May 16 — Jul 4

Experiments in Ethnographic and Documentary Film (Online)

Led by curator, lecturer and writer Helen de Witt, this short course will investigate strategies of exploration and representation through experimental, ethnographic and documentary film.

Emerging at the height of European imperialism, early ethnographic filmmaking served both as a tool of colonial objectification and as a critical form of cross-cultural communication that developed into the multiple forms of ethnographic documentary that we see today. Led by curator, lecturer and writer Helen de Witt, this short course will look at the experimental techniques of the documentary film within the study of ethnography.

Experimental and Ethnographic filmmakers from around the world have constructed multiple visions of people, their worlds and ideas, through wide-ranging visual strategies including the modernist avant garde, cinema verité, Third Cinema, and the documentary as mutual encounter. The course will investigate the interplay between the two forms in how they create representations that establish and challenge notions of identity, write new histories, stimulate political change, and create new ways of seeing. It aims to examine anti-colonial strategies of resistance, as well as highlight some rarely seen films by women. It will conclude with an opportunity to discuss recent documentaries that have affected you.

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

The course welcomes anyone with an interest in the subject. No previous study of film or anthropology is required. It will run over eight Tuesday sessions from 16th May to 4th July (7-9pm). Classes combine introductory lectures, screenings, and group discussions. A book list and optional weekly reading will be provided.

Course Content

1. Looking through the Lens: Reality, Religion and Ritual in Early Cinema
An introduction to ethnographic and experimental film as a form visual anthropology in the first 50 years of cinema. Films by Lumiere Bros; Robert Flaherty; Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson; Jean Rouch; Maya Deren.

2. Creating the Modern: The Soviet Avant Garde, the City Film and the Rise of Totalitarianism
The unrestrained experimentation of early 20th Century filmmaking that created the Soviet avant garde, the emergence of City Symphony films, and Nazi propaganda. Films by Sergei Eisenstein; Vsevlod Pudovlin; Esfir Schub; Dziga Vertov; Walter Ruttman; Joris Ivans; Leni Riefenstahl.

3. Housing, Industry, War, Freedom: British Life in Documentary
How transformational moments UK history have been represented for social and political impact. Films from Victorian and Edwardian ‘actualities’; the British Documentary Movement; Wartime propaganda; Free Cinema; Women’s Movement protest.

4. Manifestos and Manifestations: Latin American Liberation
Argentineans Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanos, Brazilian Glauber Rocha and Cuban Julio Garcia Espinosa produced manifestos that called for a revolutionary cinema to transform people and society, these are some examples. Films by Getino and Solanos; Santiago Alverez; Sara Gomez; Marta Rodríguez and Jorge Silva; Patricio Guzman.

5. African Heritages: Anti-colonial Struggles and Diasporic Lives
Early African American ethnography and Africa’s Third Cinema. Films by Zora Neale Hurston; Madeline Anderson; Ousmane Sembene; Black Audio Film Collective; Ngozi Onwurah; Raoul Peck; Ava DuVernay; RaMell Ross

6. Changing the World: Documentary and Social Transformation
Films that have changed societies and their and institutions from fly-on the-wall and in-depth investigations to interventions such as citizen journalism. Films by Frederick Wiseman; Albert and David Maysles; Barbara Kopple; Errol Morris; Michael Moore; Nick Broomfield, Kim Longinotto; Joshua Oppenheimer; Gianfranco Rosi; Sergei Loznitsa; Kiwi Chow, Daniel Roher.

7. The Subjective Camera: The Political and the Personal
How filmmakers have used their own voices and stories in their films to reveal larger truths. Films by Chris Marker; Agnes Varda; Chantal Akerman; Trinh T. Min-ha, John Akomfrah; Waad Al-Kateab

8. Ethnographic Documentary Now: Recent Trends and Titles
As the world increasingly faces an uncertain future, documentary films have never been more popular online or in cinemas. In this final session will look at some examples suggested by you.


“The course was really informative and gave me a new perspective in seeing.  I think this course is a fantastic base to jump from and explore this super artistic and imaginative filed.” – Suzana Paz, previous course participant


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If you still have other questions relating to a specific course or request, please get in touch with us via emailing shortcourses@opencitylondon.com

or call us at +44 20 3108 7586

(Image: Still from Revolution of Our Times, dir. Kiwi Chow, Hong Kong, 2021)



Helen de Witt

Course Tutor

Helen de Witt is an independent lecturer and curator. She teaches at Birkbeck University of London, University College London (UCL), and the National Film and Television School. She is 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. Helen has published on independent cinema and artists’ film.