POV, one of PBS's leading nonfiction film programs, has two online 'Lesson Plans' for appreciating documentaries. Although the lesson plans are designed primarily for educators working with junior high and high school students, they can greatly help all documentary watchers to deepen their understanding of the genre and enhance their appreciation of the filmmaker's art.
The first primer, entitled Lesson Plan: Introducing Documentaries to Your Students, is an excellent vehicle for developing critical thinking about nonfiction films for audiences of all ages, all interests and all levels of sophistication. It could be put to use by libraries and universities that present documentary screening series, by documentaries viewing clubs and groups that have gathered to study a wide range of subjects that are covered in documentary films.
If you're already adept at watching documentaries, Lesson Plan: Introducing Documentaries To Your Students will furnish you with a good recap of the questions you should be asking yourself about any nonfiction film, or should be raising in any discussions or debates you may be having about a specific documentary.
Authored by Faith Rogow, PhD, a noted educational outreach designer for television series and the author of discussion guides for some 120 independent films, Lesson Plan: Introducing Documentaries To Your Students provides the means by which you can discern the difference between 'presentation' and 're-presentation,' and analyze which elements of the film are determined by fact and what is influenced by the filmmaker's personal point of view and/or artistic style. It suggests that you utilize POV's documentaries viewing guide to organize your thoughts about the film, and this will also help you to keep a good account of it and of your reactions to it for your film journal.
The second primer, also accessible from POV online, is Patricia Aufderheide's recently updated Lesson Plan: Social-Issue Documentaries - A Mini Curriculum, which provides educators, students and individual documentary watchers with an guide to the discussion of the issues raised in any nonfiction film, and how to determine how the film's story, issues and style are intertwined.
Divided into four lessons, the mini curriculum is intended to not only imbue documentary watchers with critical tools necessary for evaluating individual works, it also provides a path for documentary production. In the first lesson, Aufderheide shows how to define documentary filmmaking and stimulates discussion about what is expected from a documentary -- honesty, objectivity, evidentiary support and well-constructed arguments, as well as engaging characters involved in a compelling story. Lesson Two deals with extremely important issues regarding ethics in documentary filmmaking. In Lesson Three, there's consideration of the varied styles of filmmaking used in social-issue documentaries. And, Lesson Four is all about documentary production and the special challenges of producing documentaries.
Aufderheide's mini curriculum features links to insightful interviews with documentary filmmakers whose works have been featured on POV.