Short courses


Experiments in Ethnographic and Documentary Film

  • 16 hours
  • 8 Tuesday evenings, 7pm to 9pm (BST)


Filmmakers have provided many different visions of people and their worlds. The visual strategies they've used have ranged from the modernist avant garde and formal experimentation to cinema verité and political interventions.

Led by curator, writer and lecturer Helen de Witt, this short course will look at:

  • the formation of documentary film within the study of ethnography
  • how filmmakers represent people like ourselves, and those labelled as others

Sources will include ethnographic recordings, observational and personal films, investigative documentaries that have righted miscarriages of injustice, and controversial recreations of atrocities.

The course will examine anti-colonial strategies of resistance as well as highlight some forgotten films by women.

It will conclude with an opportunity to discuss recent documentaries that have affected you.

This course is run by the Open City Docs School, based in UCL's Department of Anthropology.

Course content

We'll look at the following topics over the eight sessions.

Session 1 - Looking through the lens: reality, religion and ritual in early cinema

Introduction to visual anthropology and ethnographic film in early cinema. Films by Lumiere Bros, Robert Flaherty, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, Jean Rouch and Maya Deren.

Session 2 - Creating the modern: the Soviet avant garde, the city film and the rise of totalitarianism

The experimentation of the early Soviet avant garde, the emergence of City Symphony films and Nazi propaganda. Films by Sergei Eisenstein, Esfir Schub, Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens, Walter Ruttman and Leni Riefenstahl.

Session 3 - Housing, industry, war, freedom: British life in documentary 

Films from Victorian and Edwardian ‘actualities’, the British Documentary Movement, wartime propaganda, Free Cinema and feminist protest.

Session 4 - Manifestos and manifestations: Latin American liberation 

Argentineans Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanos, and Cuban Julio Garcia Espinosa produced manifestos that called for a revolutionary cinema to transform people and society. Films by Getino and Solanos, Santiago Alverez, Sara Gomez and Patricio Guzman.

Session 5 - African heritages: anti-colonial struggles and diasporic lives

Early African American ethnography and Africa’s Third Cinema. Films by Zora Neale Hurston, Ousmane Sembene, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Raoul Peck, Stanley Nelson Jr and Ava DuVernay.

Session 6 - Changing the world: documentary and social transformation 

Films that have changed human society from fly-on the-wall and investigations to interventions and citizen journalism. Films by Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple, the Maysles, Errol Morris, Kim Longinotto, Joshua Oppenheimer, Gianfranco Rosi and Matthew Heinemann.

Session 7 - The subjective camera: the political and the personal

Filmmakers own voices and stories in their films. Films by Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore, John Akomfrah and Derek Jarman.

Session 8 - Ethnographic documentary now: recent trends and titles

Documentary films have never been more popular online or in cinemas. This session will look at some recent examples and analyse the reasons for their success. Your suggestions are welcome.

Course structure and teaching

This course will now be delivered via online distance learning. You'll need to have your own computer or other internet-connected device. If you have any questions or concerns about this, please get in contact at shortcourses@opencitylondon.com

Sessions will be held on Monday evenings for eight weeks. They'll start at 7pm and last approximately 2 hours, including a short break. 

The course will combine introductory lectures, screenings and group discussions.

A book list and weekly reading will also be provided.

Who this course is for

The course is open to anyone with a basic knowledge of, and interest in, documentary and independent film forms, anthropology and representation.

It's suitable for the general public, undergraduates and postgraduates. It's not aimed at practitioners, although they're welcome to attend.

Course team

Helen de Witt

Helen de Witt

Helen is an independent lecturer and curator. She teaches at Birkbeck University of London, University of the Arts London, and the National Film and Television School. She's a programmer of the BFI London Film Festival Experimenta section for international artists’ moving image.

Previously, Helen was Head of Cinemas at the BFI, and BFI Festivals Producer for the BFI London Film Festival and BFI Flare. She's also a director of The Service Co-op, an independent production company dedicated to making films about social justice, the arts and creative collaborations.

She's published on independent cinema and artists’ film.

Course information last modified: 4 May 2023, 16:59