Behind the Lens

Digital Premiere: June 28, 2010

Lesson Plan: Social Issue Documentaries

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As documentaries have become increasingly popular, they have also become more significant voices in the media. Students in many fields -- not only film and video students, but students in sociology, political science, international affairs and law -- now aspire to make documentaries. They intend to build these documentaries into websites, use them in campaigns, exhibit them at film festivals and attach them to research projects.

This mini curriculum, grounded in the work and comments of filmmakers showcased on POV, an award-winning series featuring social-issue documentary and the longest running series of its kind, is designed to help professors incorporate the basics of social-issue documentary production into their larger teaching objectives. It uses the resources of the POV website.

For each film broadcast since 2001, POV offers a rich set of resources: an interview with the filmmaker or filmmakers, a filmmaker statement, a production journal, classroom clips from the film, a lesson plan and a Take Action page. For many people, the easiest way to start browsing is to select a film appropriate to their students' concerns from the list of topics on the POV Explore Topics page, watch a trailer and then sample the set of resources in the left-hand sidebar. Some films are available for viewing in their entirety online. If you want to select only from those, click on Watch Video in the site navigation.

Length of complete curriculum: 5 to 10 hours.
Length of individual units: 1 to 3 hours each.


  • Define social-issue documentary
  • Explore key ethical issues in social-issue documentary.
  • Describe a range of subgenres and aesthetic approaches.
  • Address production conditions and challenges.

Lesson One: Defining Documentary
Referencing pages 1 through 10 of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) by Patricia Aufderheide, discuss expectations for the documentary form.

1. Ask each class member to name, either by title or by description, a documentary he or she has seen recently. Prompt them if necessary: A student may have seen a sports documentary, concert footage (in a music video or YouTube video) or a magazine segment on a themed channel such as Home and Garden Television, but may not think of it immediately. These are all examples of common kinds of documentaries that are not social-issue documentaries; they do, however, demonstrate the ubiquity of the form itself. Students have probably also seen a range of television reality programming, which many people do not consider to be documentary, per se, because of its scripted and staged nature, but it does demonstrate the appeal of seemingly spontaneous real-life action.

Pose these questions to the class: What is a documentary? What do I as a viewer expect from a documentary? How would I define it?

You can ask them to answer these questions in a variety of ways. Possibilities include:

  • Hold a discussion, then segue to lecture format. Compare their answers to the answers provided in the reading materials. Discuss things that might be expected from a documentary, such as honesty, objectivity and truthfulness.
  • Divide the class into two debate teams and ask one to agree and the other to disagree with this statement in the reading: "We expect to be told things about the real world, things that are true. We do not demand that these things be portrayed objectively, and they do not have to be the complete truth . . . But we do expect that a documentary will be a fair and honest representation of somebody's experience of reality."
  • Break the class into small groups. Each group can decide to support or contest a statement from the reading. (Good candidates: "there is no way to make a film without manipulating the information"; "consumer entertainment is an important aspect of the business of filmmaking, even in documentary"; "most documentary filmmakers consider themselves storytellers, not journalists.")

Show one of the filmmaker statements or interviews from the POV website and a related clip or trailer (or assign students to watch these in advance). Select people and topics that will engage your students. (POV offers a topics list for its films that you may find useful.) The following are some interviews you might find relevant:

Discuss whether the class agrees or disagrees with the filmmaker who was interviewed. Discuss whether social-issue documentarians have more, fewer or the same number of obligations as other documentarians.

4. Summarize the discussion and emphasize the key takeaways:

  • All documentaries represent; they do not merely record. All representation involves choices, i.e., selecting from available real-life footage to compose a meaningful statement.
  • Viewers expect to be told a truthful story, and they want to be told why it is relevant to them.
  • Not only can taking a point of view not be avoided, but a point of view is a key feature of good and honest storytelling; transparency in making that point-of-view explicit is part of the pact between documentarian and viewer.
  • All of these things are just as true for social-issue documentaries and filmmakers as they are for other kinds of documentaries and filmmakers, but social-issue documentarians often take their responsibilities extremely seriously because they deal with issues of such gravity.

Lesson Two: Ethical Questions
Once a filmmaker has accepted the responsibility that comes with acknowledging the filmmaker's point of view, he or she confronts a range of ethical questions in making a documentary. These ethical questions occur within three kinds of relationships: those with subjects, those with viewers and those with co-producers (including funders, sponsors, backers and partners).

1. Select a range of topics for discussion; you can either do this yourself or work collaboratively with the class to choose them, for instance, by taking a poll. Make sure that you select at least one example from each of the three groups: subjects, viewers and co-producers. Assign or cue up the clips. Some relevant questions are suggested here, with related materials listed below them:

Does a documentarian have an obligation to his/her subjects other than to document their lives?
How does a documentarian build trust with subjects and deal with concerns for privacy?

Is it ever acceptable to deceive or withhold information from subjects about what you are doing?

How can a documentarian honestly maintain viewers' trust while also making an artful and effective film?

Can activism be combined with documentary without compromising it?

What are a filmmaker's obligations regarding accuracy in representations such as reenactments, in chronology and with archival material?


How do filmmakers work with issue-oriented partners without losing their autonomy?

How do filmmakers collaborate as part of a team? How much can they do alone?

2. Build on the material that emerges from this discussion in class, using any of the following approaches or a different approach of your own:

  • Hold a group discussion about a problem in each of the three areas. Kick it off by showing film clips and asking students to read or view interview material.
  • After the class has viewed film clips and read or viewed interview material on a particular issue, break students into two-person teams; one member of the team will act as the filmmaker, and the other as a viewer criticizing a practice. After the two-person team activity, reconvene the group as a whole. Ask class members to discuss what the grounds might be for disagreeing and what the grounds might be for defending the practices they discussed. Repeat as time allows.
  • Divide students into three groups, each representing one of the stakeholders in a documentary film: subjects, viewers or producers. Ask students to identify two to three things they seek from a documentary filmmaker. Then, ask students to share their lists with the class. Together, watch a film clip and scan or view an interview with a filmmaker on the same issue. Discuss how each of the stakeholders might react to the issue raised by the clip and interview.

3. Identify general principles used when deciding whether or not an approach is ethical, drawing on the conclusions of the Center for Social Media study "Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work."

4. Summarize the discussion and emphasize key takeaways:

  • Social-issue documentarians apply consistent values -- generally aimed at maintaining a good-faith relationship of honesty and integrity with subject, viewer and funder -- when dealing with the myriad challenges of their craft.
  • Social-issue documentarians strive to make their choices transparent as a way to honor those good-faith relationships.
  • Many social-issue documentarians regard the work of engagement (sometimes called outreach or activism) as a key responsibility designed to provide viewers with useful knowledge and appropriate action. They do not see a conflict between engagement and their mission to enlighten or inform.

Lesson Three: Styles of Social-Issue Documentary

Read about various documentary formats in pages 10 to 18 of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) by Patricia Aufderheide. Students in film, media or production classes may also find the cinema vérité section, pages 44 to 55, and the chapters on subgenres helpful as well.

Students often assume that a "real" documentary is tediously didactic, so they are surprised to discover that social-issue documentarians are concerned with aesthetics and formal choices, and that so many different kinds of styles may be employed.

1. Expose students to a variety of expressive choices and select the styles you will analyze together. You can select them yourself or the group can do this collaboratively. You can either show clips and interviews in class, while providing some background information, or assign clips for discussion.

Stylistic categories include:

Public affairs essays: Food, Inc.; Critical Condition; Waging a Living; Good Fortune

Personal/Memoirs: the works of Alan Berliner; Bright Leaves; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; In the Family; In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee

Narrative history/Biography: Revolution '67; Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed; Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner; The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers; Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin; William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Cinema verité: Flag Wars; My Country, My Country; Street Fight; Election Day; Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go; High School

Poetic: Hybrid; The Beaches of Agnès; SALT

Once you have selected the topics and films, explore the related resources -- particularly the relevant filmmaker interviews and production journals. Use these to hear and read filmmakers' own stories of why they chose the approaches they did.

2. Ask the group to work together to analyze the implications of the different styles. Below are some options for organizing this discussion:

Organize a discussion (either with the group as a whole or with the class broken into smaller groups) comparing different styles. The comparison should address these general questions: What expectations do filmmakers who work in this mode have for their films? To what kinds of issues does this style lend itself? What are the particular advantages and disadvantages of this approach? You may want to contrast two or more different styles (e.g., public affairs essay and personal/memoir, or poetic and narrative history/biography). You can also develop a chart to use for group discussion; the number of rows will depend on the number of styles you discuss:

Film Style: Public affairs essay, Personal/Memoir, Narrative history/Biography, Cinema verité, Poetic

This discussion should reveal that any style can be used to address any topic, and that each one has advantages and disadvantages in terms of achieving different goals. During the discussion of these advantages and disadvantages, cover the need to identify desirable goals, in order then to determine which style should be used.

Another approach is to select a theme or topic from the POV list of topics on the Discover Films page:

You should look at these pages in advance in order to narrow down these large topics and tailor the assignments to your class.
Break the class into groups, assign each group a different style of documentary, then ask each group to brainstorm a short documentary on its topic as that topic plays itself out in their lives, their town or at a local institution. For instance, if assigned the topic of race relations they might explore race relations at their school. Have the groups compare their material. Show clips from the relevant POV pages to demonstrate how artists have approached the same topic with very different results. For instance, with regard to race relations you could show clips from films with different styles, such as a public affairs essay film (Every Mother's Son), a personal/memoir film (Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela), a narrative history/biography film (Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin) and a work of cinema vérité (Flag Wars).
3. Summarize discussion/takeaways:

  • Social-issue documentary can take on a wide variety of formats and styles.
  • Styles can overlap, and filmmakers can be eclectic in their choices.
  • Each choice of expression has advantages and disadvantages.
  • All choices involve engaging the viewer with a clear point-of-view.

Lesson Four: Production and Producing Challenges

Read about production issues in pages 18 to 22 and pages 125 to 128 of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) by Patricia Aufderheide. For deeper treatment of production issues, read Michael Rabiger's Directing the Documentary.

What is involved in making a documentary film? This segment exposes students to questions documentarians must answer in the process of making a film; it should give students an awareness of the nature and magnitude of the task of making a documentary film. (Note: this unit does not teach filmmaking skills.)

1. Identify the issues you want to address. You can determine these yourself, or the class can work on a list of issues together. Possible issues include:

Filmmakers routinely stress that documentary filmmaking is not a lucrative field, and that they are driven by passion rather than a desire to make a lot of money. How do filmmakers get into this field and why?

Can anyone make a movie? How important are experience, craft and production quality?

How do filmmakers find and work with their subjects?

How do filmmakers deal with safety and security?

How do filmmakers find a way to show their work to audiences?

2. Working in small groups or with the class as a whole, discuss the problems the filmmakers' approaches raise. How do the issues raised by POV filmmakers connect with the students' own aspirations for filmmaking?

3. Organize students into small groups, according to their concerns. Assign each group to make a list of issues its members need to research before moving forward with their own planned documentary projects. Have at least some of them share those lists with the group, then ask the other class members to provide ideas for dealing with the issues or to expand their classmates' lists further.

Summarize discussion and stress takeaways:

  • Documentaries are works of art, with elements including narration, soundtrack, editing and cinematography. These concerns are of particular importance to people who make social-issue documentaries, because these films must engage the viewer and inspire commitment.
  • Social-issue documentaries can take months, years or even decades to produce.
  • Social-issue documentaries are produced out of commitment and passion rather than for profit. Nonprofit and taxpayer support are critical. Public broadcasting is a key resource.

About the Author
Patricia Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication and director of the Center for Social Media at American University.