“I am interested in liberating the documentary from the tyranny of it being educational just homework-like, rather than engaging folks on a dramatic level.” 

Ken Burns, Director.

Instructor: Michael Ostroff

This course provides an opportunity to be creative, to make a point, and to give some shape and order to the random chaos that is life. To deal with this chaos we try to impose a narrative. That’s storytelling, and storytelling is subjective. Good documentary filmmakers are good because they have something to say.

By the end of this course, working in a group of four students, you will produce a short narrative historical documentary that will be screened publicly.

This is an opportunity to tell a story and to make some movie magic.

You will be exposed to the basic elements of good documentary filmmaking, and you will be challenged to think in a visual and creative manner.

The course involves:

  • An introduction to and analysis of some of the best examples of the genre of the narrative historical documentary;
  • Basic training in the skills of documentary-making, including workshops detailing the operations of the Canon Vixia G-20 HD camcorder and the Final Cut Pro 10 editing system (all equipment and software are provided);
  • Archival research and interview practices required to develop the evidentiary resources and the subject expertise required to tell the story;
  • The production of a documentary exercise of about one minute;
  • The production of a ten-minute documentary on an historical topic of the group’s choice;
  • Several significant written components including the preparation of a Proposal, the writing of a Treatment/Shooting Script, a Final Edit Script and an Individual Report.

While the major project is the production of a 10-minute documentary, this is still very much a History course. The level of research required to produce a narrative historical documentary is similar to that of writing a major term paper. Expectations with regard to such matters as the quality of research, analysis, contextualization and interpretation are the same in this course as any other 4000-level seminar.

The choice of documentary subject is made by students of Hist 4302, working collaboratively in groups of 3 and 4.

  • Interested in the subject of social dislocation–– have a look at No Road Home (2015).
  • More keen on a story about immigration to Canada –– watch I Did It All for You (2016)
  • Perhaps war is a subject you’re keen to explore — Echoes of War (2010) is a fine example of what students have done in this class.
  • Prefer a biographical piece, let’s say as an example, about a little known artist — watch Stolen Moments (2017).

There are no term papers in History 4302.  The research leads directly into the production of the documentary.

Significant research, strong writing, arresting images (contemporary and historical) and engaging interviews are essential elements, but the production of a successful documentary also requires:

  • An understanding and explanation of historical events, people, institutions and/or movements over a period of time;
  • Analysis and assessment of historical documents, archival imagery and other primary and secondary sources;
  • An evaluation of historical arguments;
  • The ability to express and communicate in a creative visual manner the results of the historical research.

In making a narrative historical documentary you are appealing to an audience of intelligent non-specialists – people who enjoy history as educational entertainment but who don’t necessarily have the patience for the abstruse theorizing of academia.  The goal is to discover the fine balance between that of being an historian in staying true to historical accuracy, and that of being an entertaining storyteller.

We are after “a good story, well told.”