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


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. Attend twelve or more classes and receive five bonus points added to your final grade. Students missing more than four classes per semester will not be permitted to take the final exam.


Please respect the classroom environment. You should pay attention to the lecture, take notes, and avoid distractions, such as web surfing or using your mobile phone. Studies have consistently shown that students using laptops and mobile phones perform about 11% worse than students who are not distracted by these devices. On a personal note, it’s very difficult to stay motivated as a teacher if I see students seemingly disinterested in their own education.

If I find you engaging in disruptive behavior, such as watching online videos, passing notes, instant messaging, chatting, photographing, or texting, I will remove you from the classroom and have you withdraw from the class.

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.

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.

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 Distrub” 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 (L/AC) at to schedule an appointment to discuss these accommodations. Students with disabilities who have already registered with L/AC are encouraged to speak to the professor about accommodations they may need to produce an accessible learning environment.


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.

  • Assigned: Thursday, 8:00 AM
  • Due: the day before class
  • Ten of twelve quizzes will be required
  • Weight: 20%

Paper 1: Prewar Documentary Film and National Idenity

A research 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: 1,500 words
  • Due: Wednesday, October 10
  • Weight: 20%

Paper 2: Documentary and The Truth

A research paper that compares two films, produced after World War II, screened in that addresses the purpose and value of their “truth claims” and their argumentative strategy for challenging its audience.

  • Length: 1,500 words
  • Due: Wednesday, November 28
  • Weight: 20%


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
  • 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 (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.)

October 3 • Documentary and World War II

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “WWII,” 117–157.

The following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • London Can Take It (Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings, United Kingdom, 1940, 9 min.)
  • Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings, United Kingdom, 1942, 20 min.)
  • Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, United Kingdom, 1945, 40 min.)
  • Why We Fight: A Prelude to War (Frank Capra, USA, 1942, 53 min.)
  • Let There Be Light (John Huston, USA, 1946, 58 min.)
  • Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, France, 1956, 32 min.)

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.

The following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story (George Stoney, USA, 1956, 55 min.)
  • City of Gold (Wolf Koenig and Colin Low, Canada, 1957, 22 min.)
  • The Wall (Walter De Hoog, USA, 1962, 9 min.)
  • Tiré Die (Fernando Birri, Argentina, 1960, 33 min.)
  • Very Nice, Very Nice (Arthur Lipsett, Canada, 1961, 7 min.)

October 24 • Documentary Television Programs

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Documentary for Television, the ‘Golden Years’, 1951–71,” 185–201.

The following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • Harvest of Shame (CBS, 1960)
  • The Children Were Watching (ABC Closeup!, 1961)
  • Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (ABC, 1963)
  • Walk in My Shoes (ABC Closeup!, 1961)
  • The Selling of the Pentagon (CBS, 1971)

October 31 • Cinéma Verité and Direct Cinema

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Cinéma verité, direct cinema, 1958–70,” 219–241.

The following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, USA, 1966)
  • A Time for Burning (Barbara Connell and Bill Jersey, USA, 1966)
  • Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, USA, 1969)

November 7 • Documentary and the 1970s

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Power to the People,” 243–270.

The following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • High School (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1969)
  • In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, USA, 1969)
  • Harlan County (Barbara Kopple, USA, 1976)
  • Daughter Rite (Michelle Citron, USA, 1978)

November 14 • Documentary and Videotape

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Video Arrives,” 271–300.

The following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • The Atomic Cafe (Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty, USA, 1982)
  • Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, USA, 1989)
  • Who Killed Vincent Chin? (Rene Tajima and Christine Choi, USA, 1988)

November 28 • Documentary and the Truth

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Reality Bytes,” 301–329.

The following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • The Panama Deception (Barbara Trent, USA, 1992)
  • Hoop Dreams (Peter Gilbert, Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Gordon Quinn, USA, 1994)
  • Lock Up: The Prisoners of Rikers Island (Jon Alpert, USA, 1994)
  • A Place Called Chiapas (Nettie Wild, Canada, 1998)

December 6 • 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 following list of films is tentative and subject to change.

  • The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, USA, 2002)
  • Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, USA, 2003)

December 13 • Final Exam

We will take the final exam today in class.