Investigations and Appropriations in the Ethnographic and Documentary Film


Oct 29 — Dec 17

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.

Course dates for next year to be added soon. Watch this space.

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: From Lumiere Bros to Jean Rouch and Maya Deren via Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.
  • Totalitarianism’s destructions and constructions: Vertov’s Kino Pravda, Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia and Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a City and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
  • Whose life, whose voice? British documentary from the Griersons through War propaganda to Free Cinema and Feminist Protest.
  • Manifestos and manifestations in Latin American Liberation: Octavio Getino/Fernando Espinosa and Julio Garcia Espinosa’s call for revolutionary cinema.
  • African heritages: post-colonial versions from Zora Neale Hurston through Ousmame Sembene to Raoul Peck, Ava Duvernay and Yance Ford.
  • Observational and participatory anthropology: Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Follies’ and Agnes Varda’s ‘Gleaning’
  • Aesthetic explorations from Chris Marker Sans Soleil to Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab’s Leviathan.
  • Migrating of bodies/changing identities: Michael Winterbottom’s In This World; John Akomfrah’s Nine Muses, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow;  Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s Clouds Over Sidra.

Picture credit: Storm Over Asia (Vsevolod Pudovkin, USSR, 1928)

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.