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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author

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Form and Content

One of the ways we direct and gauge the efficacy of the digital arguments in the class is through a productive alignment with genre. Productive alignment means that one shows awareness of generic conventions, whether adhering to them or diverging from them. Therefore we screen many films and discuss the ways in which they combine image, text, movement and sound and whether such use is appropriate to the rhetorical situation. 

For instance, when The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert interviews prominent documentarian Ken Burns, a spoof documentary of the interview itself follows, and this becomes a meta-level commentary on the constructed nature of the documentary form. Of course guiding students through the production of their own digital arguments and the rhetorical choices that inhere must be accompanied by critical reading of widely circulated filmic texts, including the growing number of big box office documentaries, such as Fahrenheit 911, which tend to be constructed with increasingly complex visual and aural syntax. 

Trinh Minh-ha approaches documentary in novel ways that call the form itself into question. In Reassemblage, for instance, the voice of the filmmaker questioning her assumptions about Senegal, the subject of the film, is layered over establishing shots of the landscape. Trinh's written texts both enhance and expand her filmic work and, taken together, form a nice model for digital argument that makes full use of text and image, while providing critical commentary on the ethics of representation. Perhaps one of the most compelling examples of experimental documentary comes in her Surname Viet, Given Name Nam.  Ostensibly filmed in Vietnam after reunification, the interview subjects are later revealed to be US immigrants playing roles. In this way, Surname Viet reveals the constructed nature of documentary, and complicates notions about the interview as a trope that reveals authentic, monolithic truths. Recognizing identity as always plural, this film dismisses stereotypes,  particularly those assigned to non western women.

These models can help students in their expression; the topic of their digital argument comes from viewing the film, thinking about which issue spoke to them in particular, and then exploring that issue further. The following two pages offer two student voices describing their initial reactions to the Iraqi Doctors film, after which they discuss their final class projects.  
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