Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 10: Religious education in a media-saturated world:  Studying the potential spiritual/moral influence of film/TV/Advertising/Social Media:  Part 1.
This and the following section set out to show how the issues can be investigated as part of an exploration of the potential spiritual and moral influence of the media.  After the general introduction to the topic, this section begins by investigating the genres of propaganda and documentary and their potential influence on people's thinking and values.
A unit that extends educators' background in key issues for religious education that helps with the critical evaluation of contemporary theory and practice

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.

Introductory video to this section
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1. Introductory video focussing on the content covered in this section. Click the icon to view or download the introductory video (wmv format).

Overview of content of this section

This Investigation of the possible spiritual/moral influence of the media is set up as an 'investigative' educational strategy.
It speculates about how various media might have a spiritual/moral influence on young people's spiritual and moral development. 

As such, this is a study to prompt educators to think about the possible psychological mechanisms of media personal influence on people generally. Then this could be adapted as a pedagogy for use in classroom religious education -- or elsewhere in the curriculum, E.g. English or Social Science.

Early in the section, there is a special focus on the power of meaning-embedded narratives.  One film scholar noted that for many thousands of years the traditional method through which communities handed on a sense of their own story and their own beliefs and values was through stories. They were meaning-embedded stories. The Scriptures were religious faith embedded stories. But nowadays, most of the stories in most of the homes, most of the time are told by television and the Internet. You can even be getting stories on your smart phone while crossing a busy street! Or two people can be in a cafe together -- not talking but totally absorbed in their pursuit of social media on their phones! This represents a fundamental change from humanity's traditional systems for communicating meaning about life. So now, perhaps the principal source of meaning is about life could well be "media-orchestrated imaginations of life". What role might education in general and religious education in particular have in helping young people become more discerning about the conditional influence of these elements of culture.

The approach here looks into the potential psychological influence of different media genres:-  propaganda, documentary, advocacy, feature film, advertising, social media.  This first of two sections concentrates on Propaganda and documentary films. Theorising about the potential psychological influence of media, and learning how to ‘read' the meaning-embedded stories is an educative process that can be helpful for school students for getting the psychological influence of media into some perspective.

Audio mp3 file lecture of this section
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2. The audio file lecture
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The audio lecture fills out the content and is complemented by the Section text below. Every now and again you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text and/or sub-presentations, as suggested.

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture)

The shaping influence of film, television, advertising and social media on young people's spiritual and moral development
Introducing the problem of how to investigate the spiritual – moral influence of media
Story: a central concept for conceptualising the spiritual moral influence of film and television
Theorising about the spiritual and moral influence of media: A sequence of study to be followed
The intended spiritual and moral influence of propaganda film
View examples of propaganda film: and build up your list of categories of this propaganda genre
The educational function of documentary films
An opportunity to view some classic examples of documentary film

The shaping influence of film television and social media on young people's spiritual and moral development: An educational exploration

The media's growing influence has many benefits: informing, educating and entertaining people; increasing awareness of human rights and environmental impacts; breaking down dogma; promoting diversity. But the stories the media tell, which define modern life, are also often driven by the lowest common denominator in public taste. While most societies have taken great care of their stories, today's media present, at one level, a cacophony of conflicting messages and morals; at another, they offer a seductive harmony of harmful influences, both personal and social. As one media critic warns: ‘The media claim they are only telling our stories, but societies live and die on stories'.
Richard Eckersley et. al., 2006

This material here is part of a chapter from the book Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality.You can access the full chapter in html format through this link. (Or you can go to the relevant chapter from Reasons for Living available on this website) The title shows how this question can be turned into a topic for student investigation – a problem-posing approach. Helping students articulate the problem, investigate it, and theorise about it embodies a pedagogy. But this is not just a teacher's pedagogy, it is a students' pedagogy in which they do the teaching, that is, they teach themselves how to become inquiring, critical evaluators of culture. It is the student research process that is educative – and empowering. The enquiry may not result in clear-cut conclusions, but it is through the inquiring process itself that students can become better informed, more discerning and less naive about the shaping influence of film and television on culture, as well as on people's values and behaviour. And hopefully, this same pedagogy can become a habit.

Introducing the problem: How to investigate a complex question like the spiritual-moral influence of film and television

For many children and adolescents, and indeed for adults, film and television can have a significant formative influence on their meanings, identity and spirituality. While they are primarily about entertainment, increasingly they serve as the most prominent and accessible spiritual and moral reference points in the culture. They also have considerable educational potential, in the broad sense of education as something broader than schooling. Their mechanisms of personal influence can be complex, and they can be as simple as a telling a story. Story is one of the most basic genres in film and television, even in the 30-second commercial. Stories pervade film and television, and the narratives are inevitably value embedded. They carry images of life, presumed value systems and insights into human motivation.

Thinking about the potential personal influence of film and television can be disconcerting for parents and educators. How to address the issue is problematic because film and television have become such a valuable and enjoyable part of modern life, as well as being ‘omnipresent' – the television is often the first thing switched on in the morning and the last thing switched off at night. Now this is being rivalled by time spent online, especially on social media.

A direct empirical research-like approach to the problem is not very helpful educationally, for example looking for evidence of links between the watching of film or television and human behavior. Rather, the approach taken here proposes an analysis based within film study: looking at the form and function of the media, and at the purposes of the film-makers. This is intended to inform student theorising about the potential influence on viewers. This theorising itself is a potent learning process, enhancing critical thinking about the issues. Through student engagement in critical interpretation, this sort of study can make some contribution towards more reflective, educated viewing; if so, this can help make film and television a more valuable resource for lifelong personal development.

After an introductory discussion of why the metaphor ‘story' is a useful theme for this exploration, a research sequence is proposed for investigating the spiritual and moral influence of the stories in film and television. While commercial feature films and television dramas and sitcoms do not have the same intended moral influence as propaganda films and documentaries, they can still serve as source material drawn on by children and adolescents in their construction of meaning and identity.

Story: A central concept for contextualising the spiritual-moral influence of film and television

‘Story' is like an international currency used in a number of the fields concerned with personal and spiritual development. Story is thought to be an important mediator in the psychological development of children and adolescents. Its role in transmitting meaning is also considered in areas as diverse as Sociology, Literature, History, Anthropology, Aetiology, Hermeneutics, Narrative Theology, Scripture and Religion Studies.  Story is also prominent in educational theory and practice, especially in moral and religious education; and in socialisation and enculturation, as well as in the processes of home and traditional storytelling. Those concerned with the communication of cultural, ethnic and religious traditions often refer to their endeavour as ‘handing on the story'.

Story fits within a cluster of related concepts: metaphor, narrative, fable, myth, symbol, image, analogy, and worldview. Reference to story is often made when looking at processes like explanation, understanding, interpretation and social reality.

Given the prominence for story in personal and spiritual development, in all three parts of the exploration, the focus will be on the ways people construct meaning by threading together their own ‘personal story' while drawing on various ‘cultural stories'. Traditional reference points like home, ethnicity, religion, school and nation might be expected to be basic sources for images of life and values; other no less significant sources can be peers, social and recreational groups. But often these influences are superseded by the ‘storying' role of film and television. Their stories are vivid, meaning-embedded narratives about life that can eclipse the family or religious stories that have traditionally informed spiritual development and identity. This relativising of the religious story is part of the emerging pattern of a more secular spirituality in today's youth. And film and television narratives can be communicated as much through image, symbol, visuals and music as through the verbal. This is very different from the way traditional religions have tended to rely on the stories in sacred texts.

The film scholar Gerbner drew attention to the massive change in traditional patterns of storytelling that was enabled by film and television: ‘We have moved away from the historic experience of humankind. Children used to grow up in a home where parents told most of the stories. Today television tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time.' Similarly, Australian scholars Eckersley and his associates considered that ‘when a community abdicates the role of storytelling to the mass media, particularly commercial media, a focus on wellbeing or the good life is diminished to stories about feeling good. These stories can have a very individual focus.'

Theorising about the spiritual and moral influence of film and television: The sequence of study to be followed here

An example of ambivalence about the personal influence of television was the decision to ban cigarette advertising. The ban presumed that the exposure of children to such advertising increases the probability of introducing them to smoking, which is bad for their health. The facts show that this is true. When the Joe Camel cigarette ads were introduced in the United States in the 1970s, they presented Joe as a fun, cool character who naturally appealed to older children. The Camel cigarette market share rose significantly and their sales to older children and young adults were proportionally much higher.

What is interesting, however, is the argument proposed by the cigarette companies: if the censorship on cigarette advertising is based on the premise that exposure of children to such advertising is harmful because it influences their behaviour, then it is hypocritical to allow so much uncensored violence on television. If the smoking ads are harmful, how can the authorities be sure that screen violence is not?

The overall educational aim, then, is to help people give more thought to the way that cultural elements in films and television enter into their life structure. This can help educate people towards watching films and television with a more critical, discriminating eye – with the capacity for entertainment undiminished; it may help with the development of ‘taste' in viewing habits.

Three key principles in an educational study of film and television

The study of film and television must be positive and give due attention to the valuable contribution that the media can make to culture, education, entertainment and personal development. Looking only at problems is too negative, and this will inevitably alienate young people, especially if they see it as an attack on their viewing and entertainment habits. A negative approach also plays to the stereotype of parents and teachers who seem to have a schizoid attitude to the media: they love it themselves, but fear it is having negative but undefinable effects on children (apart from its considerable child-minding capacity!).

The meaning/identity/spirituality-forming potential of film and television can be highlighted progressively through a study sequence. It begins by looking at instances where the intention to change people is more obvious, through to those where there is no such intention but where there may be unintended consequences.

Propaganda film, where the aim is specifically and unashamedly concerned with changing people by determining how they will think and act

Documentary film where the aim is to bring about change in thinking and action through an informed educational process; attention to the dynamics of propaganda and documentary films is a prerequisite for study of the more complex and subtle patterns of potential influence in feature films, television and in commercial advertising.

Commercial feature films: value-embedded narratives.

Television, which brings entertainment ubiquitously into every home. The programs on television can be broadly categorised as ‘film' and include drama, sitcoms, comedy, current affairs, news, documentaries, cartoons, and so-called ‘reality' programs.

Television advertising and marketing , which is concerned with promoting the image associations, thinking and behaviour that will sustain markets.

Social media. The new forms of online social communication where individuals project their personal identities through their own 'texts/

The centrality of the genre story (or narrative). Film and television have continuity with the role of storytelling (both verbal and literary) as an influence on spiritual and moral development; they have also enhanced and extended storytelling in major ways with instant accessibility in the homes of people in most countries; the value-embedded narratives from film and television can be used by children and adolescents as raw material for the building of meaning, identity and spirituality.

What is most noticeable by its absence in the sequence above is religious film and television. This includes three types. First, there are programs developed by religious groups as part of their mission: to nurture the faith of believing communities and to evangelise with the purpose of inviting people to faith and congregational membership. The second type includes programs on religion in culture that are not produced by the religious groups themselves and therefore do not have the same religious purposes; rather they have an educational or documentary focus. The third type is where religion enters into feature films, like other aspects of culture.

Because the interest here is with the spiritual and moral dimensions of ordinary film and television, this material will not look at specifically religious programs of the first type. To address that area adequately would go beyond the scope here. For example, the potential spiritual influence of this type of religious film or television depends on the belief position of viewers – whether they formally identify with the religious group or not. Nevertheless, the analysis of the psychological dynamics of film and television should be helpful in any further analysis of religious content.

The intended spiritual and moral influence of propaganda film

A logical place to begin the study is with films that were designed deliberately to have a moral influence – propaganda. This section can inform about the nature and techniques of this genre. Participants can buildup their own set of categories that helps with the detection of propaganda, showing how film content and presentation are selected for ideological purposes.

The word ‘propaganda' derives from the Latin verb propagare, to reproduce, transmit, spread or disseminate. It implies a systematic scheme to advertise and communicate a particular ideology, pattern of beliefs, values and behaviour. It is often misleading and manipulative; it appeals to the emotions, and resonates with fears and prejudice; and false information is transmitted to promote the cause.

There is a long history of the use of propaganda film dating from the late 19th century when motion pictures were first brought to the public. It is interesting to note that the first intentional users of film for spiritual and moral influence were the Christian churches. Large numbers of early silent films were produced on the Bible and the life of Christ to extend the faith of Christians, to invite new believers and to stimulate devotion. While the churches would not think of these films as propagandist in the same sense they would apply, say, to classic Soviet or Nazi propaganda films, it remains an interesting question to consider where those early films stand within a contemporary analysis of what makes a film propagandist. The documentary Jesus Christ Moviestar (1994) shows footage of some of the earliest Bible and Jesus films.

Popular thinking about propaganda film depends a lot on the propaganda from the early Soviet period in Russia and from Nazi Germany. Tracing its history shows that the format became more refined and subtle; it is not entirely lacking in some contemporary films – as Joseph Goebbels said, the best propaganda was where people were not aware that the film was propagandist.

From the time of the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin came to regard film as one of the most important vehicles for promoting popular revolutionary ideology. He thought of film as the art-form of the masses. In 1917, a special Cinema Commission was organised in St Petersburg by the People's Commissariat of Education; within two years the industry was nationalised under state control. Thence the cinema of the socialist state functioned as a medium of ideology, propaganda, enlightenment, and education.

From that time (until fairly recently) no Soviet leader or film-maker ever pretended that film might serve any other purpose. It was national in form and socialist in content, and it was used by the state as a tool for social control and discipline. In his speech at the XIIIth Congress of the Party, Stalin said that ‘the cinema is the greatest means of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our hands'. Elsewhere he noted that ‘the cinema in the hands of … power represents a great and priceless force'.

Other leaders like Hitler, Mao Zedong and Winston Churchill also believed in the power of film to shape people's thinking and behaviour. For them, film was an indispensable means of propaganda, a way to inculcate ideas and morality and to ensure social uniformity. Especially during times of war or economic hardship, it was essential that films conveyed the right kind of message. Joseph Goebbels considered that the view of the world that was first communicated to children would be the most influential and the most difficult to eradicate or change; his thoughts on the role of film in education flowed from this principle.

The study of propaganda film should explore the possible psychological processes through which it works on people's perceptions, imagination and feelings; it should try to identify the ways in which people are affected by what they watch. Viewing segments from some vintage 1930s–40s Nazi propaganda films, from American war films from the 1940s and 1950s, from Leninist and other Soviet films, and from Chinese films of the Maoist period readily exemplifies the intention to use film as a means of social control.

However, the intention to use such films as a potent shaping influence is a long way from a film like the Wizard of Oz. Commercial feature films usually share none of the propagandist aims; they are made for entertainment and commercial gain and they are harmless. But not all agree with that judgment. For fundamentalist Muslims, especially in Iran, films and television produced in the United States are at the forefront of ‘the enormous appeal of Western culture [which] erodes Islamic customs and laws … [threatening] the very survival of Islam … America's popular music, video games, comics, textbooks, literature and art reach throughout the Muslim world. 'InBaghdad during the Gulf War air raids, people were still watching Disney cartoons on television. While from this perspective feature films are propagandist and subversive, this view is not shared in Western countries. But perhaps even in the West, the influence of entertainment films, and their omnipresent offspring television, which reaches the masses in the informality of their own sitting rooms (and kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, hospital wards, hotels and workplace), is to some extent propagandist in the cause of global consumerism, though this is much more subtle and complex than traditional propaganda.

So even at this first stage of the study, dealing with the characteristics of propaganda film, it is important to note that the boundaries between different film genres can be blurred in people's perceptions. What is entertainment for one may be perceived as subtle propaganda by another. What was effective propaganda at one period of history in one particular community might be dismissed at a later stage as false and misleading – and perhaps even amusing. Today's young people may feel immune to the sort of propaganda films produced during World War II – they can readily see the distortion of the truth; however, they may not have been so discerning had they been there at the time, and they may not be all that discerning of the propaganda in some of today's entertainment films and television.

View examples of propaganda film: Make your list of what you think are the distinctive features and psychology of propaganda film

Study of the characteristics of propaganda films

From viewing a number of the examples, build up a list of the characteristics of PROPAGANDA film as a film genre. What are its purposes? What strategies and techniques are used? How do their authors try to influence people's thinking, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour? What do they appeal to? There is no need to watch all of the longer items -- E.g Joseph Goebbels documentary.

NOTE: For any student study of a topic like this, the Internet, especially YouTube, has a very large array of material that could be seacrhed out by the students themselves.

Click the icons to view/download the film segments

PROPAGANDA FILMS Propaganda films were produced with the direct intention of seducing people into thinking, believing and acting in a particular way. They set out to induce fear of potentially dangerous others; they set out to stir up anger and violence; and they set out to encourage people to follow their leaders in an unquestioning way. Look out for various themes and techniques in the examples. E.g. The cult of the leader. Are there any rituals? What are the views of minority groups and do they get much attention? What is their potential contribution to national and racial identity?
Later, after having looked at advertising one might ask the question to what extent do contemporary advertising and marketing techniques make use of propagandist strategies.

Christian films late 19th century
The first propaganda films were produced by the Christian churches in the late 19th century

This material is from the documentary film Jesus Christ Moviestar. It illustrates the earliest films developed to help spread the Christian gospel. But in a sense they might still be regarded as an early form of propaganda film.

Classic Nazi Propaganda films

Hitler and youth
This segment shows Hitler's plans for guiding children through youth groups etc into the German army etc. His desire to get them to be 'peace loving'.

Note the elements of ritual.

Hitler and the education of youth (More material)

Hitler's ideas about the education of youth and the special use of sport and rituals.

French Nazi propaganda film produced in occupied France in early 1944

Consider the different responses of French people sitting in the theatres (sympathizers, collaborators, neutral, the resistance). Note the use of the cartoon: this has a long history in propaganda going back to the time of the Reformation when Protestant cartoons of the Papacy and Catholicism were produced on the newly invented printing press and widely distributed. Note the caricature of DeGaulle and of the United States Army Air Force.

Nazi anti-Jewish Propaganda. The Eternal Jew film was made and screened in Germany and in occupied countries.

The Eternal Jew was classic Nazi propaganda. This segment here is taken from the version that was screened in Dutch cinemas during the period of occupation. In addition to the main material, the Nazis would include local material to give the version a greater sense of local content and relevance. In this segment commentary is in Dutch but there are no subtitles. But there is some brief commentary made in the documentary that included the segment. Click here to see the original German version Der Ewige Jude - with English Subtitles.

Leni Riefenstahl was a female film director was very popular with Hitler. She made the famous propaganda film The triumph of the will, which centred on Hitler's appearance at the 1936 Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. Click here for a You Tube link to the original Riefenstahl film , Triumph des Willens (1935)

Documentary on Joseph Goebbels and his development of propaganda

This material is from a documentary that looked at the way in which Joseph Goebbels developed propaganda film for the Third Reich. As well as those giving insights into the way Goebbels thought, it shows the way in which this film genre set out to suggest the minds and hearts of the German people to encourage them to back Nazi practice and strategy.

The Nazi Titanic
Refer back to the comments in Section 5 on Joseph Goebbels' intended blockbuster film Titanic which was intended to shame the British leaders as cowards and cheats. By late 1942 the tide of war had changed for Germany and the German public would have been more likely then to see the characters in the film as more symbolic of the Nazi leaders than the British. Goebbels banned the screening of the film in Germany. (For more details about how the sociocultural context affects the interpretations of texts and films see Section 5)

Classic Soviet Union Propaganda film

Children praise Stalin at the Soviet Communist Party Congress
This segment taken from one of the Soviet Communist party congress shows children helping celebrate Stalin's birthday. Note the way in which propaganda uses children. What is it appealing to?


The Red Army Choir celebrates the explosion of the first Soviet Atomic Bomb

The red army choir composed a song to honour Stalin, praising him for the development and explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in the late 1940s.

Japanese Propaganda film for schools about 1940

This segment shows the way in which propaganda was used to reinforce the way that Japanese schools were moulding children so that they would take part in the emperor's grand south-east Asian war. Note the emphasis given to physical activities and fighting games. Note the comparisons with the education of German youth in the 1930s. To what extent do you think these schools would have influenced the beliefs of Japanese children? Were the schools simply reinforcing what they were socialised into thinking at home? Why would it be unlikely that Japanese children today might be coaxed into believing that they should lay down their lives for the Emperor?

United States Propaganda early 1950s??

The launch of the USS Nautilus. The first nuclear powered submarine.
There were intentional propaganda films produced in the United States even prior to World War II and this continued throughout the war. After that there were films that reflected something of the US position in the cold war. This segment is from a news broadcast about the launching of the first nuclear powered submarine the Nautilus. And it also said something about the growing paranoia that was related to fear of nuclear attacks. The issues here are explained in more detail in the documentary section in the program that looked at what happened in the United States under the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower as the Cold War developed into the 1950s In 1960s. As Joseph Goebbels said, the most effective propaganda was where people did not realise that they were being submitted to it. The clip includes segments from the famous propaganda film The Atomic Café.

The educational function of documentary film

The word ‘documentary' derives originally from the Latin docere, to teach and documentum, a lesson, a proof, a written instrument or official paper. The verb ‘to document' meant providing written material which served as proof or evidence, as an illustration or a certificate of verification that something had happened, that it was true. Consequently the adjective ‘documentary' meant consisting of written documents, attested and verified historically with written evidence. The term ‘documentary film' was coined to describe films that were primarily about scientific, historical, archaeological, industrial or travel topics. This distinguished them from feature or entertainment films that were usually fictional, or that took fictional liberties with historical topics. However, the choice of term may have been more propitious than was originally intended. It is not surprising that the adjective is now used mainly as a noun; a ‘documentary' commonly means a documentary film. With the advent of film a new form of document emerged. It could be used as proof or evidence that something had occurred. Indeed viewers could see for themselves first-hand what really happened; they could judge directly from their own observation of the evidence. Photographs and film became key proofs or touchstones of truth. It has only been in recent times that computer-generated images and digital enhancement have undermined this credibility.

Postman argued that the form and the medium of human communication shape the way people experience and describe the world, and thus the way they derive meaning and values. Since its origins, writing has had an enormous influence on culture; the proof and evidence of ‘having it in writing' still remains forceful, especially from a legal and official point of view. But now film and television have changed what people think is ‘the news'; they have subtly changed people's perception and understanding of what is real, of what ‘most people' think, and even of what is the truth. Postman noted that the media had influenced the prevailing epistemology: for some ‘it must be true' because ‘we saw it on television'.

The contemporary experience of documentary film and television, greatly enhancing the changes brought about by science and technology, have changed people's perception of what constitutes history and how it is to be recorded. They have a historico-scientific expectation of the recording of history that is primarily documentary – that is, through both documentary (written) evidence, and, since the advent of film, documentary film evidence.

A key problem to be overcome with a study of documentary film is familiarity – people tend to think they already know all about it. There is a need to look at segments of documentaries that raise critical issues about objectivity, impartiality and potential to distort the truth; to do this, we will refer to some examples from the 1990s.

An opportunity to view some classic examples of documentary film.

Click the icons to view/download the film segments

DOCUMENTARY FILMS Documentary films started in a relatively innocuous way as travelogues. There was a special interest in showing what really happened and the documentary became evidence of what happened – from the Latin word 'documentum' the document of evidence and proof. Documentary filmmakers tended to differentiate their purposes from those of propaganda films. But one might ask, can documentary still be subtly propagandist. There are a number of different types of documentary film:- the voice of God documentary; advocacy films; cinéma vérité; and more recently what might be called the "Smart Phone" documentary.
In examining the materials consider:- What are the purposes of the different documentaries? What strategies and techniques are used? How do they try to influence people's thinking, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour? How are they different from what propaganda film was trying to achieve?

PS. The documentary finishes without telling the viewer what eventually happened to Sitting Bull.
This is the end of the story: In 1890 Sitting Bull was living on a reservation at Standing Rock, North Dakota, when a long-time antagonist - Indian Agent James McLaughlin, suspected that the old warrior intended to lead an uprising. McLauglin sent a troop of 43 Indian policemen to arrest Sitting Bull and in a skirmish at Sitting Bull's home on 15 th December Sitting Bull was fatally wounded by one of the Indian policemen - Red Tomahawk - who belonged to the Lakotas, Sitting Bull's tribe. Note that the documentary did show that some time before this, Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw himself being killed by his own people

The voice of God documentary This is the documentary where "the truth comes out later". After the events, and after there has been time to uncover the facts and hidden motivations and actions that were not evident at the time, it is possible later for historians to give a more realistic and critical account of what originally happened. So the name "voice of God" has been given to this type of documentary where the wise, better informed interpretation from much later on is being presented -- usually at an interpretation that was not possible at the time because the historians did not have all the data at hand. The voice of God documentary often gives surprising insights to viewers because they were not aware of the complexities in the original events.

Chief Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer and the battle of the Little Big Horn Note this documentary goes for about 20 minutes; this is needed to help show up the story in its greater complexity.
Within a week of the death of George Custer, he was being mythologised as a "hero" and a "martyr" for the cause of the "development of the west". Do you think that a documentary like this, which runs contrary to popular mythology and stereotype could have been made say in the 1950s? If it were made then, would people have believed it? Is there a link between the public openness to critical views presented in documentaries and the level of public critical thinking (influenced by their education)?. The so called "Custer's last stand" has been featured in more than a dozen feature films -- but what was represented was far from the real truth; this documentary, based on detailed historical research, interviews with people whose parents were witnesses to what happened; it runs contrary to the popular images which have dominated people's thinking about the events. But it has taken about 130 years for the native American point of view to be presented and acknowledged. How long does it take today before a detailed, critical interpretive documentary is made about significant historical events? Consider documentaries about World War II, Korean war, Vietnam War, Falklands war, Gulf War, Iraq invasion and Afghanistan? Is the culture becoming more sophisticated about the real truth beneath what appears to be the case initially?

The Gulf War. Another example of a voice of God documentary.

This segment shows some of the participants talking about what happened some years after the event -- George Bush, General Norman Schwarzkopf and General Colin Powell.

Chairman Mao. Segment from a voice of God documentary.

Cinéma Vérité (Cinema truth) This genre "Cinema Vérité" -- is named from the French "cinema truth". There is no "voice of God" commentary. The events are allowed to speak for themselves. However, note that the director through editing and choice of music can use these elements to communicate a message.

The Betrayed a film about the Chechnyan war by UK film maker Clive Gordon.
Note the comments by Gordon, the producer of the film in response to questions from a Sydney ABC journalist. Why did he use Russian rock music as the background? Who was betrayed? Were there multiple betrayals?

The Advocacy Film. This is a type of documentary film where the filmmaker unequivocally sets out to try to change the thinking, values and behaviour of viewers. But the filmmaker would argue that the approach is informative, ethical and educational and is not trying to be subversive like a propaganda film. The interesting question then remains to what extent is this similarity between this sort of film and propaganda film; and what would need to be done to make the advocacy approach both ethical and educational.

Ballot Measure 9 a film by Heather McDonald
This is another Cinema Vérité documentary about anti-gay legislation in Oregon in western United States. What is of importance here are the comments of Heather McDonald, the producer and editor of the film. She is asked by the Sydney journalist whether her representation of the "no vote" is propagandist because she did not give equal attention to the "yes vote". Note how she responds and makes a case for what she calls "Advocacy films".

McDonald tried to inform and influence the band of people in the community spectrum who were open to change and to potential action on behalf of what she considered a just cause (the intended target audience); those who were strongly prejudiced against homosexuals would inevitably be untouched or angered by her film (it was not for them); and those who were opposed to the discrimination were already on ‘her side' and did not need ‘conversion', so to speak. Thus going to great lengths to appear impartial and objective (for example by giving equal time to protagonists and antagonists) would have been artificial, given the stated purposes of the film; also, such an approach would have taken the ‘cutting edge' from the film, running the risk of losing the interest of the target audience. But, she argued, her presentation and technique were not subversive. She presented evidence that was there to be interpreted; her approach appealed to reason, evidence and human values; her own value position was made clear. The various documentaries of Michael Moore in recent years are examples of provocative advocacy films.

The "Smart Phone" documentary. It was somewhat an inevitable that given the common use of smart phones these days, as well as iPads and tablets, that there would have to have to be the documentaries compiled from such sources. This complements at a more formal level the great repository of 'personal documentaries' on YouTube.

The Costa Concordia wreck - story told by survivors.

Some questions about the educational potential of documentary films

  • Is it likely that the sort of critical, historical documentaries as illustrated here could have been made say in the 1930s or the 1950s?
  • If they were made during that period, would a documentary about Chief Sitting Bull have been ‘believed' by many of the viewing public at the time?
  • To what extent do historical documentaries like those shown here help change public understanding, historical interpretations and attitudes?
  • To what extent does the acceptability and potential educational influence of a documentary depend on some change in public opinion having already occurred – in the Chief Sitting Bull / Custer instance, more public readiness to look at the indigenous point of view?
  • How do the messages in this type of documentary relate to feature films about Native Americans? Have the feature films been influential in changing public attitudes towards them? Do they prepare the ground for, and work in harmony with, documentary films? For example, films like Devil's Doorway (1950) Little Big Man (1971) and Dances with Wolves (1990) showed the situation more sympathetically from the perspective of the Native Americans. It is interesting to note that Devil's Doorway did not go over well at its pre-screening when there was little public interest; and its release was shelved for a while before coming out in 1950.
  • Has the educational power of documentaries gradually increased? Is their influence dependent on increased levels of general education, including a better public understanding of the informing role of film and television?
  • What proportion of the community are receptive to new information in documentaries that might change their attitudes?
  • What are the aspects of documentaries that have potential for bringing about change? Are the informational aspects or the emotional ones more important?
  • Has it been the growth of television that enabled the documentary industry? Would there be as many educational, political or social documentaries if they appeared only in cinemas on the ‘big screen' in competition with feature films?

Click here for a comparison of some of the characteristics of propaganda and documentary films

Additional resources


If you are interested, you can have a look at a range of full documentaries that have been assembled to show possibilities for contemporary teacher education. Which of these might be suitable for school use would require discernment.

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