In this course, we address central questions in the field(s) and traditions of documentary studies, with a major focus on identifying and analyzing the issues related to representing and exhibiting the lives and stories of others through documentary film, photography, writing, and audio. Through readings, presentations of some of the major documentary works over the last 100 years, along with a deep focus on documentary representations today, we will plumb the depths and explore the range of documentary expression and ask hard questions about its ethics and practices. We will historicize contemporary work, and connect historical work to the present, all with a mind toward making judgments about when it is appropriate to re-present the stories of others, particularly those most vulnerable.
Using the setting of our study-abroad course in Italy and current events in the news today, our main focus of the semester will be historical and present-day representations of refugees in Europe and around the globe. We will feature a series of films on migrants, immigrants, refugees, all telling versions of stories that have dominated political and journalistic discourse internationally. This timely topic will help us situate the larger questions of documentary in present-day politics, discourse, and the ethics of representation within events we have all read about. In other words, our deep focus on particular issues will constitute an applied approach to documentary practice and ethics.
Using particular representations of human beings on the move today, students will be able to tailor their study of documentary to a pertinent and manageable sub-category of the larger whole. But this is no diversion from the main traditions. As we move through the course, it will become apparent in such historical works as those by Thompson and Smith, Riis, Orwell, Agee, Lange, and others, that refugees, migrants, and the downtrodden of humanity have been key subjects of documentary work from its inception. While refugees have not been the only topic of documentaries by any means, we can argue that representations of human exile have been among its most salient, common, and heartfelt forms. Simply searching on the internet for documentaries about refugees yields thousands of hits. This course will make the participants into documentary critics who will possess the tools to analyze documentaries as well as the documentarians’ need to tell these stories.
As Venice is the site of our explorations, we will make sure to connect our observations and discussions of human movement to the global travelers (including ourselves) who go there. Given the richness of this place as a crossroads of human exploration, both historically and present-day, the setting will certainly enrich our considerations of how people document travel, both chosen and forced. We will ask such questions as: What are the economics and privileges exhibited and implied by travel by choice? How do we negotiate and represent the many contact zones we find when we as travelers interact with non-travelers? How does this privilege relate to the documentary traditions we have been reading about? What does all of our movement mean for discussions of our common humanity? How are students and faculty who study abroad alike and different from tourists? What about instances when subjects document themselves, as with refugees being given cameras to record the flight from Syria? And of course, how can privileged travelers like ourselves connect with narratives of those forced to travel, particularly the migrants and refugees who have very little choice in the matter of movement?
Using this ethnographic approach tied to both our reading and experience, the general look at documentary traditions will never be only theoretical or disconnected from ‘real-world’ issues. Instead, we will explore global issues on-the-ground with specific examples, always giving our philosophical questions a basis in the here and now, helping situate larger arguments in social and political crises as we go. Thus, by entering deeply into discussions of the particular form of documentaries about refugees in a broader context, we can understand the broad motivations behind the documentary tradition.
Learning outcomes will include the following:
Teaching and Evaluation Methods
The class will be conducted in American Seminar style. Students will be expected to prepare their readings for discussion, and the professor will initiate each discussion by asking questions that are related to the specific and general topics of the course. Often, students will be asked to write short reactions and prepare questions in writing ahead of time. Each student will be expected to lead one class discussion about a topic related to one or more documentary representations, though this can also occur by forming a team of two.
Students will be graded according class and field trip participation (25%), seminar presentation (20%) mid-term short essay responses to prepared questions (25%), and a final paper addressing documentary representations of human suffering (30%).
John Thompson and Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London
Farm Security Administration photographs, focus on migrants
Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives
Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange, An American Exodus
Sabastião Salgado, Exodus
Wim Wenders, Salt of the Earth (film)
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees
Films on Refugees
Italian documentary on the European refugee crisis