Spring 2023 - CMNS 322 E100

Documentary Media (4)

Class Number: 1410

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Jan 4 – Apr 11, 2023: Tue, 4:30–8:20 p.m.

  • Prerequisites:

    60 units including CMNS 220, FPA 135, 136 or 137, with a minimum grade of C-.



Introduction to the history and theory of documentary film, focusing on a range of examples from the 1920's to the present. Explores the shifting definition of documentary and realism. Students who have taken CMNS 386-4 (Special Topics) with the topic "Problems in Documentary", offered in Fall 03, Fall 05, and Spring 07 terms, may not take this course for further credit.


Over the past century, documentary media have become ubiquitous aspects of media culture. At their best, these productions are essential elements of democratic communication that also display some of the characteristics of compelling art. While many productions prioritize content over form (e.g. information, activism), others are able to make viewers conscious of the politics of defining and representing ‘reality’ itself.

In this course, we cover elements of the history and theory of documentary media, focusing on a range of examples. We explore the shifting definition of the documentary genre and its related claims of authenticity and realism through topics such as documentary power relations, propaganda & education, observational documentary, mockumentary, archival footage & fair use, activist documentary, neorealism, docudrama & re-enactment, subjective documentary, animated documentary, surveillance documentary, and digital/expanded documentary. By the end of the course, students will have developed historical and theoretical perspectives on problems encountered by documentary filmmakers, participants, and viewers and will have considered the all-important ethical issues surrounding the representation of the real world.

The four-hour class period will be divided into lecture, discussion and screening. Assigned readings, screenings, tutorials and lectures are complementary aspects of the course. Please do the readings and watch the films each week in advance of the lecture and come to class prepared to participate.


  • Short paper 20%
  • Term paper proposal 10%
  • Term paper 30%
  • Take home final 30%
  • Tutorial attendance and participation 10%



Brian Winston, ed. The Documentary Book. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
ISBN: 9781844573417

Jihoon Park, Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media and the Twenty-First-Century Documentary. Oxford University Press, 2022.
ISBN: 9780197603826

Additional readings available on the course Canvas.


Your personalized Course Material list, including digital and physical textbooks, are available through the SFU Bookstore website by simply entering your Computing ID at: shop.sfu.ca/course-materials/my-personalized-course-materials.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity website http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating. Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the university community. Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the university. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the university. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html