BIS 347

History of American Documentary Films

Winter 2008

David S. Goldstein, Ph.D.

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Documentary Scene Analysis

Due in midquarter portfolio no later than 3:15 p.m. sharp on Monday, Feb. 4;
final version due in final portfolio no later than 3:15 p.m. sharp on Monday, March 10

Understanding a documentary film requires not only a comprehension of its overall themes, techniques, and ideology, but how each element contributes to the whole. As a way of practicing your analytic skills on a smaller (but no less important) scale, you will choose and critically analyze one scene from Academy Award winner Michael Moore's film, Sicko (2007). I recommend viewing the Campus Media Center's reserve copy (DVD BOT-1233), which you cannot borrow but can view at the Campus Media Center:  You also may rent the film.  Many video stores also have the film.

You probably will need to watch the entire film at least once (it is 123 minutes long) and your chosen scene several times to notice different aspects of the scene and to take good notes. (Anticipate increasing demand for the film as we get closer to the suggested deadline date.)

In your analysis of about 900 words (no fewer than 800, no more than 1000, according to the word count tool in Microsoft Word), respond, in the form of a thesis-driven essay (not individual answers and not necessarily in this order), to the following questions:

  1. Each scene of a documentary film is like a paragraph in a written paper: it presents one main idea that helps support the main idea or argument of the entire film. What is the main idea or purpose of your chosen scene? How do you know?
  2. What sights and sounds does Moore present in the scene? How do they convey the main idea of the scene?
  3. What filmmaking techniques (camera movement, focus, narration, music and other sound, mise-en-scene, etc.?) do you notice, and how do they contribute (or fail to contribute) to the overall film?

I will be looking for analysis of specific elements of your chosen scene, connected to how those elements contribute to the scene's purpose.  Consider things like camera angles, lighting, editing of shots, and sound.

What is a scene?  In A Short Guide to Writing about Film, Timothy J. Corrigan defines a scene this way: "A space within which a narrative action takes place; it is composed of one or more shots."  Wikipedia defines a scene as "a part of the action in a single location."  A scene is sometimes harder to identify in a documentary than in a feature (fictional) film because the structure is typically not a "story" in the way we are used to in feature films, but the idea is essentially the same.  Sometimes it is clear when a film shifts from one scene to another, such as when a cut takes us to a totally different time and place in the film.  At other times, however, what constitutes a scene is less clear and becomes a matter of judgment.  In a documentary film, which is built around ideas, a shift from one idea or point to another might constitute a scene change.

Consider your reader (your audience) to be a smart person who has seen the film but is not an expert on it.  You do not need to describe everything in the scene. Instead, say just enough about the scene so your reader knows which scene you are discussing. The rest of your paper should be analysis, not description.  You should mention the title of the film in your opening paragraph so your reader knows which film you are discussing.

Your paper must be a Microsoft Word document and must follow MLA style.  If you are unfamiliar with MLA style, check the guides available on the Campus Library's web site at  You do not need a Works Cited page because you need not cite external sources.  This is an analytical essay, not a research paper.

Although the mechanics of the writing account for only a small percentage of your grade, you should do your best to make your paper mechanically sound. After you produce a draft of your analysis, read "Tips for Better Prose" at and edit your paper accordingly. I recommend printing that document, and, after you finish writing your paper, check the items off one by one as you check your paper. Although the mechanics of writing are less important to me than the ideas expressed (which is evidenced in the proportion of your grade allocated to each of these aspects of your essay, as described above), the mechanics inevitably improve the effectiveness of your communication of ideas, which, after all, is your ultimate goal with each piece of writing that you do.

Keep a copy of the completed paper. I expect to return portfolios containing scene analyses, with my comments, within ten days of their submission, so the earlier you submit your analysis, the more time you will have to revise the paper for your final portfolio.

You will submit your paper electronically in your midquarter portfolio, for which I will provide separate submission instructions.

Be sure to allow some time for unforeseen problems with the electronic submission or other unforeseeable circumstances like illness or computer malfunction.

All of the ideas and writing must be your own, except when you cite the contributions of others (e.g., using the ideas or words of a published author). You may--and are encouraged to--use the Writing Center (

Although you will have an opportunity to revise your scene analysis after getting my comments in your midquarter portfolio, I expect the midquarter version of your scene analysis to be as polished as possible.  If your scene analysis appears to be a rough draft, I will not provide comments.

Your grade will appear only on the portfolio version of your analysis. The initial paper will be marked "E," "M," or "L" as explained in "Assessment of Student Writing" at and will include substantial comments to help you revise. If you feel satisfied with your paper or simply do not have time to revise, you do not need to. You can submit the same version in your portfolio and I will give it a numerical score according to the scale above. Likewise, you may choose not to submit an initial version of your paper, and simply submit your one and only version as part of your learning portfolio, in which case you will not have the benefit of my comments for revision but will not suffer any other consequences.

The final version of your scene analysis (the version submitted in your learning portfolio) will be evaluated and rated according to the argumentative essay rubric at and is worth 25 percent of your final course grade.

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This page last updated January 8, 2008.

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