Charlie Thompson (Duke University)


From 13:30
to 15:00
From 13:30
to 15:00

Course Description

In this course, we address central questions in the field(s) and traditions of documentary studies, with a major focus on identifying and analyzing the issues related to representing and exhibiting the lives and stories of others through documentary film, photography, writing, and audio.  Through readings, presentations of some of the major documentary works over the last 100 years, along with a deep focus on documentary representations today, we will plumb the depths and explore the range of documentary expression and ask hard questions about its ethics and practices.  We will historicize contemporary work, and connect historical work to the present, all with a mind toward making judgments about when it is appropriate to re-present the stories of others, particularly those most vulnerable. 

Using the setting of our study-abroad course in Italy and current events in the news today, our main focus of the semester will be historical and present-day representations of refugees in Europe and around the globe.  We will feature a series of films on migrants, immigrants, refugees, all telling versions of stories that have dominated political and journalistic discourse internationally.  This timely topic will help us situate the larger questions of documentary in present-day politics, discourse, and the ethics of representation within events we have all read about.  In other words, our deep focus on particular issues will constitute an applied approach to documentary practice and ethics.

Using particular representations of human beings on the move today, students will be able to tailor their study of documentary to a pertinent and manageable sub-category of the larger whole.  But this is no diversion from the main traditions.  As we move through the course, it will become apparent in such historical works as those by Thompson and Smith, Riis, Orwell, Agee, Lange, and others, that refugees, migrants, and the downtrodden of humanity have been key subjects of documentary work from its inception.  While refugees have not been the only topic of documentaries by any means, we can argue that representations of human exile have been among its most salient, common, and heartfelt forms.  Simply searching on the internet for documentaries about refugees yields thousands of hits.  This course will make the participants into documentary critics who will possess the tools to analyze documentaries as well as the documentarians’ need to tell these stories.

As Venice is the site of our explorations, we will make sure to connect our observations and discussions of human movement to the global travelers (including ourselves) who go there.  Given the richness of this place as a crossroads of human exploration, both historically and present-day, the setting will certainly enrich our considerations of how people document travel, both chosen and forced.  We will ask such questions as: What are the economics and privileges exhibited and implied by travel by choice?  How do we negotiate and represent the many contact zones we find when we as travelers interact with non-travelers?  How does this privilege relate to the documentary traditions we have been reading about?  What does all of our movement mean for discussions of our common humanity?  How are students and faculty who study abroad alike and different from tourists?  What about instances when subjects document themselves, as with refugees being given cameras to record the flight from Syria?  And of course, how can privileged travelers like ourselves connect with narratives of those forced to travel, particularly the migrants and refugees who have very little choice in the matter of movement?

Using this ethnographic approach tied to both our reading and experience, the general look at documentary traditions will never be only theoretical or disconnected from ‘real-world’ issues.  Instead, we will explore global issues on-the-ground with specific examples, always giving our philosophical questions a basis in the here and now, helping situate larger arguments in social and political crises as we go.  Thus, by entering deeply into discussions of the particular form of documentaries about refugees in a broader context, we can understand the broad motivations behind the documentary tradition.

Learning outcomes will include the following:

  • Identify and address the complexities involved in representing others.
  • Contextualize documentary work historically and comparatively, especially through a focus on migrancy.
  • Understand the major ethical arguments involved in doing and exhibiting documentary work.
  • Engage with a variety of genres of documentary work and understand how each seeks to communicate.
  • Identify major iconic writings, photographs, and films in the documentary category, particularly those representing refugees and migrants.
  • Synthesize knowledge from readings, screenings, and discussions in student projects that demonstrate a grasp of the documentary traditions.
  • Reflect on how documentary practices inform and inspire social change.
  • Reflect on how documentary practices both have changed and remained the same over time.  We will explore whether documentaries influence change or only reach those already engaged.
  • Imagine new uses and forms of documentary work based on an understanding of how social media, cellphones, and travel have changed our world.
  • Engage with the phenomenon of human travel through participation, observation, and analysis, making the semester of study abroad into an unforgettable foray into the documentary arts that seek to deepen human understanding and ethics, all connected to our explorations of place.

Teaching and Evaluation Methods

The class will be conducted in American Seminar style. Students will be expected to prepare their readings for discussion, and the professor will initiate each discussion by asking questions that are related to the specific and general topics of the course. Often, students will be asked to write short reactions and prepare questions in writing ahead of time.  Each student will be expected to lead one class discussion about a topic related to one or more documentary representations, though this can also occur by forming a team of two.

Students will be graded according class and field trip participation (25%), seminar presentation (20%) mid-term short essay responses to prepared questions (25%), and a final paper addressing documentary representations of human suffering (30%).



Books (excerpts)

John Thompson and Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London

Farm Security Administration photographs, focus on migrants

Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives

Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange, An American Exodus

Sabastião Salgado, Exodus

Wim Wenders, Salt of the Earth (film)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees


Films on Refugees

Europe (historical)

  • The Ritchie Boys

Appalachia (U.S.)

  • Elizabeth Barrett’s Stranger with a Camera


  • 4.1 Miles


  • Exodus (Frontline, PBS)
  • After Spring
  • White Helmets
  • Watani: My Homeland

Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars
  • The Land Between: On the Hidden Lives of Sub-Saharan African Migrants
  • Rain in a Dry Land

Italian documentary on the European refugee crisis

  • Gianfranco Rossi’s Fire at Sea

Central America

  • Brother Towns/Pueblos Hermanos
  • Which Way Home


  • They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain



Isola di San Servolo
30133 Venice,

phone: +39 041 2719511
fax:+39 041 2719510

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