Open City Documentary Festival

7 – 13 September 2022
in London

Experiments in Ethnographic and Documentary Film (Online)

Price £150

Location Online Distance Learning, Duration Monday evenings across 8 weeks 7-9pm BST, Dates  May 9 — Jun 27

Early filmmakers were instantly fascinated by filming cultures that they knew, and cultures that they didn’t. Often the camera itself was a device for learning, as what the lens captured was not always the same as what the eye saw. Led by curator, lecturer and writer Helen de Witt, this short course will look at the formation of documentary film within the study of ethnography.

Filmmakers have provided us with multiple visions of people and their worlds through wide-ranging visual strategies from the modernist avant garde and formal experimentation to cinema verité and political interventions. We will investigate how filmmakers represent people like ourselves, and those labelled as others, including work that demands an end to that distinction. 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 rarely seen films by women. It will conclude with an opportunity to discuss recent documentaries that have affected you.

The course will combine introductory lectures, screenings and group discussions. A book list and weekly reading will also be provided.

Course Content over eight sessions:

1. Looking through the Lens: Reality, Religion and Ritual in Early Cinema (9  May 2022)
Introduction to visual anthropology and ethnographic film in early 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 (16 May 2022)
The experimentation of the early Soviet avant garde, the emergence of City Symphony films, and Nazi propaganda. Films by Sergei Eisenstein; Vsevlod Pudovlin; Esfir Schub; Dziga Vertov; Walter Ruttman; Leni Riefenstahl.

3. Housing, Industry, War, Freedom: British Life in Documentary (23 May 2022)
The major circumstances and methods that this country been represented. 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 (30 May 2022)
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; Patricio Guzman.

5. African Heritages: Anti-colonial Struggles and Diasporic Lives (6 June, 2022)
Early African American ethnography and Africa’s Third Cinema. Films by Zora Neale Hurston; Madeline Anderson; Ousmane Sembene; Black Audio Film Collective; Raoul Peck; Ava DuVernay.

6. Changing the World: Documentary and Social Transformation (13 June 2022)
Films that have changed human society from fly-on the-wall and investigations to interventions and citizen journalism. Films by Frederick Wiseman; Albert and David Maysles; Barbara Kopple; Errol Morris; Nick Broomfield, Kim Longinotto; Joshua Oppenheimer; Gianfranco Rosi; Matthew Heinemann.

7. The Subjective Camera: The Political and the Personal (20 June 2022)
Filmmakers own voices and stories in their films. Films by Chris Marker; Agnes Varda; Chantal Akerman; Nick Broomfield; Michael Moore; John Akomfrah; Derek Jarman.

8. Ethnographic Documentary Now: Recent Trends and Titles (27 June 2022)
Documentary films have never been more popular online or in cinemas. This session will look at some examples suggested by you.

If you’d like to be added to this course’s mailing list for future running dates, please get in touch with

(Image: Still from For Sama, Waad al-Kataeb, Syria, 2019)



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.