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Visual Evidence in Cinema


Admission requirements

Enrolled in Film and Literary Studies BA program, or completion of one previous film related course.


Cinema, and in particular documentary film, has provoked a host of questions surrounding our understanding of authenticity, of truthfulness, of objectivity, and of reality. We wonder: can a documentary film depict its object of representation in a transparent, factual, and accurate way? In other words, we wonder about the nature of documentary representation in its relationship to evidence, truth, and fact.

It is sometimes assumed that documentary film is capable of representing socio- historical events, people, places, and phenomena, without manipulation or distortion. When that happens, it is taken for granted that cinema can present the facts as they exist out there. That audiovisual depiction may relay a world to us that pre-exists the act of representation. But what does it mean to say that documentaries present us with objective accounts of their subject matter? What does it mean to suggest that cinema has the ability to generate presumably undistorted representations of the world we live in?

This course investigates how documentary film attempts to convince us of its accuracy, truthfulness, and authenticity. The course will look, not only at documentary film, but at other modes of visual representation that rely on mimetic assumptions of filmic registrations of truth, like pornography, surveillance footage, and contemporary video art. Examining various case studies, we will address the ways in which film convinces us of its objectivity, and persuades the viewer to believe a certain version of the truth. We will not merely analyze the films from the perspective of theory, but allow our objects of analysis to help theorize what it means to speak of authenticity and truth in the first place.

Which rhetorical strategies do these films use? What are the political, ethical, and aesthetic implications of those strategies? On which conventions does their mode of representation rely? How do the representations of reality that are produced by means of stylistic and narrative techniques, become legible in our socio- political context? And under which material and cultural conditions does this imagery become meaningful?

This course examines issues surrounding the ambiguous relationship between fact and fiction, between what counts as real, and what counts as imaginary. Looking at a range of different objects, from traditional documentary film, to more experimental work, and from pornography to CCTV footage, this course investigates the politics of visual evidence in cinema.

All readings are available through the Leiden University Library, or through the Brightspace page for this course.

Course objectives

At the close of the course:

  • The student has knowledge of the most important developments in the field of documentary film, as well as the contemporary forms of documentary film

  • The student has gained insight into the dominant theoretical frameworks, the reflections on them as well as on the approaches to historical developments

  • The student has gained knowledge of the most important theoretical, artistic and socio-political debates regarding the functions and the effection of documartary strategies in cinematic media

  • The student is able to identify the differences and the intersections between documentary and fiction film and to reflection on these

  • The student has the capacity to independently analyse documentary films using the concepts and ideas that we have processed in our study of theoretical texts


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


  • Weekly Discussion Board post, a proposal for long paper, and peer-review of 1 other proposal are assignments that are graded with a pass/fall, and a pass on each of them is required to receive course credit

  • Paper (30%)

  • Paper (70%)


The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average.


A resit is available for the paper (70%), due one week after the grades are published.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

  • All readings are available through the Leiden University Library, or through the Brightspace page for this course.

  • Online resources, include: Vimeo, Youtube, Netflix, Amazon, or IDFA.
    Readings are to be studied prior to each class meeting. Here are examples of the reading list:

  • Nichols, Bill. “Chapter One: How Can We Define Documentary Film?” Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 1-28.

  • Fox, Roderick. “Movements and Modes.” Documentary Media History, Allyn & Bacon, 2010, pp. 20-46. • Minh-Ha, Trinh T. “Documentary Is/Not a Name.” October, vol. 52, Spring, 1990, pp. 76-98.

  • Bill Nichols. “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 1 Autumn, 2008, pp. 72-89.

  • Rabinowitz, Paula. “Wreckage upon Wreckage: History, Documentary and the Ruins of Memory.” History and Theory, vol. 32, no. 2, 1993, pp. 119- 137.

  • Martin, Niall. “Breath on the Windowpane: Precarious aesthetics and diegetic noise in Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts.” Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, vol. 10, no. 2, 2019, pp. 243-259.

  • Kraemer, Joseph A. “Waltz with Bashir (2008): Trauma and Representation in the Animated Documentary.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 67, no. 3-4, 2015, pp. 57-68.

  • Aydemir, Murat. “Chapter Seven: ‘Now take one of me as I come’: Pornographic realities.” Images of Bliss, Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, pp. 135-156.

  • Steinbock, Eliza. “Look! But Also, Touch!: Theorizing Images of Trans Eroticism Beyond a Politics of Visual Essentialism.” Porno-Graphics & Porno-Tactics: Desire, Affect, and Representation, edited by Eirini Avramopoulou and Irene Peano, Punctum Books, 2016, pp. 59-75.

  • Stanley, Eric A. “Anti-Trans Optics: Recognition, Opacity, and the Image of Force.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3, 2017, pp. 612-620.

  • Watson, Ryan. “In the wake of Rodney King, Militant Evidence and Media Activism in the Age of Black Death.” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 84, Fall, 2019, pp. 34-49.

  • Fischer, Mia & Mohrman, K. “Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the invisibility of Black Life.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media & Technology, no. 10, 2016,[Fischer Mohrman]( fischer-mohrman/).

  • Steyerl, Hito. “In Defense of the Poor Image.” The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2012. pp. 31-45.

  • Magno, Sara. “Narrative and database in “All that is Solid”, a desktop documentary.” Galaxia, no. 41, 2019, pp. 14-30.

  • Hogan, Mél. “Big data ecologies.” Ephemera, vol. 18, no. 3, 2018, pp. 631- 657.
    Films are to be viewed prior to discussion in each session. Here are examples of the film list:

  • Incident at Loch Ness. Zak Penn, 2004. (Can found through one or more of the streaming platforms mentioned above, or bought on DVD).

  • The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012. (Can found through Vimeo on demand, bought on DVD, or elsewhere online).

  • Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Werner Herzog, 1998. (Can found through Amazon, bought on DVD, or elsewhere online).

  • Ghosts. Nick Broomfield, 2006. (Can found on one of the platforms mentioned above or bought on DVD).

  • Waltz with Bashir. Ari Folman 2008. (Can found through Vimeo on demand, bought on DVD, or elsewhere online).

  • The Fall of Communism... As Seen In Gay Pornography. William E. Jones, 1988. (Can be found on Vimeo).

  • Kika. Pedro Almodóvar, 1993. (Can be rented on Amazon, or bought on DVD).

  • Rodney King tape. (Can be found in many places online, please also watch [here]( 25th-anniversary-viral-tape-orig-nccorig.cnn).

  • Duanna Johnson tape. Can be found here

  • Philando Castille tape. Can be found here.

  • LA92. T. J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, 2017. (Can be found on Netflix).

  • All That Is Solid. Louis Henderson, 2014. (Can be found on Vimeo password protected).

  • Deep Down Tidal. Tabita Rezaire, 2017. Can be found [here]( down-tidal).


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal