Fall 2024 - Documentary Explorations

Chris Sims
Fall 2024
Wednesdays, 3:05-5:35 PM
GLS House, 2114 Campus Drive

Watch a course preview video.  

Students will be introduced to strategies for conducting documentary fieldwork and archival research with a variety of tools and mediums, including photography, film/video, audio, narrative writing, and poetry. A major focus will be on identifying and analyzing the ethical and aesthetic considerations related to representing and exhibiting the lives and stories of others, and/or ourselves.

We will plumb the depths and range of documentary expression with assigned materials that include thought pieces (reflections written by practitioners on process, context, dilemmas, and/or mistakes), reviews/critiques, as well as actual documentaries. All assigned materials—readings and links to podcasts and videos—will be made available online for students.

We will begin our exploration by considering why documentary stories are important, what makes a compelling story, and how various media forms are employed by documentary artists. Subsequently, our discussions will address questions fundamental to any documentary form concerning issues such as point of view, representation, reciprocity, truth, editing, and ethics. Hands- on activities, interspersed throughout the semester, will allow students to engage with documentary forms and questions.

Students will propose, research, and carry-out a creative documentary project for the course, which will be work-shopped during class sessions. Possible outcomes could include a podcast, photo series, video piece, drawings, or narrative non-fiction essay.

Equipment is not provided, but students will be advised about a range of readily-available tools (smart phones and apps) and low or no-cost approaches that could be used. No previous experience or technical skills required; project formats are flexible.

The following are major pedagogical goals for the course:

•             Identify and address the complexities involved in representing others.


•             Contextualize documentary work historically and comparatively.

•             Understand the present-day call from BIPOC documentarians for accountability and culture shift in the documentary field

•             Learn about documentary studies at Duke University.

•             Engage with a variety of genres of documentary work.

•             Identify biases within—as well as voices and themes traditionally missing from—the documentary field.

•             Synthesize knowledge from readings, screenings, and speakers.

•             Reflect on how documentary practices inform and inspire social change.

•             Imagine new uses and forms of documentary work based on an understanding of the evolution of documentary forms.

•             Understand major ethical dilemmas involved in doing and exhibiting documentary work.

Note: the Fall 2024 course offering will include a special module — connected to the observance of Duke’s Centennial — on creating oral history interviews and related material with Duke-connected veterans of US military engagements abroad from 2001 to the present day.

About Chris Sims
Sanford School of Public Policy / Center for Documentary Studies