Writing a Critique of a Documentary
about a Pseudo-historical or Pseudoscientific Subject
Many documentaries are shown on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, PBS, and other stations. Some are good factually based accounts, others are highly speculative and sensationalistic. At the same time, such documentaries are often well produced and presented in a convincing manner. The purpose of this assignment is to provide students with an opportunity and the practice to analyze documentaries in a critical manner. Being critical does not need to be a simply negative exercise.
Keep in mind, this class is focused on the phenomena of pseudo-history and pseudoscience in popular culture. For your critiques, you will view documentaries that deal with topics of fringe scholarship. Therefore, your critique should focus how well the documentary presents its subject from a mainstream scholarly point of view. The guidelines listed below will help you to do that in your critique.
A study guide has been provided for each documentary. They should help guide your viewing of the documentaries.
Things to look for when viewing a documentary for the purpose of critiquing it:
- Find the documentary’s point of view. This is often clearly stated in the introduction or preface section.
- Identify the documentary’s major hypothesis, point, or contention. There may be more than one or there may be a main one accompanied by several lesser but still important hypotheses. Again, most documentaries will state their point or hypothesis in the introduction and the conclusion of their book. Furthermore, if produced for commercial television, they will repeat main points at the commercial breaks.
- What types of evidence does the documentary use?
- Who are the experts or talking heads who are consulted? What are their credentials?
- Are both fringe and mainstream ideas and theory given equal time?
- Do any of the talking heads make assertions that are not supported by evidence?
- How is the book documentary organized to present its argument? Is the organization effective?
- Is the documentary’s point of view appropriate? Is there a discernible bias, is the documentary objective?
- How does the documentary fit in to the existing knowledge on the subject?
- Based on the organization, argumentation, and evidence presented, do you find the documentary contains a convincing argument or not?
THE STRUCTURE OF A DOCUMENTARY CRITIQUE
- Supply a brief summary or overview of the documentary's hypotheses and contents.
- Assess the nature and the quality of the evidence presented.
- Comment on the documentary’s presentation: organization, narrative style, and evidence.
- Conclusion with final assessment and recommendation to readers.
When critiquing a documentary, there are several other key words that can guide your efforts. Ask yourself, what is the documentary’s purpose for investigating this subject. That question encompasses both point of view and hypothesis. Ask yourself, what is the scope of the documentary? That question deals with what the documentary is about. What is its subject (person, time period, place, etc.?
It is also important to know something about the experts interviewed. The keyword for this is authority. What is the expert's authority? Does the expert have expertise or a reputation in the subject?
Remember, when writing your critique, your audience is your classmates and your professors.
Your critique should be 2-3 pages long. Provide complete title of the documentary and its date on a separate title page that does not count toward the page numbers. Put your name below the title of the documentary, using “Critiqued by XXXX XXXX.”
The critiques are due on the dates listed in the course syllabus. It will be graded and returned to you.