International School History - Documentary Film Making in the History Classroom

A history student's guide to documentary film making techniques.


In a documentary, the exposition occurs at the beginning and introduces the important themes of the film. It is important because it creates the viewer's first impression and introduces the viewer to the content.

Historical documentary exposition very often raises a question to be answered or a problem to be solved by the film.

It is common for the documentary to challenge an established ‘orthodox’ view of an event or present a case based on 'newly uncovered' evidence.

Dramatic segments of the documentary are specially chosen in order to catch the viewer’s attention at the very beginning.

Most importantly, the exposition establishes and explains the historical significance of what you are about to see.



1. View the first two extracts 'World at War' and Protestant Revolution'. Compare and contrast the form and the content of these two expositions. What evidence is there that documentary exposition has changed since the early 1970s? Can you suggest some reasons why exposition has changed?

2. Now consider extract 2 and extract 3 ''Century of Self'. How do both extracts attempt to engage the viewer? Did you find anything shocking about either of these extracts?

3. Extract 4 'Industrial Revelation' is a very short exposition but what does it share in common with all the other examples?

4. Extract 5 is what I would describe as a 'post-modern exposition' in that it playfully dismisses the formulaic tradition of exposition (and modern documentary techniques such as 'vulgar' dramatic reconstructions). And yet it is still a very good example of exposition, why?

5. The exposition is the best example of how documentary film is different to history text. In contrast to a work of history, documentary offers certainty and bold claims, story telling simplicity and the resolution of problems in a singular, unproblematic narrative. In documentary, interpretation and debate is absent. Using these five extracts, find examples of how documentary film differs from history.


A classic analysis of exposition by Bob Ferguson
Ireland - A Television History Bob Ferguson's interpretation



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