v25 #3 Media-Centered – Documentary Film

by | Jul 10, 2013 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Winifred Fordham Metz  (Media Librarian & Head, Media Resources Center, House Undergraduate Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill;  Phone: 919-962-4099)   http://www.lib.unc.edu/house/mrc

The use of film in the classroom is ubiquitous.  Visual theses are on the rise.  Interest in documentary studies is growing at an exponential rate.  Resultantly, the importance of a rich and varied media resources collection is essential to academic institutions, public libraries, and K-12 media centers.  It takes a lot of work, development, and research to maintain and grow a collection like this.  Resources that aid in this process are invaluable…

Resonance of the Documentary Form…

“I’ve only ever cried at three movies in my life,” my friend Melissa pronounced last year as we left the early screening of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the Varsity theater and strolled down Franklin Street to grab a slice at Pepper’s.  Such an incredulous comment stopped me in my tracks and I asked, “Really, only three?”  She turned to me and replied with her list, “Charlotte’s Web on DVD, when I was home with the flu in second grade, Ragtime in the theater when it played at a festival my freshman year in college, and a documentary I saw a couple of years ago called The Loving Story.”  Of course this conversation was entirely predicated by my bawling like a baby only minutes before — throughout the film we’d just seen… [For me, Beasts of the Southern Wild offered a profound narrative charting extreme loss, redemptive awakening, and quiet reconciliation, all the while celebrating the displaced and the place that made them its own.]  Later, over dinner I asked her, “Why these three?”  She told me in short order that the first two “…seemed SO real to her at the time…” and resonated with her on a very personal level with “…issues of loss, identity, and fitting in.”  She spent more time reflecting on the documentary film and credited the authenticity and truth of the story to her emotional reaction.  As I’ve experienced similar reactions to documentaries over the years, I couldn’t agree more.

Certainly, the documentary form reflects a rich genealogy in which each film refers back to or remembers in some way the films before them in a lineage created by a unique yet somehow collective process.  But even in remembering, they forge something new.  Times past and futures skillfully comingle, leading to different appreciations of history and culture, often reflecting events experienced at their most personal level.  At their essence, documentaries can make you think differently about what you watch and what you think you know.  When we watch these films, we absorb some small or intimate part of the narrative.  It can register in the familiar or the completely foreign, but it registers nonetheless.  I think this is one of the more salient reasons documentaries resonate in the classroom.  And why it is such an accessible commodity for instruction.

Beyond Aesthetics, Uses of Documentaries in the Academic Landscape…

Without a doubt, interest in and the use of media resources to support academic instruction and research at institutions of higher learning continues to expand at an extremely rapid pace.  I have certainly experienced this in my work at UNC and with colleagues at other institutions.  Films, documentaries, and educational media are widely used across the curricula at UNC.  Each semester, we see an ever-increasing number of undergraduate and graduate film and documentary studies courses being taught across a diverse range of departments and centers (last year’s count included more than 65 individual courses).  Beyond these specific courses focused on the study of cinema and documentary film, these media materials are used in classrooms across the curricula to engage critical thinking, provide contextual evidence and historical perspectives, engender creativity, entrepreneurship, and activism as well as hone visual and media literacy skills.

Although many of the films are shown in class, instructors are requiring that students view an increasing portion of these films outside of class.  While sites and services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Redbox, and Snagfilms are certainly helpful — we have found that they do not typically offer all of the documentary and educational film content needed by faculty and students, making our collections and services at the Media Resources Center essential.  As assigned viewing continues to increase, so does the importance of our locally curated collection of media materials.

Discovering Documentaries…

I approach collecting documentary and educational film much the same way I collect for fictional narrative film;  utilizing a number of valuable resources, participating in or following festivals, as well as reading and writing film reviews.  For documentary and educational films — I also preview films for fit within the collection and contact filmmakers and vendors directly.  Documentary and educational films often vary widely in content and production value as well as cost (commonly ranging between $295-$495 per title), making previewing at festivals, online or at markets essential.  With the prevalence of documentaries in the classroom, and the continued interest in using them for campus programming (with appropriate public performance permissions), it is extremely important that the production value is good and the content clearly relevant.

The following are a list of suggested resources to help you in researching and finding documentary films (this list is by no means exhaustive).

Top Documentary Festivals

There are many, many international film festivals that include documentary films (Cannes, TIFF, SXSW, Sundance, Tribeca to name a few), but these following six festivals are dedicated to screening documentary alone:

International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (http://www.idfa.nl)

Full Frame in Durham, NC (http://www.fullframefest.org)

Hot Docs in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (http://www.hotdocs.ca)

AFI docs (formerly Silverdocs) in Silver Spring, MD (http://afi.com/afidocs/)

True/False in Columbia, Missouri (http://truefalse.org)

Documentary Film Review Sites

Variety, the New York Times, and the Guardian undoubtedly remain among the top go-to resources for film reviews.  Hollywood Reporter, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe also rank extremely high.  While each of these sites offers opportunity to search by title, the following sites and aggregators are either dedicated to documentary and educational film reviews or provide a searching by documentary category:

EMRO or Educational Media Reviews Online (http://emro.lib.buffalo.edu/emro/)


Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com)

Metacritic (http://www.metacritic.com)

Educational and Documentary Distributors

By no means an exhaustive list, the following distributors offer educational and documentary films in many formats, some with public performance rights, and many geared specifically for library collections and academic use:

Alexander Street Press/Filmakers Library (alexanderstreet.com)

Bullfrog Films (www.bullfrogfilms.com)

California Newsreel (http://newsreel.org)

Cinema Guild, Inc. (www.cinemaguild.com)

Icarus Films (www.icarusfilms.com)

Landmark Media (www.landmarkmedia.com)

Media Education Foundation (www.mediaed.org)

New Day Films (www.newday.com)

Passion River Films (www.PassionRiver.com)

PBS Educational Media (shopPBS.org/teachershop)

ro*co films (www.rocoeducational.com)

Third World Newsreel (http://www.twn.org)

Women Make Movies (http://www.wmm.com)

Zeitgeist Films (www.zeitgeistfilms.com)


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