Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

David Payne

Co-Major Professor

Jane Jorgenson


Dramatism, Filmmaking, Kenneth Burke, Scene


Documentary is a genre of film that portrays "real" events using depictions that connote the objectivity and facticity implied by the processes of photorealism. Many contemporary documentary theorists and critics observe a constitutive problem in this ethos: despite the apparent constructions and agendas of documentary filmmaking, the framing and assumption of documentary as a window on the world tend to naturalize its own constructions as "real." Critics who engage documentary trace the multitude of ways this problem plays out in particular films. These projects yield many important insights, but they most often approach documentary as a form of inherently deficient representation fraught with ethical questions-- questions created by the frame and ethos of objectivity it fails to achieve. Are events portrayed truthfully? Are people depicted fairly? Are filmmakers misrepresenting?

In this study I seek to show that a rhetorical approach to documentary shifts the critical focus to instead examine how documentary constructions and images work as evidence in the claims and rhetorical agendas of documentary. I study recent film texts (2000-2012) that explicitly and primarily structure their documentary materials as evidence for the truth of an argument or interpretation, and I argue that documentaries, when they work as documentary, establish and verify their depictions as evidence by drawing on the elements of their "scene." I use Kenneth Burke's dramatistic approach to observe that the "real world" as depicted in documentary is at once experienced as representation of the world outside the documentary, but also constructed as the scene of a dramatization. Understanding the dramatism of documentary helps me to characterize what I call a "rhetoric of evidence" that may be particular to documentary expression. In the films I study documentary "scene" interacts at key moments and particular ways to locate the events of films in the "real world," not just as evidence that something is real, but also as meaningful for particular arguments and rhetorical moves.

This study reveals the often extremely subtle ways that documentaries wield the influence of "truth," and also offers filmmakers an understanding of how evidence might be deployed more deliberately to present a social world that is open for transformation.