Rhetorical Analysis of a Documentary Film

by Emily White

Teaching “Composition I” for both a four-year university and a two-year community college has provided me with various opportunities to introduce my students to rhetorical analysis for an academic audience. Historically, I’ve assigned my students rhetorical analyses of political speeches, historical and gender-stereotyped images found in popular culture, and songs. I’ve found the Rhetorical Analysis of Documentary Film assignment to be a keen method of fostering learning outcomes set forth by the college as well as introducing students to critical analysis and research methods.

As a grader and audience of the essay, I find that the Rhetorical Analysis of Documentary Film assignment never ceases to be one of the more exciting assignments to evaluate. Currently, I am the program coordinator and full-time professor of English for North Central Texas College (NCTC) in Corinth, Texas. Corinth is approximately twenty-five miles north of Dallas/Fort Worth and four miles south of Denton, where two four-year universities await the arrival of many students who complete two-year degrees at NCTC. My classes are often filled to capacity with 25 students, all of whom arrive with varying proficiencies in academic research and critical thinking. NCTC students belong to a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic populations, range in age from 16 to 55, and possess a wide range of abilities regarding use of technology. The Rhetorical Analysis of Documentary Film assignment creates a collaborative learning environment for learners at NCTC and allows them to assist each other with their strengths and weaknesses through the group discussion in class and the peer review process that are part of this assignment.

The Rhetorical Analysis of Documentary Film assignment is always the third and final writing assignment of Composition I. To begin the assignment process, I screen a documentary film for students in class. I usually screen documentaries that involve food and water, since these films tend to explore topics relevant to students’ lives but are less controversial within the array of documentary film options. After the class viewing we discuss the questions listed on the assignment sheet (below) as a group. Then students are challenged to choose their own documentary for analysis and respond to the questions from the assignment sheet in essay form.

This assignment single handedly addresses all five learning outcomes1 as fostered by the Department of English, Speech, and Foreign Language at NCTC, which are:

  1. Demonstrate knowledge of individual and collaborative writing processes.
  2. Develop ideas with appropriate support and attribution.
  3. Write in a style appropriate to audience and purpose.
  4. Read, reflect, and respond critically to a variety of texts.
  5. Use edited American English in academic essays.

The Rhetorical Analysis of Documentary Film assignment addresses learning outcome one as students are encouraged to share ideas in a group before they conduct their own rhetorical analysis of the issue of their choice. The assignment asks students to incorporate direct quotes from experts found in their chosen documentary, which satisfies learning outcome number two. Learning outcomes three and four are the essence of the assignment and are directly addressed in the list of questions in the assignment sheet. Finally, each student is invited to offer to their classmates a brief (five-minute) informal presentation about their documentary’s audience and occasion, and the effectiveness of its argument after they submit their essays. This oral presentation of their written effort helps to solidify their own argument, and their peers are able to see connections with various rhetorical strategies used in persuasive efforts through modern film.

Students learn much from this work. They learn about the variety of topics that can form the basis of an argument, they learn to gauge how modes of appeal (ethos, pathos, and logos) are used in persuasive efforts, and—most importantly—they learn which mode of appeal is most effective for a particular audience and purpose. This lesson alone readies them for being effective communicators in their own academic and professional efforts as they—through rhetorical analysis—learn to deconstruct persuasive efforts and study the three modes of appeal with a critical eye. Students also reveal their personal interests, their values, and their enthusiasm for non-academic research used in popular media while they gain greater experience defending their beliefs through group discussion and analysis in the college writing classroom.

Lesson Plan

Essay Assignment

For this writing assignment, you will analyze and critically respond to a cinematic documentary you will view outside of class. Using the strategies we’ve discussed in class after a group viewing of a documentary, you will evaluate, and then inform your reader of an argument being presented in your film of choice.

Choosing the Film

Each documentary for analysis must meet the following criteria:

Viewing the Film

As you watch the film and compose your essay, answer the following questions:

*Note: The two questions with an asterisk do not need the same answer. One asks about argument, and the other asks about the issue being argued. Ask for further clarification if necessary.

Essay Guidlines

This essay should contain an introduction, a thesis statement, and a conclusion. This essay should be no less than four pages in length, not including the works cited page. Please do not assume your audience has seen the film, which means that you need to include a brief summary of the film in your introduction.

Please compose this essay entirely in third person. Do not use personal pronouns. Do not use: I, we, us, our, you, your, yourself ourselves, myself, me, my, etc…

You will be required to provide direct quotes, paraphrases, and summaries in your analysis. Strong essays will no contain fewer than five quotes, which need to support your ideas as you answer the guiding questions of your essay. Failing essays will provide no direct quotes or paraphrases. You will also need to provide a works cited page to accompany your essay.

Your paper will be graded based on your ability to effectively describe the issue being presented, answer the guiding questions provided for your analysis, expand upon and evaluate ideas presented in the film, follow directions for MLA format and citation, and use mechanics and a writing style that are appropriate for the academy.

Rhetorical Analysis of a Documentary Film
Peer Review Assignment

Please respond to the following prompts below when reading your peer’s essay.

MLA Heading/Format/Citation

Has the writer composed their heading in MLA format? (an example is below). If the writer has not included an original title (“Writing Assignment III” is not acceptable), or if the heading is not correct, please help the writer craft an MLA-style heading and an original title.

Vedder 1

Emily Vedder
Dr. White
English 1301
June 13, 2013

Forks Over Knives: A Compelling Argument

Thesis Statement/Introduction

Has the writer crafted a clear and informative thesis statement in their introduction? Can you easily find the thesis statement? Does the thesis convey the writer’s perspective about the persuasiveness of the film’s argument? If not, help the writer sculpt a concise thesis statement.


Has the writer answered ALL of the questions on the “Viewing the Film” assignment sheet?  Is there balance of length in their answers? (For example, is one answer five sentences long while another answer is one sentence?) Help the writer elaborate where they need to do so.

Have they also included a brief synopsis of the film? If, not please give the writer feedback about how they can strengthen the synopsis.

Grammar and Mechanics

Read the draft one more time. Do you see any slang terms (informal language), misspellings, or verb agreement issues? Also, has the writer composed their essay entirely in 3rd person (without personal pronouns)? If not, help the writer with these issues.


Please provide any additional suggestions and feedback for the writer.

1 These learning outcomes were developed by core curriculum faculty of North Central Texas College to satisfy accreditation requirements implemented by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Emily White is the Program Coordinator and Professor of Writing for the Department of English, Speech, and Foreign Languages at North Central Texas College. Emily received her bachelor’s Degree from Texas Woman’s University in 1998, her Master’s Degree from Virginia Polytechnic and State University (Virginia Tech) in 2002, and her PhD in Rhetoric from Texas Woman’s University in 2010. Emily also volunteer teaches for the Koan Private School in Denton, Texas. Emily uses a variety of popular media to teach basic writing and rhetoric to both college students as well as elementary, middle school, and high school students.