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Documentary: Filmmaking Histories and Digital Practices


Module description

Historically, documentary filmmaking has been among the most highly politicised and topical kinds of media engagement while remaining formally and aesthetically innovative. The module explores how documentary practice has been evolving under the pressure of political events on the one hand, and changes in filmmaking technology from 16mm filmmaking, through television to the digital on the other. The module examines the documentary response to varied political and ideological contexts such as decolonisation, socialism and Arab Spring in different parts of the world including Europe, Asia, Africa and South America in the second half of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first century. It postulates that documentary practice has always been deeply activist in nature with the documentary filmmaking acting as witness and advocate of particular political causes, events and situations at the same time often challenging and subverting established media institutions and outlets.

To continue with this historical trend in the documentary filmmaking the module evaluates various historical and transnational forms of documentary practice in order to discern how they are being activated and used in political contexts, such as advocacy, witnessing and reportage, social change activism in the contemporary digital context. To this end during the course of the module, special attention will be paid to the essay film as a form of documentary practice which combines critical, artistic and documentary practice while engaging actively with lesser known or unknown archival material.

The module is divided into two parts. Weeks 1-6 consists of historical introduction to the documentary filmmaking practices taught through screenings and seminar discussion. The emphasis is put on the innovative strategies developed by filmmakers in response to the complex and challenging political contexts, situations and events. Special attention will be paid to the construction of the narrative, the mode of address, the role of interviews, camera as a witness, the subjective voice, and the use of a variety of footage considered in its historical context. Weeks 7-11 will focus on the ways in which these filmmaking strategies either evolved and changed or continued and flourished in the digital context. The sessions will be a combination of fieldwork visits, masterclasses with documentary practitioners including filmmakers and curators.

Indicative module content

  • Cinema of everyday socialism
  • Ethnographic film-making
  • Direct cinema and television practices
  • Revolutionary cinema
  • Decolonising western perspectives
  • Social change and human rights filmmaking

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the critical intervention documentary filmmaking has made in different historical and political contexts in the twentieth and twenty-first century through its innovative practices
  • develop strategies of relating these historical practices to documentary filmmaking enabled by digital technology
  • understand the value and importance of archival collections
  • respond to the audio-visual historical material through short argumentative pieces which serve as a critical insight and introduction into known historical material.