Course Syllabus

Documentary Film: Stranger than Fiction

ENGL 242-M2 – Writing Intensive

Spring 2017

Professor Leah Anderst

Meeting time – Tuesdays 6:10-10pm in H405


Office / Mailbox: Humanities 324 (English Department)

Office Hours: Mondays and Wednesdays 1-2pm, Tuesdays 5-6pm (and by appointment)


Course Description

“But is it true?” This course will analyze the history and theory of documentary filmmaking with a focus on the ways that filmmakers use fact and fiction to shape our perceptions of the real world. We will watch a variety of films paying special attention to the ways that filmmakers highlight their roles in their films. We will also spend a good deal of time discussing and practicing writing strategies and techniques specific to audio/visual media.

Course Objectives

This course contributes to the following QCC General Education Objectives:

  • Communicate effectively through reading, writing, listening and speaking
  • Work collaboratively in diverse groups directed at accomplishing learning outcomes.
  • Use historical or social sciences perspectives to examine formation of ideas, human behavior, social institutions or social processes.
  • Apply aesthetic and intellectual criteria in the evaluation or creation of works in the humanities or the arts

Course Objectives specific to this course:

  • Describe the development of documentary film practice and theory.
  • Develop a critical awareness and vocabulary of issues and problems surrounding documentary film with a special focus on documentary ethics and rhetoric.
  • Demonstrate a proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking about nonfiction cinema.
  • Demonstrate an ability to write about documentary film in a variety of formal and informal formats using textual evidence to support an argument.
  • Engage with scholarly and non-scholarly research sources related to the primary readings and films.

Required Texts

Introduction to Documentary, by Bill Nichols (available in the bookstore and as an E-book on the QCC library website – requires library validation of your QCC ID card)

Additional Secondary Readings provided as handouts and/or on Blackboard

Rules for Writers or another style manual of your choosing

Films – screened during class; many will also be made available to you to review in the library.

Graded Assignments

10% Participation

10% Quizzes, Homework, and In-Class Informal Writing

20% Course Blog on the CUNY Academic Commons

20% Two Movie Reviews

40% Final Project


Class Participation 10%

This course will be taught in seminar format. Student contributions to discussions and activities will be the key to a successful semester. Students will be graded on their preparation (bringing readings to class, having completed assignments) as well as the amount (or lack thereof) and quality of their voluntary discussion participation (in small groups and the larger class).

Quizzes, Homework, and In-Class Informal Writing 10%

There will be frequent in-class writing activities, homework worksheets, as well as quizzes testing your knowledge of the day’s readings. Many of these will take place at the beginning of class, and they cannot be made up, so be sure to arrive to class on time.

Course Blog 20% – (

Each student will be responsible for 10 blog posts, written weekly between weeks 2-12. Within the wider course topic, the topics of these posts are up to you. You may write responses to our readings (perhaps you have a question about the reading or a disagreement with it that you want to voice) or viewings (perhaps you found one particular scene or character from a film in class compelling, write about it!). Think of these posts as weekly response papers related to the course. Perhaps you saw a documentary on TV, online, or in a movie that you want to share (via a YouTube clip or other visual material) and write about, the blog is perfect for this. Each of the posts should be 300-400 words (about one double-spaced page if you write them in Word in advance). At least 4 of these 10 posts must be comments to your peers’ posts. I encourage you to post and comment on your peers’ posts more informally whenever you want. The goal of this blog is to stimulate dialogue beyond our classroom. Blog posts are less formal than the writing you’ll do for the individual graded assignments in this course, but I still expect them to be thoughtful and mostly free of errors.

Two Movie Reviews 20% (10% each)

You will write two reviews over the course of the semester:

1 of a documentary we watch together in class

1 of a new documentary film you watch on your own in one of the approved NYC movie theaters

Final Project 40%

You have two options for the final project in this course: 1) an 8-10 page research essay focused on any of the films we have watched together in class, or 2) a documentary film project of your own creation which includes a 4-5 page essay discussing your creative choices and methods. Both projects will include multiple smaller assignments and steps leading up to the final project, and detailed guideline sheets for both will be posted in our course page on Blackboard. If you are inclined to make a short film rather than write a traditional paper, great! In some ways, this option will be more labor intensive, so you should plan to begin thinking about and working on this project early in the semester.


A – Excellent Overall (A-=90-93, A=94-96, A+=97-100)

B – Mostly Adequate, some Excellent (B-=80-83, B=84-86, B+=87-89)

C – Adequate (C-=70-73, C=74-76, C+=77-79)

D – Mostly Adequate, some Unacceptable (D-=60-63, D=64-66, D+=67-69)

F – Unacceptable Overall (anything below 60%)

Let me emphasize that an “A” really means excellent. Just doing all the work in this course is often adequate (i.e. “C” work). Students who receive an “A” push themselves hard; they’re generally not content to do the minimum.


Course Policies:

  • Class Comportment: This class will be largely discussion based. In light of that, I require that everyone remain respectful of the opinions and ideas expressed in the classroom. You must silence your electronic devices prior to coming to class and put them inside your bag. Please do not take calls, text, or search the Internet during class (unless we are all together discussing a definition, for example). I know that if you’re looking at your crotch and smiling, you’re texting. Honestly, no one just does that. Sounds like a bad scene. Let’s avoid it. There will be no eating in class.
  • Sexual harassment is prohibited: Every member of the CUNY community, including students, employees and visitors, deserves the opportunity to live, learn and work free from sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, gender-based harassment and sexual violence, such as sexual assault, stalking or dating violence. CUNY Policy prohibits sexual misconduct, and it prohibits romantic relations between professors and their students. Please remember that sexual harassment includes undue and unwanted attention, such as repeated inappropriate flirting, staring or making sexually suggestive comments. Sexual harassment has no place in our classroom or on our campus.
  • Attendance and Lateness: This class will be discussion-based and hands-on, and I take participation very seriously. One time each week, we come together to share ideas, and we try to build something of value that you can take with you. The consistent presence of all of us is crucial to the success of our course. I allow two “free” absences, a third absence will automatically result in a grade of F for the course. It is up to you to be smart and save your allowed absences for a time when you really need them. Lateness is disruptive and disrespectful – please come to class on time. Students who are more than 30 minutes late or who leave before the end of the class period will be considered partially absent for that day. Please do not ask me for permission to leave class early. Finally, full class attendance entails your mental as well as physical presence. Students who nap and/or keep their heads on the desk will be marked as absent.
  • Email Etiquette: We will write in a variety of styles throughout the semester from informal, in-class writing to polished, formal essays. Email to your professors will fall somewhere between those two styles. Here are some tips:
    • Identify yourself clearly in the email (your name), and include a greeting (Hello, Dear Prof, etc.) and a closing (From, Sincerely, Thanks, etc).
    • Use “please” and “thank you,” especially if you are writing for help with an assignment. It’s my job to help you, and I want to help you, but good manners never hurt anybody.
    • Please be reasonable when emailing with questions about papers. Leave yourself enough time. If you email me at 3 a.m. the night before a paper is due, I cannot help you. I answer email as promptly as I can, but I usually stop by 9 p.m. and start up again at around 10:00 a.m. after I am sufficiently caffeinated. I’m available by email most weekends, but I’m sometimes a bit slower to respond.
    • Look in the syllabus first if you’re emailing to ask a question. Many of your questions are already answered there.
    • If you send an assignment to me via email please send it as a word document attachment, and be sure to tell me what you’re sending and why.
  • Academic Integrity: Academic dishonesty is a very serious matter and will not be tolerated. I assume that everything you hand in is your own work – conceived, researched, and written by you. Anything in your process that does not belong to you (work, ideas, data from others, sources) must be properly documented and cited. Failure to do this is plagiarism which I treat very severely. I have no tolerance for academic dishonesty as it shows a mark of disrespect for me, your classmates, and your own abilities. If you plagiarize or otherwise cheat on an assignment, you will automatically receive an “F” on the assignment (with no opportunity to make it up), and you may receive and “F” for the course. I will also make an official report of the offence to the office of Student Affairs, as I am required to do. Please just don’t do it. You’re almost certain to get caught, and the ensuing ordeal is miserable for all concerned. We will discuss research methods and proper citation throughout the course, so if you have any questions, please ask me!
  • Extra Help: I am available for extra help during my posted office hours. You may drop in, but setting up a time in advance guarantees I’ll save the time just for you. The Writing Center offers free help as well, and I encourage you to make use of their services. (Library, First Floor, 9am-9pm Mon-Th and shorter hours on Fridays and Saturdays).

Student Services at QCC

  • Single Stop + Counseling Center: QCC is fortunate to have a Counseling Center with highly trained, caring, and experienced counselors available to assist students with a wide variety of concerns. If you would like to speak with a counselor, please drop by Lib 422 or visit their website ( Single Stop offers students benefits screenings, financial counseling, legal aid, and free tax preparation services. Single Stop is located in Lib 432A. Visit their website:
  • QCC Food Pantry: QCC has a food pantry available for members of the college community who are in need. It’s located on the 4th floor of the the library building, and has limited open hours. Any student can request a time to visit by emailing QCC history professor, Emily Tai: or to English professor, Susan Jacobowitz: I encourage you to reach out to them if you or others you know are in need.
  • Disability Accommodations: Any student who feels that he/she may need an accommodation based upon the impact of a disability should contact me privately to discuss specific needs. Please also contact the office of Services for Students with Disabilities in the Sciences Building, Room 132 (718 631 6257) to coordinate accommodations for students with documented disabilities.
  • Health Services: The Health Services Center is located in MC-02 and they can be visited in the event of a health related incident on campus, health screening and counseling. They should also be consulted for excused medical absences or medical withdrawal.
  • QCC Film Club: Along with another faculty member in English, I advise the QCC Film Club, and I encourage anyone interested to join our meetings and/or screenings which usually take place in S-212 on Wednesdays from 12:10-2p,m (club hours). This is not a requirement, and it will not get you extra credit in this class, but you may find it interesting to meet with other movie fans on campus to talk about and watch movies in a more informal setting. (

Semester Schedule (subject to change) – Bring the assigned readings to class each day. Readings and writing must be completed before class on the day they are listed in the schedule. All Tuesday meetings.

Week 1 – January 31 – Introductions – What is Documentary? What is its purpose?

Reading in class: “The Kingdom of Shadows” by Maxim Gorky (handout)

Viewing in class: A diverse selection of very early documentary film clips.

Assignment: Sign up for the course blog, send me an email following the email etiquette section of this syllabus, and in your email ask one question about the course/syllabus.

Week 2 – February 7 – Early Ethnographic Documentary

Readings: Nichols, Chapter 1: How Can We Define Documentary? And Chapter 5: How did Documentary films get started?

Due: Reading Worksheet

Viewing in Class – Nanook of the North, Land without Bread

*Additional Resources: Flaherty Info Page on Senses of Cinema:

Optional outside viewing: Nanook Revisited (a documentary made after Flaherty’s, 60 minutes – view online:

Bunuel Info Page on Senses of Cinema:

Week 3 – February 14 – Propaganda and War Films

Readings: Nichols, Chapter 2 – Why are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary filmmaking? AND Chapter 9 – How can we write effectively about Documentary?

Viewing in Class: Triumph of the Will, Why We Fight (clips)

Due: Reading Worksheet + BLOG 1

Week 4 – February 21 – Documentary and Trauma

Readings: Nichols Chapter 3: What gives Documentary Films a Voice of their own? And the selection of movie reviews provided as a PDF on our BB page

Viewing in Class: Night and Fog and Shoah (clips)

Due: Reading Worksheet + BLOG 2

Week 5 – February 28 – Direct Cinema

Readings: Nichols Chapter 6, How can we differentiate among Documentaries? – And “The Observational Mode” in Nichols Chapter 7 (pp. 172-179)

Viewing in Class: High School, Salesman (clips)

Due: Reading Worksheet + BLOG 3

Week 6 – March 7 – Social Problem Films I – The Committed Film/maker

Readings: Chapter 8: How Have Documentaries Addressed Social and Political Issues?

Viewing in Class: Harlan County, USA

Due: Reading Worksheet + BLOG 4

Week 7 – March 14 – Social Problem Films II – The Poetic/Personal Film

Readings: Two Critical Essays on Harlan County, USA (BB)

Viewing in Class: Black Is Black Ain’t (clips), Tongues Untied

Due: BLOG 5 and Review 1: Review of a film viewed in class

*Additional Resources: Tongues Untied Page on Senses of Cinema:

 Week 8 – March 21 – Participatory Cinema

Readings: “Silence and its Opposite: Expressions of Race in Tongues Untied” (pdf on BB) Nichols Chapter 7 – How can we describe the modes of documentary film?

Viewing in Class: The Gleaners and I, Sherman’s March (clips)

Due: Reading Worksheet + BLOG 6 and your Film Project Proposal (for those making a short film)

*Additional Resources: Senses of Cinema page on Agnes Varda:

Week 9 – March 28 – Documentarian & Subjects

Readings: Cineaste Interview with Agnes Varda, Critical Essay on Varda’s film on Senses of Cinema:

Viewing in Class: Grizzly Man

Due: BLOG 7 and your Research Project Proposal (for those writing the research paper)

*Additional Resources: Senses of Cinema page on Werner Herzog:

Week 10 – April 4 – “Fiction” and Re-enactments

Readings: “Grizzly ghost: Herzog, Bazin and the cinematic animal” & “Chewing on the Grizzly Man: Getting to the Meat of the Matter” (PDF on BB)

Viewing in Class: The Thin Blue Line

Due: BLOG 8

*Spring Break: Monday April 10 – Tuesday April 18

Week 11 – April 25 – Autobiography, “Fiction,” and Re-enactments

Readings: Errol Morris’s NYTimes Editorials on Re-enactment (2 PDF files on BB)

Viewing in Class: Stories We Tell

Due: BLOG 10 and your Essay Outline + Annotated Bibliography (for those writing the research paper), Essay Outline (for those making a short film)

*Additional Resources: Senses of Cinema article on Stories We Tell:

Week 12 – May 2 – Short Docs

Reading: Writing about Film / Making a Short Film Readings (Making a Micro Doc, Parts 1 and 2 on BB)

Viewing in Class: Selection of Documentary Shorts

Due: Review 2: Review of a documentary film you watch outside of class at one of the approved NYC area movie theaters. (more info on our course blog)

Week 13 – May 9 – Final Project Work: Drafting / In Class Editing

Due: Informal Assignment supporting final project and

Week 14 – May 16 – Final Project Work: Peer Review

Due: Draft of your research paper / analytical essay on your own film – three printed copies

Finals Week – date TBA- Film Screenings and Wrap Up Discussions

Due: Final Project Portfolios (and films)