History of Art 5910 - Documentary Cinema



Professor Erica Levin

The artist Hito Steyerl observes, “The documentary form as such is now more potent than ever, even though we believe less than ever in documentary truth claims.” This course explores the paradox she identifies by looking closely at the history of documentary cinema, from the first film named to the genre – Nanook of the North – to the present day, as it shapes a wide range of moving image practices. The class follows an historical trajectory, but will encourage you to think comparatively and analytically about documentary form, ethics, and aesthetics. We will examine the major modes of documentary filmmaking including cinema verité, direct cinema, investigative documentary, ethnographic film, agit-prop, activist media, autobiography and the personal essay. Through formal analysis, we will ask how these different documentary modes generate or exploit a variety of “reality effects.” Along the way, we will consider why the promise of documentary truth is always beset by uncertainty, or as Steyerl describes it, “a shadow” of insecurity. Rather than accept this phenomenon as a constraint or a limit, we will explore how experimental filmmakers and artists like Steyerl help us to see the value and meaning of the “perpetual doubt” documentary inspires.

Class # 24093-Undergrad, 24092-Graduate
MON & WEDS | 3:55-5:15