Five Starter Books about Documentary to Check Out

Studies in documentary film have boomed in the last two decades. What used to be a shelf-ful of books about the form now number in the hundreds, maybe even thousands. Both single volumes and publisher series, including Minnesota’s Visible Evidence series and Wallflower Press’s Nonfictions series, go behind the screens and investigate the subject in new and interesting ways.

With so many titles to choose from, it might seem overwhelming on where to begin. The following list offers five accessible titles to check out.

Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University and long involved in the documentary community, provides an essential overview in this compact volume. Aufderheide charts an overview of the form’s key debates, including questions of reality, truth-telling, objectivity, bias, and ethics. Instead of a chronological order, she structures the book by themes in order to explore subgenres such as propaganda and nature films.

Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed.

Introduction to Documentary serves as the primary textbook for documentary film studies. Focusing on documentary theory, criticism, and history, revered scholar Bill Nichols provides an accessible toolbox for how to think critically about the documentary genre through questions such as documentary voice, documentary modes, and representations of political and social issues. Nichols, who has written and edited multiple other volumes, connects theory with practice through chapters devoted to starting your own documentary and exploring ethical questions about documentary production.

A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd ed.

Documentary remains a challenging subject to plot as a chronological history, but Betsy McLane’s book overcomes that obstacle by providing a clear, coherent, and accessible narrative. Focusing mostly on U.S., Canadian, and British documentary, McLane covers the form’s contexts and changes throughout the decades from the iconic Nanook of the North in the 1920s through the emerging forms in the 21st century. Each chapter provides period films to check out as well.

Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told

In Documentary Case Studies, Chapman University professor Jeff Swimmer goes behind the scenes of Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated documentary features to learn more about twists and turns in the production process. Grounding each chapter in extensive interviews and writing in an accessible voice, Swimmer touches on issues such as choosing participants, working with difficult participants, respecting communities, and juggling finances. Films explored include The Act of Killing, Gasland, Man on Wire, Restrepo, Spellbound, and Sound and Fury.

100 Documentary Films

Barry Keith Grant and Jim Hillier compile, as the volume title states, 100 documentary films. For each title Grant and Hillier pen a brief and lively essay that offers some background and introduction. The titles range across the form’s history, from the 1920s through the early 2000s. The titles also represent multiple countries around the world.

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