Short courses


Visual Anthropology and the City

  • 16 hours (2 hours per session)
  • 8 evenings (7 to 9pm) - over 8 weeks


On this online evening course you'll learn about, watch and discuss films, photography and writings about cities - exploring subjects such as modernity, subcultures, non-western cities, regeneration, urban elites, domestic space, social movements and urban architecture.

Urban anthropology has fascinated journalists, photographers and policy-makers since the emergence of the Chicago School in the 1920s. Ethnography and long-term research facilitated deeper insights into the everyday lives of urban neighbourhoods that were often associated with violence, crime and housing problems.

Cinema and photography have also, since their inception, engaged with the urban, and their development is deeply entwined with that of the modern metropolis. 

On this course you'll study a range of documentaries on the city, from the city symphonies of the 1920s to the video diaries of Jonas Mekas in New York and James Benning's style of 'Slow Cinema' in Los Angeles.

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

Course content

Session 1 - The city symphonies of the 1920s

This session will look at early examples of documentary and city films revolving around urban life style and modern architecture. For example, Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), and Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Session 2 - Jean Rouch and Cinéma Vérité

Best known for Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Jean Rouch is one of the most controversial figures in ethnographic filmmaking. His film Petit à Petit (1970) tells the story of an African businessman who is conducting ethnographic research in Paris - a reversed anthropology.

Session 3 - The Heart of the Angel and observational cinema

Working from Molly Dineen's The Heart of the Angel (1989), a film following 48 hours in the everyday lives of the people who work on the London Underground, this session will discuss the history of British documentary and the stylistic conventions of observational cinema.

Session 4 - La Haine and docu-fiction

Mathieu Kassovitz's powerful drama La Haine (1995) takes an unblinking look at a racially diverse group of young people trapped in the Parisian economic and social underclass. Using the film as a starting point, this session will explore the history of the city's colonialism.

Session 5 - US filmmakers and slow cinema

Filmmakers such as Safi Faye, Jacques Rivette, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz, Chantal Akerman and James Benning have experimented with slow representations of time and silence. In contrast, we'll watch personal accounts of everyday life by Jonas Mekas.

Session 6 - Club culture in London 1980s to 1990s 

This session will feature a guest speaker, Dave Swindells, who will talk about photographs that he took as a nightlife editor at Timeout on club culture and subculture in London during the 1980s-1990s.

Session 7 - The Exiles and Native Americans on film

Kent MacKenzie spent his student days in the bars of Los Angeles where he befriended a gang of Native Americans. Following their dreams of urban life, The Exiles (1961), offers a refreshing perspective on people living in exile away from their native lands and traditions.

Session 8 - Shinjuku Boys in Tokyo

Kim Longinotto's film introduces three 'onnabes' - women who live as men and have girlfriends but don't usually identify as lesbians - working as club hosts in Tokyo. Shinjuku Boys (1995) is a remarkable documentary about the complexity of female sexuality in Japan.

Course structure and teaching

This course will 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 8 weeks, from 7pm to 9pm (UK time).

Course team

Dr Barbara Knorpp

Dr Barbara Knorpp

Barbara is an anthropologist with a special interest in film history. Her work is situated in the interdisciplinary arena between anthropology, cinema, media studies and fine art. Before her PhD she worked in an international photo press agency, collaborated with artists, and worked in documentary and fiction film in Germany, Japan and Australia.

Barbara was a film curator for the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Museum in Krefeld, Germany, from 2018 to 2019. She was a Teaching Fellow in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies at UCL from 2015 to 2016, and a Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University from 2007 to 2014. She's also a member of the RAI Film Festival film committee and recently published a book on African cinema: African Film Cultures: Context of Creation and Circulation.

Course information last modified: 17 Aug 2023, 16:19