Music and Documentary Filmmaking (Fall 2013)

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Classes: Tuesday and Thursday 3:30PM – 4:50PM

Location: HC 2-30

Instructor: Federico Spinetti

Office: 3-34A Arts & Convocation Hall; office hours: Tuesday 1:00PM – 3:00PM; tel. 492-7534; email:

Course description

This course examines a variety of experiences, techniques, philosophies and understandings of documentary filmmaking through the specific lens of music and sound. It considers both documentaries about music and the use of music and sound in documentary films on other subjects. Spanning TV productions, art films and film ethnographies, the course draws on film studies, visual anthropology and ethnomusicology to provide an interpretive frame and a critical forum for students to engage thoughtfully with documentary filmmaking. In particular, music and sound will be taken as vantage points to look at issues of representation in audiovisual media as well as to explore documentary filmmaking as both a creative and a research process. Class instruction will include discussion of assigned readings, and in-class viewings and analyses.


Consent of Department. This course is for graduate and advanced undergraduate students. Undergraduate students should enroll in Music 466; graduate students should enroll in Music 566. No previous knowledge of music notation, music scholarship, film studies or visual anthropology is required to take this course and to effectively complete its requirements.


  • To familiarize students with the technical and creative process of documentary filmmaking, with an emphasis on issues of representation of real life.
  • To encourage students to take up a critical understanding of documentary filmmaking.
  • To consider the socio-political, cultural and technological contexts of the production of documentary films, and to appreciate their significance for the making, direction and philosophical approach of specific documentary films.
  • To examine the representation of musical life, music making and musicians in documentary films from a variety of periods and artistic/research perspectives.
  • To explore documentary filmmaking as a research process, research output and art form, and to assess its significance for the ethnographic study of music.
  • To address the role of music soundtrack in the representational and narrative strategies of documentary film.


  • Attendance and participation, including attending class, completing weekly readings and actively taking part in class discussions. Completing weekly readings before coming to class is an essential requirement for this course. You may be invited to take turns in leading the discussion on specific readings, topics or in-class film screenings.
  • Comparative review of 2 documentary film reviews of your choice. One review must be taken from a scholarly journal (such as Ethnomusicoloy, Ethnomusicology Forum, Yearbook for Traditional Music, Visual Anthropology Review, Visual Anthropology, Film Criticism, Film and History, Film Quarterly, or Studies in Documentary Film), while the other one must be taken from a film magazine (such as DOX: Documentary Film Magazine, Cineaste, Cinema Scope, Sight and Sound). You can choose reviews from within or outside the list provided in the course filmography. Though short, your review must be polished and well written, and show critical acumen. It should detect the critical focus, interpretive moves and interests of the reviewers, highlighting similarities and contrasts where relevant. It is not important that your chosen reviews are about the same film or that you have watched the reviewed films (though both possibilities are not discouraged), since the specific purpose of this assignment is to critique the approach, language, discourse and interests of the film reviewers. Length of comparative review: 500–750 words. DUE in Week 7.
  • Film review of one documentary feature film chosen from the course filmography. You should watch your film attentively and critically, and read one published scholarly/professional (not consumer/commercial) review of it (examples of reviews you can use are listed in the course filmography). Your review should provide a synopsis of the film in question, and identify and comment on its main representational, narrative and stylistic features, with special consideration for how music and sound are used and/or represented. In addition, you should bring your chosen published review of the film into your discussion, contrasting or aligning your interpretation and/or analytical approach with those of the author and explaining the reasons of your position. Your review should be polished and well written, show critical acumen, and demonstrate competence in and familiarity with the concepts and issues discussed in class (whether or not you decide to reference course readings). Length of review: 1,000–1,500 words. DUE in Week 11.
  • Film presentation. Starting from Week 8, each of you will be required to give one 15-minute class presentation on a film of your choice. This must not be the film chosen for your review and must be chosen from outside the course filmography. In your presentation, you should play some excerpts of the film in class and comment on the pro-filmic, stylistic, representational, interpretive and narrative choices of the filmmaker, with special consideration for how music and sound are used and/or represented. The time devoted to film excerpts should not exceed that of your commentary. The schedule of presentations will be determined before Week 8.
  • Final creative/research paper. Final creative/research paper. An original proposal for a documentary film on a subject of interest to you. Like a director, you should describe your chosen topic and reflect on the filmmaking choices with which you would approach your work. You should pay particular attention to illustrating your philosophical/conceptual standpoint, your cinematography and editing choices, your treatment of sound and/or music, and your envisaged working relationships with research subjects (whether participants or places/objects). Your paper should show familiarity with the topics and issues tackled in the course, and draw pertinent connections to and actively engage with course readings and viewings to support and illustrate your choices. Length of paper: 2,000-3,000 words. DUE on December 10.


There are no required textbooks for this course. Class readings will be on reserve at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library Reserve Desk or available online through the Library databases. Relevant bibliographic materials that may not be available on reserve will be handed out in class or included in this course mediawiki page. I will use the course mediawiki to post updated reading assignments and changes of schedule if required.

Most films viewed in class will be available on reserve at the Music Library or online. In addition, the following online film databases may be particularly useful:

  • (National Film Board of Canada). Access through UofA Library databases here
  • Films on Demand. Access through UofA Library databases here


Each assignment will be marked according to the numeric scale of evaluation given below. Individual assignment marks will be combined to obtain a final numeric grade, which will be rounded so as to obtain a corresponding final letter grade as shown below.

A = 4.0

A- = 3.7

B+ = 3.3

B = 3.0

B- = 2.7

C+ = 2.3

C = 2.0

C- = 1.7

D+ = 1.3

D = 1.0

D- = 0.7

F = 0.0

The relative weight of each assignment on the overall final grade is as follows:

  • Attendance and participation: 10%
  • Comparative review: 15%
  • Film review: 25%
  • Presentation: 15%
  • Final creative/research paper: 35%

NB: As a general rule, expectations for graduate students will be slightly higher than for undergraduates.

Attendance, Absences, and Missed Grade Components

Regular attendance is essential for optimal performance in any course. In cases of potentially excusable absences due to illness or domestic affliction, notify your instructor by e-mail within two days. Regarding absences that may be excusable and procedures for addressing course components missed as a result, consult sections 23.3(1) and 23.5.6 of the University Calendar. Be aware that unexcused absences will result in partial or total loss of the grade for the “attendance and participation” component(s) of a course, as well as for any assignments that are not handed-in or completed as a result.

In this course, attendance (coming to class) and participation (completing weekly readings and actively taking part in class discussions) are assigned equal weight (5%) on the overall grade for this component (10%).

Policy for Late Assignments

Unexcused late submissions of assignments (with the exception of the final paper) will be downgraded by one full point per day late (i.e. from A to A-, from A- to B+, etc). After 10 days late the assignment will be considered as ‘non-submitted’ (grade F). As for the final paper, no unexcused late submissions will be accepted. In cases of potentially excusable late submissions (including the final paper) due to illness, domestic affliction or other compelling circumstances, notify your instructor by e-mail or in person prior or within two days from the submission date. In these cases the instructor may grant an extension of the submission date or, if necessary, recommend to the Music Department Chair the approval of a final grade of Incomplete (IN).

Submission of Assignments

Please submit all your assignments by email (in .doc or .docx format), including your final paper.

Specialized Support & Disability Services

If you have special needs that could affect your performance in this class, please let me know during the first week of the term so that appropriate arrangements can be made. If you are not already registered with Specialized Support & Disability Services, contact their office immediately (2-800 SUB; Email; phone 780-492-3381; WEB ).

Required Notes

“Policy about course outlines can be found in Section 23.4(2) of the University Calendar.”

Academic Integrity

“The University of Alberta is committed to the highest standards of academic integrity and honesty. Students are expected to be familiar with these standards regarding academic honesty and to uphold the policies of the University in this respect. Students are particularly urged to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Code of Student Behaviour (online at ) and avoid any behaviour that could potentially result in suspicions of cheating, plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts and/or participation in an offence. Academic dishonesty is a serious offence and can result in suspension or expulsion from the University.”

Learning and working environment

The Faculty of Arts is committed to ensuring that all students, faculty and staff are able to work and study in an environment that is safe and free from discrimination and harassment. It does not tolerate behaviour that undermines that environment. The department urges anyone who feels that this policy is being violated to:

- Discuss the matter with the person whose behaviour is causing concern; or

- If that discussion is unsatisfactory, or there is concern that direct discussion is inappropriate or threatening, discuss it with the Chair of the Department.

For additional advice or assistance regarding this policy you may contact the student ombudservice: ( ). Information about the University of Alberta Discrimination and Harassment Policy and Procedures can be found in the GFC Policy Manual, section 44 available at .

Plagiarism and Cheating

All students should consult the “Truth-In-Education” handbook or Website ( ) regarding the definitions of plagiarism and its consequences when detected. Students involved in language courses and translation courses should be aware that on-line “translation engines” produce very dubious and unreliable “translations.” Students in language courses should be aware that, while seeking the advice of native or expert speakers is often helpful, excessive editorial and creative help in assignments is considered a form of “cheating” that violates the code of student conduct with dire consequences. An instructor or coordinator who is convinced that a student has handed in work that he or she could not possibly reproduce without outside assistance is obliged, out of consideration of fairness to other students, to report the case to the Associate Dean of the Faculty. Before unpleasantness occurs consult; also discuss this matter with any tutor(s) and with your instructor.

Recording of Lectures

Audio or video recording of lectures, labs, seminars or any other teaching environment by students is allowed only with the prior written consent of the instructor or as a part of an approved accommodation plan. Recorded material is to be used solely for personal study, and is not to be used or distributed for any other purpose without prior written consent from the instructor.

Class schedule, topics and readings

(The readings given below should be understood as ‘required readings’ unless otherwise stated.)

Week 1 – Sept 5: Introduction to the course

Week 2 – Sept 10 and 12: Introduction to an analysis of documentary film

Week 3 – Sept 17 and 19: Sound in (documentary) film

Week 4 – Sept 24 and 26: Fine lines I: fiction and documentary

Week 5 – Oct 1 and 3: Observational cinema and audiovisual ethnography in Anthropology, I

Week 6 – Oct 8 and 10: Observational cinema and audiovisual ethnography in Anthropology, II

Week 7 – Oct 17 (no class on Oct 15): Audiovisual ethnography in Ethnomusicology, I

Week 8 – Oct 22 and 24: Audiovisual ethnography in Ethnomusicology, II

Week 9 – Oct 29 and 31: Documentary film and performative action: rockumentary

Week 10 – Nov 5 and 7: Werner Herzog: experiments in music and documentary

Week 11 – Nov 14 (no class on Nov 12): Fine lines II: Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’.

Week 12 – Nov 19 and 21: Ethics in documentary filmmaking

Week 13 – Nov 26 and 28: Presentations and recap discussion.

Week 14 - Dec 3: Final recap discussion

Submission date of final paper: December 10, 2013

Schedule of presentations - Music 466/566 2013

Final creative/research paper due on December 10, 2013


Bibliography - Music 466/566 2013

Filmography - Music 466/566 2013