Project 3: Document the Digital

Due: Friday, December 9
Objectives: Investigation & Report
Grade: 20% of final

Your final assignment calls on you to make a documentary about one issue related to digital culture that the recent political elections did not—perhaps could not—resolve. The Frontline documentary Digital Nation will provide an overview of possible topics. It will also serve as a typical example of the genre, at least for moving image (i.e. film). We will look at other media as well, including photo and audio documentaries. You have the option of creating a documentary in any digital medium using any software you like. I will have suggestions for user-friendly applications as well as tutorials accessible through (access information available upon request). This project presents an opportunity to learn a new tool, and I encourage you to explore. However, you should also consider function as a determinant of form. In other words, pick the media and tools that best suit your goals for presenting the subject matter.

As a genre, documentary suggests a method of representation more than any one medium. Documentary work demands we pay attention to actualities—those material circumstances that make up reality rather than our personal or imaginative response to the world. A documentary report authenticates what might otherwise be misinformation, speculation, or rumor. Similarly, in the world of forensics, documentary evidence substantiates claims, charges, and theories about a past event. For film, however, a documentary portrays a particular life or history by assembling facts; the narrative relies on documents to be authoritative, but the end result must go beyond the individual parts. Documents themselves are the basic building blocks of documentary work and can range from a parking ticket to the Declaration of Independence.

After conducting some preliminary research on your topic, you will need to gather and create document materials. This is no easy task, as James Agee famously lamented when he wrote about his ideal documentary method: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.” Agee cannot achieve his ideal because media re-presents material circumstances. Those materials arrive to an audience at least one step removed, mediated by representational technologies. One challenge of this project will be to figure out how to use digital technologies to faithfully reproduce your documentary materials.

Unlike many of the examples we’ll explore in class, your documentary project will be a “short.” If a video, it should be 3-5 minutes long. If an audio documentary, it should last anywhere from 3-10 minutes. And if a photo essay, it should include 10-15 images with at least 25 words of exposition per image. You will need to present a rough draft version of your project to the class before posting the final draft to your blog. You will also need to include an artist statement (250 words) on your blog to introduce and contextualize the project.

Find the brainstorming and process handout here.
Find the Radio Rookies story on teens and sleep here.
Find the New York Times Op-Doc, “The Price of Certainty” here.
Find an excerpt of Chulas Fronteras here.
Find the documentary short “Make Inishturk Great Again” here.
Find the Jacob Holdt book American Pictures here.
Find the N+1 photo essay “Undocumented Election Night” here.