This is an archived course. Visit the most recent syllabus.

Course Description

History of Documentary Film will survey the major developments from the first factual films of 1895 to the present. The course covers all the major movements within the film genre, including factual film; exploration, war, propaganda, documentary, and compilation films; films on art, direct cinema, cinema vérité; films from the third world, and films from the feminist and queer movements.

Time and Place


Juan Monroy

Office Hours:

  • Wednesday, 12:45 – 1:45 PM, by appointment
  • East Hall, Room 207

Schedule an appointment

Course Materials


The textbook is available on reserve at the Brooklyn campus library.

Google Classroom

Some assignments require enrollment in our Google Classroom course. You can join the course by doing the following:

  1. Go to
  2. Sign in with your Pratt G Suite account.
  3. Enter the class code 50roby1 provided in class.

Reserve Readings

Required readings not found in the textbooks will be posted on Google Drive and linked this website. Due to copyright concerns, enter your Pratt G Suite account credentials to gain access.


The following books are surveys of documentary film that you might find useful for starting research for your writing assignments and for further individual study.

  • Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Barnouw, Eric. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Cunningham, Megan. The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, and Producers, 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders Press, 2014.
  • Corner, John. The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.
  • Fox, Broderick. Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice. Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2009.
  • Grant, Barry Keith and Jeanette Sloniowski, eds. Documenting the Documentary, New and Expanded Edition. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.
  • Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.
  • Spence, Louise and Vinicius Navarro. Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Reserve Screenings

You must also screen certain films on your own outside of class.

  • Required titles are listed on the course schedule as Required.

  • Recommended titles are listed as Recommended for use in your writing assignments or for your own future reference.

There are two places to screen these films:

DVD or Blu-ray
On reserve at the video library at the Visual and Multimedia Resources, on the lower level of the Library on the Brooklyn campus, except as noted.
Many of these are available to stream online through Kanopy, which Pratt has a license for viewing, as well as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Film Struck, Sundance Now, and myriad other sources.


This class consists of five components. You cannot satisfactorily complete this course without all five of these.


At each class, we will discuss material you should know for the exams and writing assignments. We will cover the historical and cultural context relevant to the films presented in class.


Each week, there will be at in-class screening. Some screenings are available to stream online and you may be able to purchase titles online and local video outlets. However, the greatest value of this class comes from our watching films together and discussing them as a group, in the context of other films, readings, and spontaneous conversation.

You must also watch the reserve screenings to further stoke your cinephilia.


Please read the assigned course material before each week’s class. Consult the Course Schedule, listed below, for the specific reading assignments.


All written assignments must be completed on time in order to receive full credit. Late assignments will be penalized by a 10% reduction for each 24-hour period it is late. After seven calendar days, the assignment will not be accepted, and you could fail this class.

Late quizzes, after a 24-hour grace period, will not be accepted.


Exams comprise 40% of your course grade and are designed to reward regular attendance and diligent studying. Exams must be completed at the date and time specified below.



Regular attendance is required.

Community Standards

Students must adhere to all Institute-wide policies listed in the Bulletin under “Community Standards” and which include policies on attendance, academic integrity, plagiarism, computer, and network use.

Academic Integrity

Absolute integrity is expected of every member of the Pratt Community in all academic matters, particularly with regard to academic honesty.

The latter includes plagiarism and cheating. In addition, the continued registration of any student is contingent upon regular attendance, the quality of work, and proper conduct. Irregular class attendance, neglect of work, failure to comply with Institute rules, and official notices or conduct not consistent with general good order is regarded as sufficient reasons for dismissal.

Mobile Phones

Please silence or turn off the radio in your mobile phone (power down the phone or set to “Do Not Disturb” mode).


Please check your official email account on a daily basis, if not more often. I will broadcast announcements and send point-to-point communiques using your official email address.

Please note that I am not allowed to discuss your grade from an account that is not your official email account.

Students with Disabilities

Pratt Institute is committed to the full inclusion of all students. If you are a student with a disability and require accommodations, please contact the Learning/Access Center (L/AC) at to schedule an appointment to discuss these accommodations. Students with disabilities who have already registered with the L/AC are encouraged to speak to the professor about accommodations they may need to produce an accessible learning environment.

Requests for accommodation should be made as far in advance as reasonably possible to allow sufficient time to make any necessary modifications to ensure the relevant classes, programs, or activities are readily accessible. The L/AC is available to Pratt students, confidentially, with additional resources and information to facilitate full access to all campus programs and activities and provide support related to any other disability-related matters.

Late Work and “Incomplete” Grades

Please submit your work on time. Late work will be penalized by a 10% reduction for each 24-hour period it is late. After one calendar week, the assignment will not be accepted and you will likely fail this class.

There will be no incomplete grades for this class except in the case of a documented emergency in the final weeks of the semester. If you experience such an emergency, please contact me immediately, and we will work out a schedule for you to complete the outstanding work before the beginning of the following semester.

But aside from these circumstances, no late work will be accepted and no “incomplete” grades will be granted. If you have difficulty keeping up with coursework, consider giving yourself extra time to complete assignments, reducing your overall course load, and/or taking this class at a later semester.

Note: Flexible deadline requests are the initial step in a dialogue; it is your responsibility to reach out to me with the length of extension you need.


Reading Quizzes

Prior to each week’s class, I will post a reading quiz on Google Classroom. The quiz will consist of true-false and multiple choice questions. Complete each quiz the day before class.

  • Due: see syllabus
  • EIGHT of TWELVE quizzes will be required
  • Weight: 20%

Paper 1: Prewar Documentary Film and National Idenity

An analytic paper on at least one documentary film, made prior to the end of World War II, screened in class that addresses how national identity is articulated.

  • Length: 1,200 words
  • Due: Wednesday, October 17
  • Weight: 20%
  • Guidelines

Paper 2: Documentary and The Truth

An analytic paper that compares two films, produced after World War II and studied in class, that addresses the films’ common or differing approach to documenting truth and reality. The latter two are concepts that become complicated by the sheer number of documentaries produced and the stories that filmmakers are compelled to tell.

  • Length: 1,500 words
  • Due: Wednesday, December 12 New Date
  • Weight: 20%
  • Guidelines


Midterm Exam

The in-class midterm exam will consist of two parts:

  1. identifications of excerpts from documentary films we have screened in class,
  2. essay questions requiring you to engage the screenings and readings related to the major movements and trends in documentary film we covered in class.


  • Wednesday, October 10, in class
  • Study Guide
  • Weight: 20%

Final Exam

The in-class final exam will consist of two parts:

  1. identifications of excerpts from documentary films we have screened in class,
  2. essay questions requiring you to engage the screenings and readings related to the major movements and trends in documentary film we covered in class.


  • Wednesday, December 12, in class
  • Weight: 20%

Course Schedule

The following schedule will be frequently revised depending various factors. We might not be able to locate some of the titles. I might sprinkle some additional readings here and there. Also, our discussion might veer into unexpected directions so we might follow that rather than to stick to a plan I threw together sometime in August.

August 29 • Beginnings

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Some Ways to Think About Documentary,” 1–19.
  • A New History of Documentary Film, “The Work of Robert and Frances Flaherty,” 21–39.
  • Actualities by the Lumiére brothers:
    • Sortie d’usine [Leaving the Factory] (1895)
    • Repas de bebe [Baby’s Meal] (1895)
    • Arrivee des congressistes a Neuville sur Soâne [Arrival of congress] (1895)
    • Arivee d’un train [Arrival of a Train] (1895)
    • Barque sortant du port [Boat Leaving the Port] (1895)
    • Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896)
    • Pompiers a Lyon [Fire Run at Lyons] (1896)
    • Niagara [Niagara Falls] (1897)
    • Spanish Bullfight (1900)
    • Promenade of Ostriches at the Paris Botanical Gardens (1896)
    • Childish Quarrel (1896)
    • Photograph (1896)
    • Carmaux, Drawing out the Coke (1896)
    • Arab Cortege, Geneva (1896)
    • New York, Brooklyn Bridge (1896)
    • New York, Broadway at Union Square (1896)
    • Police Parade, Chicago (1897)
  • Actualities by US film companies
    • President McKinley at Home (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1896)
    • Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass (1898)
    • Sky scrapers of New York from North River (J.B. Smith, 1903)
    • Georgetown Loop (1903)
    • San Francisco, Aftermath of the Earthquake (American Mutoscope and Biograph, USA, 1906)
  • Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, USA, 1922, 78 min.) Required

September 5 • Documentary and the Soviet Revolution

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “The Soviets and Political Indoctrination,” 41–56.
  • Stride, Soviet! (Dziga Vertov, 1926, USSR, 69 min.)
  • Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Esfir Shub, 1927, USSR, 89 min.)
  • The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929, USSR, 68 min.) Required

September 12 • Avant-Garde and Modernity

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “The European Avant-Garde Experimentation, 1922–1929,” 57–72.
  • MacDonald, Scott. “Avant-Doc: Eight Intersections.” Film Quarterly 64, no. 2 (December 2010): 50–57.
  • Rhythmus 21 (Hans Richter, Germany, 1921, 3 min.)
  • Lichtspiel Opus 1 (Walter Ruttman, Germany, 1921, 10 min.)
  • Mechanical Principles (Ralph Steiner, USA, 1929, 11 min.)
  • Manhatta (Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, USA, 1921, 11 min.)
  • Skyscraper Symphony (Robert Florey, USA, 1929, 9 min.)
  • Rain (Joris Ivens, Netherlands, 1929, 12 min.)
  • Nothing But Time (Alberto Cavalcanti, France, 1926, 45 min.)
  • Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan [Land without Bread] (Luis Buñuel, Spain, 1932, 27 min.)
  • A Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, France, 1930, 25 min.)
  • Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttman, Germany, 1927, 65 min.)

September 19 • Great Britain and the “Creative Treatment of Reality”

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Institutionalization: Great Britain, 1929–1939,” 73–92
  • Industrial Britain (Robert Flaherty and John Grierson, United Kingdom, 1931, 21 min.)
  • Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright, United Kingdom, 1934, 38 min.)
  • Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, United Kingdom, 1935, 16 min.)
  • Coal Face (Alberto Cavalcanti, United Kingdom, 1935, 11 min.)
  • Night Mail (Harry Watt and Basil Wright, United Kingdom, 1936, 24 min.)

September 26 • Documentary and the Workers Film and Photo League

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Institutionalization: USA 1930–1941,” 93–184.
  • The Plow that Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, USA, 1936, 25 min.)
  • Native Land (Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, USA, 1942, 88 min.)
  • The City (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, USA, 1939, 43 min.)
Relevant Media

The radio program We Hold These Truths aired on December 15, 1941, a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and has a similar pro-democratic and pro–civil liberties message present in Native Land.

October 3 • Documentary and World War II

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “WWII,” 117–157.
  • London Can Take It (Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings, United Kingdom, 1940, 9 min.)
  • Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings, United Kingdom, 1942, 20 min.)
  • Why We Fight: A Prelude to War (Frank Capra, USA, 1942, excerpt.)
  • Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, United Kingdom, 1945, 40 min.)
  • Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, France, 1956, 32 min.)
Relevant Media

The 1940 radio program, London After Dark, produced by the American radio network CBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Company, is a very evocative radio report of the conditions of London under The Blackout. Like the UK documentaries, it reports on the perseverance of Londoners during the German bombing campaigns over their city.

Although we didn’t encounter any documentary films about the US home front during the war, there were many fiction films produced in Hollywood. One example of such was the 1945 film The Clock, about a one-day encounter between a soldier on-leave and a young woman he meets before being deployed to the war front.

October 10 • Midterm Exam

We will take the midterm exam today in class.

October 17 • Post War Documentary and Internationalism

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Post-War Documentary, 1945–1961,” 159–183.
  • All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story (George Stoney, USA, 1956, 55 min.) A low-res copy is available to stream on Alexander Street Press
  • City of Gold (Wolf Koenig and Colin Low, Canada, 1957, 22 min.) Available on Amazon Prime Video.
  • Tiré Die (Fernando Birri, Argentina, 1960, 33 min.)
  • The Wall (Walter De Hoog, USA, 1962, 9 min.)
  • Neighbours (Norman McLaren, Canada, 1952, 8 min.)
  • Very Nice, Very Nice (Arthur Lipsett, Canada, 1961, 7 min.)
  • Louisiana Story (Robert Flaherty, USA, 1948, 79 min.) Recommended

October 24 • Documentary Television Programs

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Documentary for Television, the ‘Golden Years’, 1951–71,” 185–201.
  • Harvest of Shame (CBS, 1960, 53 min.) Also available on YouTube
  • ¡Yanqui No! (ABC, 1960, 53 min.)
  • The Children Were Watching (ABC Closeup!, 1961, 25 min.)
  • The Selling of the Pentagon (CBS, 1971, 53 min.). Available at Internet Archive. Recommended

October 31 • Cinéma Verité and Direct Cinema

Because today’s class was cancelled, I will be holding a makeup session at a date, time, and location to be announced.

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Cinéma verité, direct cinema, 1958–70,” 219–241.
  • Chronique d’un étè [Chronicle of a Summer] (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, France, 1961, 92 min.) Available on Kanopy.
  • Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, USA, 1969, 91 min.). Available on Kanopy
  • Primary (Robert Drew, USA, 1960, 60 min.) Available on reserve. Recommended
  • Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, USA, 1966, 96 min.) Available on reserve. Recommended

November 7 • Political Activism and Documentary

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Power to the People,” 243–270.
  • In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, USA, 1969, 103 min.). Available on Kanopy.
  • Harlan County (Barbara Kopple, USA, 1976, 105 min.). Available on reserve
  • No Lies (Mitchell Block, USA, 1975, 15 min.)
  • High School (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1969, 75 min.). Available on reserve. Recommended

November 14 • Documentary and Unspoken Truths

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Video Arrives,” 271–300.
  • The Atomic Cafe (Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty, USA, 1982, 86 min.).
  • Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, USA, 1989, 55 min.). Available on Kanopy.
  • Who Killed Vincent Chin? (Rene Tajima and Christine Choi, USA, 1988, 87 min.). Available on Alexander Street. Recommended

November 28 • Documentary, Archives, and Truth

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Reality Bytes,” 301–329.
  • Brooklyn Bridge (Ken Burns, USA, 1981, 58 min.)
  • The Female Closet (Barbara Hammer, USA, 1998, 60 min.)
Makeup Session

To make up for the cancellation on Wednesday, October 31, I will be screening the following archival documentaries on Monday, December 10, 12:00 - 3:30 PM at Library, Room MMB..

  • The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Connie Field, USA, 1980, 65 min.)
  • The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, France, UK, Germany, USA, 1995, 102 min.)

December 5 • Documentary, Memory, and the Future

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Documentary Tradition and the Twenty-First Century,” 331–362.
  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Now and When,” 363–390.
  • The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, USA, 2002)

December 12 • Final Exam

We will take the final exam today in class.