Introduction to Rhetoric for Nonfiction Video

As promised, here’s the script for my podcast episode introducing the rhetoric to my students in MED412 Documentary Storytelling. I’ve done some minor editing. For the full experience, listen to the episode instead. Note: I rely on scholars James Berlin and Lloyd Bitzer for much of this theory.

Podcast Transcript

I beg your indulgence. What’s about to happen is a swing through my intellectual passion as it intersects with my artistic passion: rhetoric and documentary filmmaking.

This is part 1 starting with a general introduction to rhetoric. I’ll keep all of this connected to making nonfiction videos as I go.

Quick note: If you hear me use the word “language,” please understand that I mean to indicate all the ways humans communicate, not just speaking or writing.

For the nonfiction video maker wishing to move hearts and minds, a familiarity with rhetoric will help in achieving the goal by suggesting possible answers to these questions:  What is the situation of the video I’m making? Who is the audience? What arguments and appeals are likely to sway them? How might one achieve the proper tone, or eloquence, for the given situation?

Eloquence isn’t a word normally associated with nonfiction video. But it’s a good one nonetheless. The complex choices we filmmakers have in telling stories make our jobs challenging. But adopting the concept of eloquence, seems to me, at once combines so many visual and audio elements toward a worthy goal.

The quality of a rhetorical performance can be anything from sublime to insipid, so it is important for the filmmaker to understand the rhetoric necessary to persuade.

Humans do not spontaneously communicate. If you’re making a nonfiction video, you’re trying to communicate. Even if it’s a home movie. Further, you’re wanting the audience to do or think or feel something in regard to your message – even if that’s just being informed or entertained.

Rhetoric has meant many things to many people over the past two millennia. I often use the term to mean: 1) an academic discipline; 2) a socio-political skill in language use; 3) persuasive, stylistic features in all kinds of communication, and; 4) a form of “energy” in language. Or, our case, energy in nonfiction filmmaking 

Allow me for a moment to geek-out on meanings of rhetoric. First, as an academic discipline, rhetoric is the theory, practice, and critique of effective communication. As a socio-political skill in language use, rhetoric is the use of certain discourses in certain contexts with certain audiences for the purpose of persuasion. As the persuasive features of language use, rhetoric is the theory, practice, and critique of the persuasive effects of language features, i.e. how various features persuade. As the energy of language, “rhetoric is the ever-present, pre-linguistic source of our ability to understand the persuasive intent of a message.”

When we make nonfiction videos, we employ rhetorics. This means, at some level, we are engaging in socio-political action with/for/against others. The ‘s’ appended to “rhetoric” indicates that there are more than one, and each arises based on the socio-political needs of a given person, group, or culture.  

Scholar James Berlin says, a rhetoric “has at its base a conception of reality, of human nature, and of language… [It] is grounded in a noetic field: a closed system of defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower; the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language. Rhetoric is thus ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture’s activities.”

I understand the rhetorics of nonfiction video – especially documentary filmmaking – as transactional. These rhetorics are “based on an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation” (a concept I’ll cover shortly):  an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all elements–subject, object, audience, and video language–operating simultaneously.

I like the social-epistemic nature of transactional rhetorics. These rhetorics locate truth in all the elements of the rhetorical situation. Language grounds all human experience and is “implicated in all human behavior. All truths arise out of dialectic, out of the interaction of individuals within discourse communities.”

I think transactionalism is the most useful way to begin understanding how and why documentary films persuade. I think transactionalism helps nonfiction filmmakers understand how to use cinematic art to move hearts and minds. But also how to use the cinematic art to encourage the audience to help us along the way. Call it engagement.

That last bit. There’s nuts-n-bolts to that. Practical stuff. I promise we’ll get there. Just not in this episode.

OK, time to examine this thing we call the rhetorical situation.

Lloyd Bitzer described the concept of the rhetorical situation in his essay of the same name.  The concept relies on understanding a moment called “exigence,” in which something happens, or fails to happen, that compels one to communicate.

These are the elements of the rhetorical situation:

Exigence: What happens or fails to happen? Why is one compelled to speak out? What, for example, compelled Morgan Spurlock to make Supersize Me?

Persons: Who is involved in the exigence and what roles do they play? Think about the role of the children in Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels. They play dual roles – at first subjects of the film evolving into creators of content for the film.

Relations: What are the relationships, especially the differences in power, between the persons involved? The latest controversy involving the film Jihad Rehab is instructive.

Location: Where is the site of discourse? Location can mean where you film and what that says about the subject. It can also refer to where your audience sees your film. Does your film have a distribution deal or are you having to settle for Vimeo pay-per-view? 

Speaker: Who is compelled to communicate? Are you a famous director or a newbie? Who backs your film? Whose voice is strongest in your film?

Audience: Who does the filmmaker and or subject address and why? Who do you want to watch your nonfiction videos, and what do you want from them?

Method: How does the filmmaker choose to address the audience? I’m a fan of certain sorts of direct cinema. I want fewer formal interviews and as little of me as possible. To the extent possible, I want subjects to tell their own stories. There are many other choices, and each says something different to the audience.

Institutions: What are the rules of the game surrounding and constraining all of the above.

Analyzing the rhetorical situation (which, at its most fundamental, means identifying and thinking about the elements above) can tell us much about filmmakers and their persuasive intentions. And it can help us make better nonfiction videos.

I’ll pick this up again soon. And I promise to bring all of this into practical discussions about making your nonfiction video better. And by that I mean: Helping you figure out how to say what you want to say in such a way that your audience is down with it. The more you know about the back end, the better your work will be on the front end.


Berlin, James A. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

_____. Rhetoric and Reality. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Bitzer, Lloyd F. 1968. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. William A. Covino ed. Boston: Allyn and      Bacon: 1995.

This entry was posted in documentary, education, podcast and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.