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  • Lesson plan
  • Grades 11-12,
  • Grades 9-10

Honest Truths: Ethics in Documentary Film

Active Viewing: Documentary In Conflict

Distribute Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films and review the instructions and questions with the audience:

Using the Media Literacy Grid: Because everyone interprets media through the lens of his or her own experience, media literacy analysis is about rich readings rather than specific “right” answers. These suggested questions are starting points for that type of analysis. They are designed for diverse films and audiences; choose the ones that best meet the needs of your situation. To encourage deeper readings, try using follow-up questions such as, “How do you know?”; “How could you find out?”; “What evidence from the film backs up your answer?”; “What else do you notice?”; or “What else do you want to know?”

Have the audience take notes while watching the film. Give a few minutes following each clip to review and discuss their analysis.

Clip 1 (5:32 mins) The Distant Barking of Dogs: When the Soldiers Came, the People Left
Alexandra explains what life has been like for her and Oleg and Yarik since the war started.

Clip 2 (2:49 mins) The Act of Killing: Self Reflection
Anwar watches the clip “How to Kill with Less Blood” and reflects.

Clip 3 (10:00 mins) On Her Shoulders: She Tells the Story Again and Again
Nadia endures a series of interviews where she is asked to detail her violent abduction.

Have the audience break into small groups to discuss their film analysis using the following questions:

  1. What are the similarities/differences between the clips from these three documentaries?
  2. What specific techniques does each film use to illustrate the impact of violent conflict on the people involved? How do these techniques affect the narrative?
  3. Whose story is told by each of these films (or “does each of these films tell”) (a subject’s story, the filmmaker’s story)? Does the story clearly derive from the events and people involved, or is it primarily the work of the filmmaker, even if based on reality? How can you tell?
  4. What resources for justice, safety and reconciliation are available to the subjects in each film? How are the subjects and/or filmmakers using their documentaries as a means of attaining justice and reconciliation?
  5. How do these films align with the three ethical principles of documentary film defined by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University? What evidence supports your analysis?
  6. In your opinion, which film conveys its point of view and message most effectively? Which film(s) is (are) successful in combining narrative, technique, style, evidence and resources in service of the subject’s story?

About the authors

Allison Milewski

Allison Milewski has developed media education resources for a range of award-winning filmmakers and national media organizations, including PBS LearningMedia, Independent Television Services (ITVS), Latino Public Broadcasting, HBO Documentaries, and Tribeca Film Institute. She is also the founder of the international media education program,