Open City Documentary Festival

Representation of the People: The Motives and Methods of International Ethnographic and Documentary Film (Online)

Oct 19 — Dec 7
The course takes place on Monday evenings from 7-9pm.

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

This course will now be delivered via online distance learning. Students will require their own computer or other internet connected device. If you have any questions or concerns about this, please get in contact with Ripley.

From the beginning of cinema, people have been the main subject of all kinds of films. 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 and how it has come to be considered as representing the truth about us. Filmmakers have provided us with multifarious interpretations of people and their worlds through varied visual strategies from avant garde experiments and images of nationhood to cinema verité and rich creations of self-image. We will investigate observational and personal films, interventions and interpretations of ethnographic recordings and revolutionary strategies designed to show new ways of seeing and inspire uprisings. 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.

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:

  • 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; Maya Deren.

  • 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; Leni Riefenstahl.

  • Housing, Industry, War, Freedom: British Life in Documentary 

The major circumstances and methods that this country been represented. Films from Victorian and Edwardian ‘actualities’; the British Documentary Movement; Wartime propaganda; Free Cinema; Feminist Protest.

  • 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; Patricio Guzman.

  • 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; Ava DuVernay.

  • 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; Matthew Heinemann.

  • 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; Derek Jarman.

  • 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. Student suggestions welcome. 

If you have any enquiries regarding this course please contact

Image: Chantal Akerman



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.