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, 12:00 – 1:00 PM, by appointment
  • East Hall, Room 207

Schedule an appointment:

Course Materials


The textbook is available from Amazon, the campus bookstore, and 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 0btx36c 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.

Relevant Films

For most classes, I have listed a number of relevant films that we didn’t have the opportunity to screen in class. I have included links to where each film might be available: such as


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.


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 and will be available by 6:00 PM each Wednesday.

Complete each quiz by 11:59 PM on day before each class.

  • Due dates: see syllabus
  • TEN 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 16
  • Weight: 20%
  • Guidelines

Paper 2: Documentary and The Archive

An analytic paper that compares how the past is resurrected through the use of archival footage in contemporary documentary films.

  • Length: 1,200 words
  • Due: Wednesday, December 4
  • 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. short answer 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 9, in class
  • Study Guide
  • Weight: 20%

Final Exam

The final exam will consist of two parts:

  1. A set of take-home short answer questions requiring you to engage the screenings and readings related to the major movements and trends in documentary film we covered in class. Bring a printed copy of your responses to our final exam session, noted below.
  2. A set of in-class identifications of excerpts from documentary films we have screened in class.


  • Wednesday, December 11, in class
    • Section 3: 10:00 AM
    • Section 4: 2:00 PM
  • 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 28 • 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.
In-Class Screenings
  • Actualities by the Lumiére brothers:
    • Sortie d’usine [Leaving the Factory] (1895)
    • Repas de bebe [Baby’s Meal] (1895)
    • Arivee d’un train [Arrival of a Train] (1895)
    • Barque sortant du port [Boat Leaving the Port] (1895)
    • Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896)
    • Promenade of Ostriches at the Paris Botanical Gardens (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.)

September 4 • Documentary and the Soviet Revolution

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “The Soviets and Political Indoctrination,” 41–56.
  • Quiz 1, available August 28, due on September 10.
In-Class Screening
  • The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1929, 68 min.)
Relevant Films

These titles are available on Landmarks on Early Soviet Film from the library:

  • Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Esfir Shub, 1927, USSR, 89 min.)
  • The Old and the New (Sergei Eisentstein, USSR, 1929, 120 min.)
  • Turksib (Viktor Turin, USSR, 1929, 57 min.)

September 11 • 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.
  • Quiz 2, available September 4, due on September 10.
In-Class Screenings
  • Rhythmus 21 (Hans Richter, Germany, 1921, 3 min.)
  • Manhatta (Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, USA, 1921, 12 min.)
  • Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, France, 1929, 15 min.)
  • Taris (Jean Vigo, France, 1931, 10 min.)
  • Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttman, Germany, 1927, 62 min.)
Relevant Films
  • Lichtspiel Opus 1 (Walter Ruttman, Germany, 1921, 10 min.) Available on Vimeo.
  • Symphonie Diagonale [Diagonal Symphony] (Viking Egglund, Germany, 1924, 5 min.) Available on DVD from the library.
  • Skyscraper Symphony (Robert Florey, USA, 1929, 9 min.) Available on DVD and Blu-ray from the library.
  • Rain (Joris Ivens, Netherlands, 1929, 12 min.) Available on DVD from the library.
  • Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan [Land without Bread] (Luis Buñuel, Spain, 1932, 27 min.) Available on DVD from the library.
  • A Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, France, 1930, 25 min.) Available on Blu-ray from the library.

September 18 • Great Britain and the “Creative Treatment of Reality”

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Institutionalization: Great Britain, 1929–1939,” 73–92.
  • Quiz 3, available September 11, due on September 17.
In-Class Screenings
  • Industrial Britain (Robert Flaherty and John Grierson, United Kingdom, 1931, 21 min.)
  • Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, United Kingdom, 1935, 16 min.)
  • Children at School (Basil Wright, 1936, 24 min.)
  • Night Mail (Harry Watt and Basil Wright, United Kingdom, 1936, 24 min.)
Relevant Screenings

September 25 • US Documentary and the Workers Film and Photo League

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Institutionalization: USA 1930–1941,” 93–184.
  • Quiz 4, available September 18, due on September 24.
In-Class Screenings
  • The Plow that Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, USA, 1936, 25 min.)
  • Native Land (Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, USA, 1942, 88 min.)
Relevant Media
  • Power and the Land (Joris Ivens, USA, 1940, 38 min.) Available on DVD from the library.
  • 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 2 • Documentary and World War II

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “WWII,” 117–157.
  • Quiz 5, available September 25, due on October 2.
In-Class Screenings
  • 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, 55 min.)
Relevant Media
  • Lambeth Walk, Nazi Style
  • Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, United Kingdom, 1945, 40 min.)
  • The Battle of San Pietro (John Huston, United States, 1945, 32 min.) Available on Amazon Prime Video.
  • 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 9 • Midterm Exam

We will take the midterm exam today in class.

October 16 • Post War Documentary and Internationalism

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Post-War Documentary, 1945–1961,” 159–183.
  • Quiz 6, available September 9, due on October 15.
In-Class Screenings
  • Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, France, 1956, 32 min.)
  • The Wall (Walter De Hoog, USA, 1962, 9 min.)
  • Tiré Die (Fernando Birri, Argentina, 1960, 33 min.)
  • The Balance (Paul Rotha, United Kingdom, 1947, 9 min.)
  • Neighbours (Norman McLaren, Canada, 1952, 8 min.)
  • Very Nice, Very Nice (Arthur Lipsett, Canada, 1961, 7 min.)
Relevant Films
  • Louisiana Story (Robert Flaherty, USA, 1948, 79 min.) Available on DVD from the library.

October 23 • Documentary Television Programs

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Documentary for Television, the ‘Golden Years’, 1951–71,” 185–201.
  • Read about the Nashville Sit-Ins, about which the NBC White Paper documentary covers.
  • Quiz 7, available Octobery 16, due on October 22.
In-Class Screenings
  • Harvest of Shame (CBS Reports, USA, 1960, 53 min.)
  • Sit-In (NBC White Paper, USA, 1960, 60 min.)
Relevant Screening

October 30 • Cinéma Verité and Direct Cinema

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Cinéma verité, direct cinema, 1958–70,” 219–241.
  • Quiz 8, available October 23, due on October 29.
In-Class Screening
  • Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, USA, 1969, 91 min.)
  • Chronique d’un étè [Chronicle of a Summer] (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, France, 1961, 92 min.) Available on Blu-ray from the library and on Kanopy
  • No Lies (Mitchell Block, USA, 1975, 15 min.)
Relevant Films

November 6 • Political Activism and Documentary

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Power to the People,” 243–270.
  • Quiz 9, available October 30, due on November 5.
In-Class Screening
  • Harlan County (Barbara Kopple, USA, 1976, 105 min.)
Relevant Film
  • In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, USA, 1969, 103 min.). Available on Kanopy.

November 13 • Documentary and Unspoken Truths

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Video Arrives,” 271–300.
  • Quiz 10, available November 6, due on November 12.
In-Class Screenings
  • The Atomic Cafe (Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty, USA, 1982, 86 min.).
Relevant Films
  • 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.

November 20 • Documentary, Archives, and Truth

  • A New History of Documentary Film, “Reality Bytes,” 301–329.
  • Quiz 11, available November 13, due on November 19.
In-Class Screening
  • The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, France, UK, Germany, USA, 1995, 102 min.)

December 4 • 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.
  • Quiz 12, available November 20, due on December 3.
In-Class Screening
  • The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, USA, 2002)

December 11 • Final Exam

We will take the final exam today in class.