during the week. Participants are required to attend the full week of seminar meetings and maintain 90% attendance overall.

Seminar Materials. Eligible participants are provided with all required seminar materials (books, articles, laboratory equipment, and entrance fees).

Accommodations & Meals. Limited housing accommodations are provided to participants who live more than 50 miles from the program site. All admitted participants are provided with some meals during the program period.

Application Procedure. Applicants should submit the completed application along with all of the following:

  • A statement of intent that indicates how the seminar participant will apply what is learned at the home institution
  • A current CV
  • A letter of support from either the division dean or department head, who is well-acquainted with the applicant’s area of research
  • Their institutional liaison officer’s approval