Open City Documentary Festival

Investigations and Appropriations in the Ethnographic and Documentary Film

May 13 — Jul 8
The course takes place on Monday evenings from 7-9pm.
£150 / £125 (Student) / £110 (UCL Student)

Investigate strategies of exploration and representation through experimental, ethnographic and documentary film.

Led by curator, writer and lecturer Helen de Witt, This short course will investigate strategies of exploration and representation of the physical world, the imaginary realm and the transient experience of human life through experimental, ethnographic and documentary film. From the earliest reels of the Lumiere Bros, cinema has sought to capture and, on occasion, provoke a human reaction to the environment. Sometimes naively observational and at others deliberately interventionist, filmmakers have provided vivid interpretations of the world and its people through numerous visual strategies from cinema verite to rich experimentations in the creation of self-image. The course will combine introductory lectures, screenings and group discussions.

Course Content over eight sessions:

  • Early Ethnographic Experiments in Reality and Transformation: The foundations of cinema with Lumiere Bros; early ethnographers Robert Flaherty, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, to the experimental work of Jean Rouch and Maya Deren.
  • Totalitarianism’s Destructions and Constructions: The idealism of the early Soviet avant-garde, the ‘city symphony’ film and Nazi aggrandisements from Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin to Walter Ruttman and Leni Riefenstahl
  • In Britain: Whose Life, Whose Voice?: The formations and influences of the ‘British Documentary Movement’ from the Griersons through wartime propaganda to ‘Free Cinema’ and ‘Feminist Protest’
  • Manifestos and Manifestations in Latin American Liberation: Octavio Getino/Fernando Solanos and Julio Garcia Espinosa’s call for revolutionary cinema.
  • African Heritages / Post-Colonial Versions: The early ethnography of Zora Neale Hurston through Ousmane Sembene’s Third Cinema to Raoul Peck’s post-colonial correctives and Ava DuVernay’s study of African American incarceration.
  • Observational Participatory Anthropology: Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Follies’ and Agnes Varda’s ‘Gleaning’
  • Migrating of Bodies and Changing Identities, Films for the World in Transit, Documentary, Fiction and Virtual Reality at the Crisis of Representation: Michael Winterbottom; John Akomfrah; Gianfranco Rosi; Ai Wei Wei; Gabo Arora and Chris Milk.
  • Ethnographic Film in Current Anthropology. Guest speaker: David Edgar, film officer at the Royal Anthropological Institute, on sensory ethnography and collaborative/participatory practices

Picture credit: The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah, UK, 2010)

Please note: there will be a break in the course on Monday 27 May for the Bank Holiday

If you have any enquiries regarding this course please contact or please call 02031086696



Helen De Witt

Course Tutor

Helen de Witt 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 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 is 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 has published on independent cinema and artists’ film.