Essential Question 2: What is the purpose?

Activity question: What is the Producer's purpose?

Because the documentary has a kind of intellectual authority as a "serious" genre in film and television, we often assume that the documentary is neutral or objective.  But this fallacy is dangerous precisely because it leads us away from critically analyzing a message.  One key concept of media literacy is that, since all messages are constructions, all messages are expressing a point of view.

The simplest way to explore the concept of point of view is to identify the constellation of motives that drive a producer to create a documentary: to inform, to educate, to entertain, to persuade, for self-expression, for profit.  Michael Renov, in his book, Theorizing Documentary, identifies similar rhetorical and aesthetic functions of non-fiction arts, but omits the functions of entertainment profit because he is primarily concerned with independent documentary productions.  By looking at a range of different documentaries, we can see the relative importance of these motives as they operate within a specific media text.

Often the concepts of bias and ideology are used to analyze the producer's purpose.  A producer works in a social, political and economic context that sets constraints on a program's content, tone and stylistic elements.  Documentaries that are produced in Great Britain through the BBC are usually quite different from those produced by U.S. commercial programming, which differ from independently produced documentaries.  As Elaine Rapping points out in The Looking Glass World of Non-Fiction TV, the contrast between the 1950's documentary approach of See It Now and that of contemporary reports is telling.

As video technology grew more sophisticated, the triumph of style over content was heightened.  This allowed networks to apply a variety of aesthetically moving and impressive techniques to serious topics.  On the other hand, the range of views examined and the depth of the examinations has not changed as much as sometimes seems the case. Documentaries now serve the somewhat different purpose of expounding on, and so justifying, policies already in place.  They rarely challenge hegemony; they explain it.

Target Age:  Middle School and up

Materials Needed:  VCR and monitor, videotape of examples

Video Materials:  Segment 2 contains six different motives presented graphically, and four "Spot the Motive" clips from a variety of different documentaries.

Focus Question:  What is the producer's purpose in making a program?

Goals and Objectives:

  1. Students will learn to identify six different motives producers have in making a program.
  2. Students will practice critical viewing and listening skills.
  3. Students will learn that all documentaries have a point of view and that producers design their programs to reflect their motives and purposes.

Activity 1
Begin the activity by asking students for reasons why a producer might make a documentary.  Start the tape and pause on the list of reasons:
  1. The Teacher                 educates
  2. The Journalist               informs
  3. The Entertainer            entertains
  4. The Artist                     expresses
  5. The Advocate               persuades
  6. The Investor                makes money

Next, show the first "Spot the Motive" clip. Ask:

  • What is the producer's motive?
  • What information or evidence from the clip helps you determine the producer's motive?

Help students to recognize that a producer may have multiple motives, so that two or more categories may apply to the same video clip.  Be sure you encourage students to defend their choices with information directly from the video clip and their existing knowledge about programs of similar types.

Continue with the four additional video clips in this segment, encouraging students to identify producer's motives.

Clip 1:  Testament is a documentary about ancient history and archeology.

Clip 2: Children of Chernobyl is a documentary about exposing the impact of the nuclear accident on the citizens of the Ukraine.

Clip 3: In the Company of Whales is a program about whale behavior and the relationship between man and animals.

Clip 4:  Normandy: The Great Crusade is a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion from the personal perspective of the participants.