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What Does the Student Need to Know in Order to Make a Documentary?

DOI: | Issue 7 | Oct 2021

Michael Chanan (University of Roehampton)

Trouble with knowledge

Documentary pedagogy is troublesome, because documentary is perennially troublesome, in ways it might be argued that fiction is not (doubtless the reverse is also true, but this is about documentary). Nor can the trouble be quelled by theoretical inquiry, which always come after the fact, not before, which means there is always a tension between theory and practice, and the latter proceeds according to its own intuitions about how to picture the phenomenal world the documentarist seeks to represent. Consider, then, the observation once made by the Brazilian film critic José Carlos Avellar that in documentary, reality is the co-author and the camera is also an actor. (Avellar 2009.) Two elements which interact. First, the real, which is unscripted; I use the word ‘real’ here in its general sense, aware that reality isn’t transparent, but complicated, multilayered and in certain ways deceptive. Second, the camera which captures its fleeting appearance. My question is: How can the student be prepared for this encounter? What does the student need to know in order to make a documentary?

Take the question of the camera first. Avellar’s claim has certain theoretical implications, suggesting a difference between a camera that observes a profilmic scene that’s been scripted and rehearsed and can be repeated to bring it to perfection, and a camera that enters a space to interact with a scene that even if it’s set-up is unscripted, unrehearsed, and unrepeatable. From this point of view, there is no such thing in documentary filming as a second take, and the encounter requires more than technical proficiency and photographic judgement, but agility, speed of response, the skill of seeing through each eye separately and perceiving what’s going on outside the frame in the periphery of your vision. When I first taught filmmaking in the 1970s, I was teamed up with an old hand who had learnt his trade in the BBC. We had fun arguing in front of the class about when to use a tripod. Always put the camera on a tripod unless there’s a good reason to take it off, said he. Said I, don’t use a tripod unless you really need it (but I added, if you want to be a good documentary cameraperson, keep fit and learn how to move and breathe like a dancer). Some of the students thought that we were saying the same thing from opposite angles, others concluded that documentary called for something different from fiction: instead of meticulous preparation, learning to think on your feet. Those were the days of 16mm. Today’s video cameras are very different, more compact and manoeuvrable, equipped with automatic circuitry, you don’t need a tripod to keep the shot steady, and it’s no longer true that as my former BBC colleague put it, you can’t shoot a black cat in a coal hole. Documentary has changed in consequence, in ways that have been widely discussed by scholars and critics. One reason documentary is troublesome is that the craft is constantly modified by its ever changing means – and mode – of production. Digital video has modified the creative process, partly by disrupting the traditional division of labour in the film crew, like the distinction between director and photographer; a change which isn’t easy to handle in an academic setting where the student is being introduced to the different functions that the jobs correspond to. But the new technical facility doesn’t mean it’s become any easier, because if handling the camera needs skill and practice, how to meet an unpredictable reality that remains in part inevitably elusive is another matter. The encounter with the real needs a different kind of intelligence, which sees behind the surface. For this, the documentarist needs to do what is loosely called research.

Loosely, because research for documentary is not the same as what is called research in the rest of academia, even while academia itself is a major source of research. The problem is that academic research is divided into disciplines, and the research that documentary calls for is cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, and even anti-disciplinary. Moreover, academic research is bound up in jargon and technical terminology, while documentary wants to speak in the vernacular. Furthermore, academic research is based in textual and statistical discourses, and documentary in plastic and ambiguous audiovisual representation. Finally, research for documentary is not the outcome but the preparation. The object is to translate it into speaking images.

An immediate caveat: what kind of research is needed, and how much, is neither prescriptive nor quantifiable, and the questions to be asked are not general ones, but depend on the chosen focus and scope of the film. This implies a different kind of epistemology from the abstract categories taught in philosophy departments; it needs to be both more situated and more situational. Situated means positioned in a specific context, situational that this context has both social and physical coordinates which condition the process of representation. It will have to be an epistemology based not on certainties and ‘objective’ truth, but on the uncertainty and subjective judgement of the encounter.

What’s needed, for example, for a typical student documentary project like a ten-minute portrait of a band preparing for a gig? In the first place, it depends on what the filmmakers already know about their subjects, although often without knowing that they know it, that is, without realising its possible significance. Think of it as tacit knowledge, which needs to be drawn out. In second place is contextual knowledge, what they know they know, and can talk about, like (in this example) their knowledge of the music. Third is what they don’t know, which might be useful to know — if they knew how it affected their subjects. Some of it is anecdotal and waiting to be discovered, like the personal histories of the individual members of the band and how they came to their instruments. Then there’s also a different kind of knowledge altogether, which calls on formal comprehension of the ways in which, behind appearances, the world, or some segment of it, is organised. For example, how does the band secure a gig and who else does it involve? Call it immanent knowledge, whose implications can be followed in different directions, like questions about the economics of the business and who controls it, or cultural questions about the meanings to be found in this particular music. There are experts in the university who know about such things, but for the student making the film, this is unknown territory, and such questions mostly function as structuring absences, because they’re largely invisible.

There is also a fifth category to consider: ignorance. Perhaps the first principle of documentary research is simply that you need to know more about your subject than is ever going to appear in the film, just so as not to make mistakes. Consider this example, which is not made up. In the 1960s, a television magazine programme makes a short film about birds in Scotland. They have silent shots of the eagles but no sound, so they resort to the sound library. After the broadcast, someone calls the viewers’ line to say that those were beautiful shots of eagles, but what we saw were golden eagles and what we heard were white-tailed eagles. In other words, if you make a mistake, there’s always someone out there who will spot it, and the film would be impugned. This is not such a trivial example. Documentary implies responsibility to truthfulness, which calls for wariness about one’s own ignorance. It also positions the documentarist, who begins a project in a state of ignorance, and armed only with curiosity must turn themself into an expert, or at least be able to pass for one.

Finally, there is the question of the procedural knowledge specific to the process of documentary making, but this divides into two. On the one hand, it includes formal requirements and the correct vocabulary, which contains its own traps, because while some terminology is technical, many of the terms involved are in fact ambiguous. Are you sure you know what a jump cut is? (A jump cut occurs when the middle of a shot is removed. It cannot always be seen. If the camera is mobile and pointing in different directions on either side of the cut, it just looks like any other cut, but if the camera holds the same framing, it becomes noticeable as a jerk in the action. Nowadays, of course, this is often quite acceptable.) At a deeper level, it’s about how to shoot for editing, because although this is about aesthetics, there are rules of film grammar to be observed – or perhaps just one, the 180° rule which applies to both fiction and documentary – in order to render the space of a scene coherent, especially as the camera moves through it. The dominant modes of fiction filming, before documentary taught otherwise, proceeded by means of découpage, the segmentation of a scene into separate set-ups, which mobile documentary shooting incorporates into the flow of the continuous take. To choose to do otherwise is an aesthetic choice, but to fail to do it when it’s needed only brings problems at the editing table.


Let’s grant that not every film will bring all these categories into play, and that some genres, for example, the investigative documentary, which calls on savvy journalistic skills, are probably beyond the scope of a student project, or perhaps they think they are. That’s a different question. Notwithstanding, these considerations raise questions of methodology, in which the pedagogical setting can be used to advantage, because research (subject to the caveats already given) is disposed to documentation and hence to assessment as coursework, with feedback and guidance. But then comes the nub of the matter: the impossibility of a script of the kind conventionally required for fiction. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but only under certain conditions and on the basis of substantial research. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, you can’t put words into people’s mouths. (For present purposes I therefore discount scripted genres like drama documentary or purely instructional films, but that’s only for present purposes.) For another, reality, or the segment of it you choose to film, doesn’t always behave the way you imagine. Among other things, this means you can’t properly predict the best way to construct the film until you start editing, when you confront not what you wanted to film but what you’ve actually shot. So (you explain), documentarists write treatments, not scripts, and the process goes in stages. The first thing you do is write a proposal, in which you answer the old simple and basic journalists’ questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Then, based on your research, you write a treatment, which expands on the whys and wherefores and says something about how. After that, before you’re ready to shoot, you draw up a shooting plan. The importance of this final step is often overlooked, but it’s more than procedural. Properly done, it obliges you to think around the subject, consider scenes in terms of telling details, close-ups, what the lingo dismissively calls cut-aways, and the like. But all of that is only preparation for the encounter, where the principle is that if you don’t shoot it you can’t use it, and if you do, you don’t have to.

But how do you do write a treatment? The first mistake by some over-eager students is to write something that reads like a narrative outline, starting with the first scene, but then it inevitably peters out. It doesn’t work that way, I say, you don’t know what the first scene will be until you get to the editing desk. The advice about what a documentary treatment consists in that can now be found on the web is not the best answer. A simple google search throws up a myriad of sites, many of doubtful integrity; scroll down and you find they’re trying to sell you an app or their own specialised services. The proliferation of such websites is another reason why documentary pedagogy is in trouble. Some of them tell you that a treatment is meant to entice your backers, and provide you with a formula for how to do so, much of which is irrelevant to students who don’t need to look for investors or commissioners. One or two of them are better informed when they explain that a treatment is only a starting point, it’s a roadmap for the film’s development from start to finish, a mutable tool that helps you plan your documentary as it moves from idea to reality. But there are also others, which offer the tendentious definition of a treatment as ‘a narrative summary’ or ‘short story narrative’ of the film proposed, which is exactly what it isn’t and can’t be, for the reasons already given. This advice is pernicious because the use of the word ‘story’, which comes from journalism, is constricting. As Alexandra Juhasz & Alisa Lebow put it in their manifesto ‘Beyond Story’, ‘storytelling is not the most or only effective form for documentary, as affecting as it can be. Not everything should be molded into a story, not everyone fits its constricting contours nor finds their most meaningful incantation in its familiar folds. There are many ways to shape a documentary.’ (Juhasz & Lebow, 2018)

Story is certainly the wrong word if it’s taken to mean a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, in which (usually) something happens to someone that needs resolution, already a gross oversimplification of the art of film narrative. A fairy tale which doesn’t even apply to fiction – remember Godard’s quip that every film has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Applied to documentary, and often all you have is the middle, which you enter in the here-and-now, an arbitrary starting point, and where the end lies in the future, after the film is finished.

For example, take that portrait of a band preparing for a gig. Does a portrait necessarily tell a story? There may be a story to tell behind it, in the same way as the story behind a painted or photographic portrait, but maybe it’s enough simply to show what the band is like when they’re rehearsing, how they behave, the way they make music together, made up of telling moments in no particular order. It could be the purest form of observational documentary, like the ethnomusicological films that Jean Rouch made in West Africa in the 1960s, and wouldn’t even need much research (although Rouch did plenty). The version of storytelling that according to Juhasz and Lebow has become a ‘ubiquitous mantra, structure, telos, and mind-set’, is posited on compelling characters, but this is another trap. Firstly, compelling often boils down to being a good talker, and there’s no denying documentary has a bias towards articulate subjects; this can be the making of a film, especially when someone is a good storyteller, but it can also be problematic when the viewer gets carried away by the gift of the speaker’s gab. And secondly, in theoretical terms, the perception of character can be independent of narrative, a property somehow ingrained in the image by the proclivity of our brains to interpret human expression. We cannot help but read character into the human form, to perceive the signs of interiority in the appearance of the face, body language, gesture, the manner as well as the content of speech. This attraction belongs to the ontology of the moving image as such, whether fiction or documentary. It explains the power of the film star not as a character but as a body. As Walter Benjamin saw it, the mechanical reproduction of perception brings about a ‘deepening of apperception’ because it renders behaviour susceptible to analysis the same way Freud’s study of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life exposed the significance of slips of the tongue (Benjamin 1969). Not something you can talk of in a treatment, but it has huge implications for why, among other things, you choose the characters that you do, and how you represent them.

These considerations apply to the process of making a documentary of almost any kind, but always in articulation with the subject. This word too is ambiguous. Here I’ve spoken of characters as subjects, a use belonging to academic discourse but in ordinary language, subject usually means subject matter, not human subject. Suppose the subject the student documentarists choose is a community garden, and the concerns that motivate them are ecological. This not only brings its own ‘cast of characters’, better to call them social actors, but makes the location itself into one of them. It probably brings into play every one of the alternative epistemological categories mentioned earlier. It also raises different kinds of initial questions that need asking simply in order to know what questions to ask on camera. This kind of research calls for diligent curiosity and a thirst for immanent knowledge, but sometimes a treatment works best as just such a series of questions. Simply asking them points the film in certain directions.

Against definition

An experiment in the 1990s in the Film Section of the then LCP shows what can happen when you put research at the centre of the documentary process. The college was keen to develop its postgraduate portfolio and we introduced an MA in Screenwriting, which included a term on documentary; then we split the course in two, and had a separate MA in Documentary Research. Some of the students were filmmakers but no-one actually made any films on the course; instead of writing a script, they wrote a treatment supported by a research portfolio (unless they chose drama-documentary which did require a script). Some of them secured commissions from television on the basis of their work on the course. The question arises whether this approach prejudges the style and approach of the resulting film. The clue is that a treatment isn’t written for the film’s viewer, but to fit the bill of a television executive or funder. This means, among other things, and pace Avellar, that it risks coming undone when the camera takes over and steps into the profilmic reality it seeks to capture – those aspects of reality that can be seen and heard and followed, let alone what lies behind them.

The websites imply that there’s a standard format for a treatment, but an event I attended in 1993 suggested otherwise. The Forum for International Co-Financing of Documentary at the Amsterdam Documentary Festival was a new phenomenon in which filmmakers were invited to pitch their projects in public to a panel of industry executives, which for the observer, as I was, proved a highly instructive form of theatre, as projects were batted back and forth across the table; it informed my teaching over the ensuing years. The treatments included information not to be expected from a student, like budgets, schedules, and the director’s or producer’s track record, but all of them revealed that they were the result of extensive research, and some of them included information on research trips and lists of names of people already consulted. However, the format varied. All but a few had a brief introduction, presenting either a character or an issue. Some followed this with separate sections on ‘Themes’ and ‘Visual Approach’, but one or two read like the draft of a commentary, and one or two provided a full scenario in continuous prose (observing the injunction against technical film terminology). One or two were written in the first person, thus foregrounding the role of the director. The theatricality of the event lay in the verbal pitches – all very different – and the ensuing exchanges, which revealed a good deal about the predilections and prejudices of the television executives. There was also another new element: some of the pitches were accompanied by a couple of minutes of footage already shot, or what is now known as a teaser and is nowadays often included in crowdfunding appeals. From a pedagogical perspective, however, this is problematic, putting the cart before the horse. It confuses the camera as a research tool and the camera as the instrument with which the film is made. Its adoption in the process of pitching, like the word ‘pitch’ itself, betrays the influence of the advertising industry, which carries unwelcome ideological baggage. Still, getting students to pitch their films to each other is an decidedly valuable experience.

The use of the camera as a research tool is a consequence of the shift from film to video, which no longer requires the same discipline when you no longer have to count the cost of shooting more footage. But the more you shoot, the more problematic the editing, beginning simply with the time it takes to log it. This is another aspect of shooting for editing – it’s not just about providing lots of choice. You could say that the filmmaker needs to know not only when to turn the camera on but also when to turn it off. This is more difficult to teach.

Some of the treatments presented in Amsterdam described themselves as ‘creative documentary’, but they weren’t thinking of Grierson’s famous definition of documentary back in the 1930s as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, so much as using the right jargon. The term was given currency by the European Union Media Programme, which needed to define it in order to provide funding, but from a pedagogical perspective, it’s quite useless. The definition is cod Hegelian. It says what it isn’t (it isn’t corporate production, or current affairs, or instructional, or ‘programmes where the image is not essential’) but not what it is, as if it were some kind of mythical beast that nobody has ever seen, but everyone would recognise immediately if they saw it. In fact, Grierson arrived at his definition by working through the same problem, distinguishing between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms, downgrading forms like the newsreel, the travelogue and the educational ‘lecture’ film, and reserving the proper use of the term for films that aspired to the virtues of art. Pedagogically, this is a difficult distinction to maintain, since the same skills are involved whatever the mode of the film, the same ability to observe with intelligence, variously applied to the circumstances. The differences between filming a band rehearsing and or a community garden, an interview, a street scene, whatever it may be, these reflect objective properties of the profilmic space and the activity within it which call up different aesthetic preferences, like lensing and yes, whether or not to use a tripod. The more unpredictable, the more it calls on improvisation and intuitive aesthetic choices. In theoretical terms, aesthetic differences boil down to different tropes which often become associated with different subgenres, or with the different modes of documentary theorised by Bill Nichols. In practice, however, documentaries frequently move between them and encompasses an eclectic mix of different styles. The names of the genres may change, but there is no definition of documentary which isn’t normative. The pedagogical dilemma this poses is that students approach their projects with norms derived from very limited viewing. The task is to challenge these norms. This cannot be done without showing them a suitable range of examples (and any attempt by senior managers to reduce the time given to class screenings must be resisted). The collective discussion of different models is another essential component of good pedagogical practice, and private viewing is no substitute.


These remarks about methodology are intended, then, not to be normative. Although the terms seem unavoidable, it isn’t always helpful to speak of documentary in terms of genres or subgenres, because they suggest a way of classifying reality in advance of encountering it. Nevertheless, the lessons I’ve learned from the experience of making films of different genres, from television arts documentaries to current affairs to the academically and independently funded documentaries of the digital age, have taught me that there are always exceptions, which, although not perhaps directly applicable to the learning process, are always at the back of my pedagogical mind. Not directly relevant because the films I’m thinking of are far more ambitious, not to mention better funded, than anything a group of students can aspire to, but they still stand as signal cases. In particular, two occasions when I did write a script, once quite early in my career, and once quite recently. (Not, of course, in fiction format, but an outline blocked out in two columns, picture and soundtrack, like an editing script.) The first was an educational documentary fronted by a professor of philosophy, for which, by an extraordinary stroke of fortune, I didn’t need to write a treatment in order to raise the funding. When we started, and I realised that our presenter, for all his facility as a speaker, had no awareness of the role he was about to perform, I sat him down with a tape recorder and asked him to talk me through from beginning to end in the space of about twenty minutes, or a third the length of the film, and then I went away and turned it into a script by breaking it up into paragraphs, so we could film different sections in different locations, as you do in this kind of film. After that, the other elements fell into place, including other contributors and the felicitous results of a search in the film archives, and the end result was completely conventional, down to the addition of our own voice-over commentary. The recent occasion, which eschewed a commentary and produced a much more interesting film, was an academically funded investigation into climate and ecology in Cuba involving three filmmakers, myself as director-cameraman working with two historians, in collaboration with a Cuban NGO. In this case, we first wrote a treatment to secure the funding, and then a script, written collaboratively by the three of us and sent to our collaborators for feedback, which served as the instrument of ensuring that we were all singing the same tune, with the crucial proviso that it was provisional; and indeed, once we arrived and started shooting, the film took a new direction. In both cases, the script served as a vital tool in planning the shoot. In a pedagogical setting, the process can be telescoped and accomplished by a suitable treatment with its shooting plan.

No doubt, despite my protestations, the methodology I’m recommending is also normative. That’s inevitable. The point is it should correspond to the constraints placed on the students by dint of the institutional framework, and serve to orient the process but not the content.

Limits of representation

I strongly suspect there is no documentary which comes out the way it’s laid out in the treatment, even the most stilted or mundane television slot-filler. To put it another way, the documentary that you see is only one version of the documentary it could have been. There are several reasons why. First, because the documentary that was shot is only one version of what might have been shot if different scenes had been selected. Second, because whichever way the camera was pointing there was always whatever was going on behind it at the moment of filming (not to mention before and after). And third, because the other versions, in the old lingo, are lying on the cutting room floor; it could always have been cut differently.

Let’s take that apart a little. First, we’re speaking of an organic creative process which passes through several overlapping stages, in which the election of scenes is decisive. This goes with the subject matter, but several things bear down on the choice, including practical and aesthetic factors. In procedural terms this is covered by what is called a ‘recce’ – to wit, reconnaissance or reconnoitre – which comprises the first point of encounter with profilmic reality. For students to engage in subjects that don’t allow this, where they would need the skills of reportage, is risky. But they need to understand that location speaks. The place where you film an interview represents the subject’s station in life, or at least their place in the world of the film, but it can easily become a cliché, like ‘experts’ sitting in front of a computer. The space also affects the relationship between the subject and the camera, and whoever’s behind it. A formal space is likely to elicit a formal mode of speech. Someone’s kitchen has a more relaxed ambience. In short, everyone behaves a little differently in different situations. In theoretical terms this is about what Erving Goffman called the presentation of self in everyday life, and from another point of view, the semiotics of space (or place). The documentarist needs to feel it and give it audiovisual shape (just as much as fiction filmmaking).

But there’s more to it than that. The encounter with social actors in the form conventionally known as the interview (an ambiguous term for a variety of possible scenarios) always embodies an asymmetrical relationship between unequal agents, because one of them wields a camera, one of them commands the image of the other. This raises questions that are both legal and ethical, as well as political and ideological; the academic curriculum ought to include all of them. The legal procedure is marked by the release form, which students must be taught is a requirement of professional practice, but not in all circumstances (in UK law, for example, current affairs is a possible exception). But even without it, there is a kind of unwritten contract whereby the interviewee accedes to the power of the camera and of the filmmaker to fashion their representation. This operates whatever the subject’s station in life and whatever kind of power and authority normally goes with it, and helps to shape their persona, be it their public office, their wealth, their cultural reputation, or the absence of these things. Those who are in the public eye or official positions know this and take care of the image they project. A student crew filming a novice band are likely to see each other as equals, not so when they go to film the local council to ask questions about the regulations governing community gardens. Here the situation is governed by the rules of authority and political power, in which the filmmaker is unlikely to have the choice of whom to interview, and the student filmmaker is lucky to just get a foot in the door. Every film project should be analysed to distinguish different types of interview subject. There is a difference between those whom you choose (the band) and those whom circumstances choose for you (the community garden), and there are differences within each of these groups. There are differences, for example, between experts, who represent their own opinions, and local councillors, say, who follow a bureaucratic script. All of them, however, are objectified by the camera and with or without a release form submit to its power of representation, which is felt to be separate from whoever is behind the camera. There is a pressure to perform but also a fear of exposure. The artfulness of documentary lies in drawing out this power of representation, which has the capacity to upset the perception of authority. On the other hand, it can also simply affirm it unthinkingly by reproducing the existing order, in which insight is displaced by ideology. Is it too much to hope that a student film could avoid this trap?

The treatment, I’ve argued, is provisional, and thus to be discarded when you sit down to edit, because now you have to start all over again and make sense of what you shot, find the best scenes to open on and close with, and above all, perhaps, to give it all pace and rhythm. Editing a documentary is like a jigsaw puzzle without the picture to guide you, where you’re given the kit but you have to carve the pieces yourself. How to manoeuvre this process is beyond the scope of these reflections, but this is where research pays off, and informs the juxtaposition of speakers and information – or proves inadequate because there are gaps in the ‘story’ or the argument. The problem is that some of these gaps are the result of structuring absences, those things you can’t shoot because you can’t see them, things that are invisible in some way other than lack of light. This is where representation reaches its limits, in the same way that Brecht observed that a photograph of, say, the Krupp works or AEG tells us almost nothing about these enterprises, because it cannot reveal the reification of human relations which is produced within them. (Brecht 2000) Being invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t real, but it has to be represented by indirect means, such as symbols or metaphor or other semiotic resources available to the editor: in a word, montage. Of course, this goes back to questions of style and aesthetics, which remain beyond the scope of these paragraphs, except perhaps to say that these are qualities the filmmaker must discover for themself.


The greatest obstacle to the kind of pedagogy I’ve outlined here is the crisis confronting universities as they emerge from the Covid pandemic and face a government intent on forcing them ever further into an instrumental role in a failing economy. In 2021, the government announced a 50% cut in funding art and design courses by reducing the subsidy in order to direct funding towards the favoured STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Several smaller universities have already announced course closures and job losses across fields like philosophy, anthropology, classics, art, design, music, drama, dance, media studies, journalism, creative writing, photography and my own field of film, while they launch new ‘career-focussed courses’ in said departments angled to ‘practical skills and industry/employer engagement’. That means courses being measured up to criteria of employability, and the only one that counts is earning power. The government has laid out the terms under proposals under consultation: universities could face penalties if fewer than 75% of undergraduates complete their courses and fewer than 60% are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating – the figures of course are arbitrary. The same managerialism that carries out this restructuring is unlikely to be sympathetic to the pedagogical principles presented here, because what it really wants is that students should simply learn how it’s done and just get on with it without thinking too much about the whys and wherefores. Everything that can’t be directly logged in the appropriate tick box will become expendable. The courses that will be cast aside, or be re-structured out of existence, have a history dating back to the incorporation of the various strands of cultural studies and critical theory in the polytechnics of the 1980s. But they were designed to puncture the ruling hegemony of a self-regarding dominant culture in the process of expansion, and even then were attacked by right-wing ideologues, long before anyone talked about ‘culture wars’. The new attack on this pedagogical tradition in incoherent in an economy in which cultural production is a growth sector, but is motivated by the same fear as before, which is never openly admitted, namely, that students who understand the power of the media, now including the internet, are liable, unless they can be tamed, to upset the apple cart. I remain sure, however, that documentary can be a very effective way of doing that.


  • José Carlos Avellar, Symposium on ‘Reality Effects: Poetics of Locality, Memory, and the Body in Contemporary Argentine and Brazilian Cinema’, Birkbeck College, 26-28 November 2009. See ‘Reality effects in London’, Putney Debater, 29 November 2009,

  • Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, New York: Schoken, 1969, 217-152

  • Bertolt Brecht on Film and Radio, ed. and trans. Marc Silberman, London: Methuen, 2000, 144-5

  • Alexandra Juhasz & Alisa Lebow, Beyond Story: an Online, Community-Based Manifesto, 2018,

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