Module UXS-2059:
Understanding Documentary

Module Facts

Run by School of Music and Media

20 Credits or 10 ECTS Credits

Semester 1

Organiser: Dr Dyfrig Jones

Overall aims and purpose

This module will give students an overview contemporary documentary film. Developments in documentary film history will be explored within a theoretical context, which will enable the students to understand the ways in which documentaries have evolved over time. This module will also look at the work of a number of key documentary film-makers examining their films within the context of documentary theory.

Course content

This course will look at the development of documentary film, attempting to place important developments within a theoretical context. The course will begin by looking at the way in which the early pioneers of documentary film emerged in the 1920s, and seek to understand the contributions of John Grierson, Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov, and the relationship between their work.

This will be followed by an examination of the emergence of Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité during the 1960s, and the challenges faced by those attempting to work within observational documentary. The rejection of the purely observational mode of documentary, and the rise of the participatory film-maker will follow, leading on to an examination of reflexive documentaries, the role of dramatisation within documentary film, drama-documentary and docudrama.

The final part of the course will look at the influence of new technology upon documentary film, analysing the influence of both computer generated imagery and animation upon documentary film. Specific attention will be paid to the work of film-makers such as Albert and David Maysles, DA Pennebaker, Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Errol Morris, and Kevin MacDonald among others.

Assessment Criteria


Threshold (40%+)

Submitted work is adequate and shows an acceptable level of competence as follows:

  • Generally accurate but with omissions and errors.
  • Assertions are made without clear supporting evidence or reasoning.
  • Has structure but is lacking in clarity and therefore relies on the reader to make links and assumptions.
  • Draws on a relatively narrow range of material.


Excellent (70%+)

Submitted work is of an outstanding quality and excellent in one or more of the following ways:

  • Has originality of exposition with the student's own thinking being readily apparent.
  • Provides clear evidence of extensive and relevant independent study.
  • Arguments are laid down with clarity and provide the reader with successive stages of consideration to reach conclusions.


Good (50%+)

Submitted work is competent throughout and occasionally distinguished by superior style, approach and choice of supporting materials. It demonstrates:

  • Good structure and logically developed arguments.
  • At least in parts draws on material that has been sourced and assessed as a result of independent study, or in a way unique to the student.
  • Assertions are, in the main, backed by evidence and sound reasoning.
  • Accuracy and presentation in an appropriate academic style.

Very Good (60%+)

Submitted work is competent throughout and distinguished by superior style, approach and choice of supporting materials. It demonstrates:

  • Very good structure and logically developed arguments.
  • Draws on material that has been sourced and assessed as a result of independent study, or in a way unique to the student.
  • Assertions are backed by evidence and sound reasoning.
  • Accuracy and presentation in an appropriate academic style.

Learning outcomes

  1. Identify milestones in the recent development of film and television documentary

  2. Critically evaluate both form and content in documentary

  3. Identify and critically analyse the work of a number of specific documentary film makers

  4. Apply film and television theory to the critical evaluation of film and television texts

  5. Identify and describe major documentary film theories

Assessment Methods

Type Name Description Weight
Written assignment, including essay Annotated Bibliography

Select one of the following:

 A documentary film-maker of your choosing or

 A historical period or documentary movement of your choosing (i.e. Direct Cinema) or

 A documentary film mode of your choosing (i.e. Expository Documentary)

and compile an annotated bibliography related to your choice. The bibliography should list ten different good-quality academic sources that are relevant to your chosen subject. Each source must be accompanied by a 200 word critical discussion of the source. These sources must be journal articles, research monographs, academic textbooks or chapters in research anthologies. Each source must be correctly referenced, using the Harvard System

ESSAY Essay or Video Essay

Using the research that you undertook for the first assignment, answer one of the following questions:

 To what extent does a documentary film have an author? Your essay should include detailed analysis of at least two different films made by the same film-maker. You may not use films included on the syllabus (pages 3-4 in this handbook).

 What do we mean when we speak of documentary film "movements"?

 How useful is the concept of "modes" in helping us to understand documentary film?

 A question that you have devised yourself, based on your research. This question must be agreed in advance with the lecturer.

Your answer may take the form of a written essay, or a video essay.

Written essays should be no longer than 2000 words long, and presented in accordance with the guidelines found in this handbook.

Video essays should be no longer than five minutes. Students wishing to submit a video essay must discuss this with the lecturer in advance. Examples of video essays can be found in the handbook.


Teaching and Learning Strategy

Private study 156

Seminar, 1 hour per week


Film screening, 2 hours per week


Lecture, 1 hour per week


Transferable skills

  • Literacy - Proficiency in reading and writing through a variety of media
  • Self-Management - Able to work unsupervised in an efficient, punctual and structured manner. To examine the outcomes of tasks and events, and judge levels of quality and importance
  • Exploring - Able to investigate, research and consider alternatives
  • Information retrieval - Able to access different and multiple sources of information
  • Inter-personal - Able to question, actively listen, examine given answers and interact sensitevely with others
  • Critical analysis & Problem Solving - Able to deconstruct and analyse problems or complex situations. To find solutions to problems through analyses and exploration of all possibilities using appropriate methods, rescources and creativity.
  • Argument - Able to put forward, debate and justify an opinion or a course of action, with an individual or in a wider group setting
  • Self-awareness & Reflectivity - Having an awareness of your own strengths, weaknesses, aims and objectives. Able to regularly review, evaluate and reflect upon the performance of yourself and others


Pre- and Co-requisite Modules

Courses including this module

Compulsory in courses:

Optional in courses: