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Visual Anthropology and the City (Online)

This course looks at documentaries on the city starting from the city symphonies of the 1920s to the video diaries of Jonas Mekas in New York and James Benning’s style of ‘Slow Cinema’ in Los Angeles.

Led by Dr Barbara Knorpp, ‘Visual Anthropology and the City’ looks at documentaries on the city starting from the city symphonies of the 1920s to the video diaries of Jonas Mekas in New York and James Benning’s style of ‘Slow Cinema’ in Los Angeles. Urban anthropology has fascinated journalists, photographers and policy-makers since the emergence of the Chicago School in the 1920s. Ethnography and long-term research facilitated deeper insights into the everyday lives of urban neighbourhoods that were often associated with violence, crime and housing problems. Cinema and photography have also since their inception engaged with the urban, and their development is deeply entwined with that of the modern metropolis. We are interested in films, photography, and writings that look at modernity, subcultures, non-western cities, regeneration, urban elites, domestic space, social movements and urban architecture. Those taking this course will have the chance to hear about, watch and discuss films, photography and writings on the subject.

Session 1: The City Symphonies of the 1920s

Looking at early examples of documentary and city films revolving around urban life style and modern architecture, e.g. Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Session 2: Jean Rouch and Cinéma Vérité

Best known for Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Jean Rouch is one of the most controversial figures in ethnographic filmmaking. His film Petit à Petit (1970) tells the story of an African businessman who is conducting ethnographic research in Paris – a reversed anthropology.

Session 3: The Heart of the Angel and Observational Cinema

Working from Molly Dineen’s The Heart of the Angel (1989), a film following 48 hours in the everyday lives of the people who work on the  London Underground, this session will discuss the history of British documentary and the stylistic conventions of observational cinema.

Session 4: La Haine and Docu-Fiction

Mathieu Kassovitz’s powerful drama La Haine (1995) takes an unblinking look at a racially diverse group of young people trapped in the Parisian economic and social underclass. Using the film as a starting point, this session will explore the history of the city’s colonialism.

Session 5: US Filmmakers and Slow Cinema

Filmmakers such as Safi Faye, Jacques Rivette, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz, Chantal Akerman or James Benning have experimented with slow representations of time and silence. In contrast we will watch personal accounts of everyday life by Jonas Mekas.

Session 6: [Guest Speaker] Dave Swindells on Club Culture in London 1980s-1990s (former Timeout Nightlife Editor and Photographer)

Dave Swindells will talk about the photographs that he took as a nightlife editor at Timeout on club culture and subculture in London during the 1980s-1990s.

Session 7: ‘The Exiles’ and Native Americans on Film

Kent MacKenzie spent his student days in the bars of Los Angeles where he befriended a gang of Native Americans. Following their dreams of urban life, The Exiles (1961), offers a refreshing perspective on people living in exile away from their native lands and traditions.

Session 8: Shinjuku Boys in Tokyo

Kim Longinotto’s film introduces three ‘onnabes’ – women who live as men and have girlfriends but don’t usually identify as lesbians -, working as club hosts in Tokyo. Shinjuku Boys (1995) is a remarkable documentary about the complexity of female sexuality in Japan.

Image courtesy of Dave Swindells.

This course will be delivered via online distance learning, and students will require a computer or other internet connected device.

1x Universal Credit bursary place is available for this course. Please see our bursary policy here.

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Barbara Knorpp


Barbara Knorpp is an anthropologist with a special interest in film history. Her work is situated in the interdisciplinary arena between anthropology, cinema, media studies, and fine art. Before her PhD she worked in an international photo press agency, collaborated with artists, and worked in documentary and fiction film in Germany, Japan, and Australia. In 2018-19 she acted as a film curator for the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Museum in Krefeld, Germany. She was a Teaching Fellow in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies at University College, London in 2015-16 and was a Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University 2007-2014. Barbara is also a member of the RAI Film Festival film committee. She recently published a book on African Cinema: "African Film Cultures: Context of Creation and Circulation" edited by Winston Mano, Barbara Knorpp and Anuli Agina (2017). She has a background in Anthropology, Theatre, Film, and Television Studies, and Art History.