Essential Question 3: How does the purpose shape the content?

Activity Question: How does the producer's purpose shape the program content?

During the 1950s and 60s, some documentary producers believed that it was possible for the camera to record reality, to reduce the intervention of the filmmaker's presence and give viewers the feeling of being there. Lightweight film equipment and the growing use of the camera as an instrument for scientific observation led to the development of documentary techniques called Direct Cinema, or cinema verite, films that claimed to capture experience objectively without the use of dramatic structure or narration.

But the goal of capturing "reality" without the intervention of the filmmaker proved to be an elusive and nonsensical goal. The camera must be directed by a human eye and mind, and every choice about where to point the lens is a human decision that shapes the program content.  Although a documentary can authentically reproduce some aspects of actual experience, a documentary cannot ever be perfectly "objective."

In exploring how all messages are constructed products, a useful method is to adapt a message in different ways.  By adapting a message to suit different audiences, or to make use of different genres, students can see the complex decision-making involved in the choices about what language, sound or images to use in the creation of a message.  A producer whose primary purpose is to persuade will attempt to appeal to viewers' emotions in ways that an educator may not.  A producer's purpose will influence the choice of which medium and genre to use.  Classroom activities can be used to develop different program angles on a topic.

Target Age:  Intermediate and up

Materials Needed:  Copies of the Worksheet "The Motive is the Message"

Optional:  VCR and monitor, videotape of examples

Video Materials:  Segment 3 contains an illustration of the activity that helps to introduce the lesson.

Focus Question:  How does the producer%u2019s purpose shape the content?

Goals and Objectives:

  1. Students will strengthen team-based problem solving, creativity and verbal skills.

  2. Students will discover how choices about what to include in a documentary reflect the producer's purpose.

Activity 1

Teamsof four or five students are assigned to role-play producers withdifferent motives.  Each team is assigned one of the following roles:

  1. Teacher
  2. Journalist
  3. Entertainer
  4. Artist
  5. Advocate
  6. Investor

Theteams are assigned a topic, event or social issue and must develop aprogram concept for a documentary, using their motives to shape theprogram.  The topic chosen may reflect the curriculum of the topicunder study.

For example, the teacher may assign the topic, "The Cold War." Each team should prepare one version of aprogram concept representing the perspective of its role.  The studentswho represent the "teacher team" may focus on the chronologyof the Cold War; the "journalist team" may emphasize thecharacters and personalities of the politicians who promoted the ColdWar; the "artist team" version may be a personal history ofgrowing up in the era; the "advocates team" may emphasize thetragic events of the Cold War on the careers of blacklisted individualsin government and the arts; the "entertainer team" mayemphasize the comic excess of our fear of  Soviet invasion; and the "investor team" may present a program digging up somenew information exposing a political scandal that implicates currentgovernment officials.

Play Segment 3, which includes six sampledocumentaries on the theme of money, to illustrate how aproducer's motive affects the choice of topics, angles, sourcesand perspective for a topic.  Ask the students to identify similaritiesand differences among the six clips.

Each team of students is given the worksheet, "The Motive is the Message," to guide their brainstorming, which asks them to identify the following: 

  • What is the program concept? (stated as a thesis statement or main idea)
  • List the sources (experts, interviews) you plan to use in constructing your program.
  • List the locations (places, scenes) you plan to use in constructing your program.

Iftime is available, students may be required to collect some newinformation using library resources to develop their program concept.

Eachteam of students should present its version of the documentary in frontof the whole class.  Then the class should discuss how and why eachteam developed its version differently.  Ask:  how might this activitychange the way you watch TV at home?