Visible Evidence 2021

Film Pedagogy, Bio-Documentaries, and the Politics of Student Films

Henning Engelke
Stephen Charbonneau
Yvonne Zimmermann
Respondent: Jane Gaines
Wed, Dec 15
90 Min
Mousonturm (Studio 1)
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“How to Train Documentary Film People” – Hans Richter and the City College Institute of Film Techniques

The Institute of Film Techniques at New York City College was among the first US film schools and unique in specializing in teaching documentary and educational film. Founded by Irving Jacoby in 1941, the immediate aim of the Institute was to fill the government’s need for trained specialists to produce wartime information films. Avant-garde artist and filmmaker Hans Richter joined the faculty in late 1941, shortly after his emigration from Europe, and was appointed director in 1948. Until Richter’s retirement in 1956, about twenty films were made in workshops under Richter’s supervision, many of them produced by notable documentary figures such as Lewis Jacobs, Leo Seltzer, and Alexander Hammid. The list of teachers and guest lecturers reads like a “who’s who” of international documentary filmmaking: Robert J. Flaherty, John Grierson, Leo Hurwitz, Joris Ivens, John Ferno, Alice M. Keliher, Stuart Legg, Willard van Dyke, Albert Hemsing, Arthur Knight and Lewis Jacobs.

That the Institute is totally absent from film historiography is not necessarily a sign of its insignificance, but rather be explained by Eric Smoodin’s observation that the discipline is among the least historicized of all the humanities and social science fields. This paper examines Richter’s pedagogy at the Institute, which aimed at making the documentary a useful instrument of a democratic society and a tool for social and political progress. It looks at how this pedagogy translated into study programs and students’ films, and how it contributed to a growing network of documentary pedagogy in the US post-war years.

Yvonne Zimmermann

Yvonne Zimmermann is Professor of Media Studies at Philipps-University Marburg (Germany). She is the author of Bergführer Lorenz: Karriere eines missglückten Films (Career of a Failed Film, 2005) and editor and co-author of a volume on documentary and ‘useful cinema’ in Switzerland (Schaufenster Schweiz: Dokumentarische Gebrauchsfilme 1896-1964, 2011). She has published widely on industrial film, screen advertising, nonfiction and nontheatrical film.

Teaching Film and Studying Visual Communication: Sol Worth’s Documentary Film Workshop

Sol Worth is best remembered today for the 1966 project “Navajo Film Themselves”, conducted with the anthropologist John Adair. The project and Worth and Adair’s resulting book Through Navajo Eyes (1972) were widely, if controversially, regarded as groundbreaking contributions to visual anthropology. What has been virtually overlooked is that the Navajo project was embedded in a broader context of film teaching, communication research, film studies, behavioral science and minority activism. Starting in 1960, Worth taught the Documentary Film Workshop at the Annenberg School of Communications. Analyzing films made by his students as bio-documentaries – expressions of culturally shaped cognitive orientations – formed the backbone of his research on film semiotics, cross cultural communication, and “the psychodynamics of adolescent behavior.” Worth, moreover, initiated filmmaking projects with African American and Puerto Rican youths from inner-city neighborhoods; and he frequently worked with community organizations, church groups, health care and government institutions on projects that simultaneously aimed at understanding and augmenting processes of visual communication. Tracing Worth’s theoretical research and film teaching across these diverse contexts, this paper considers the interrelations and tensions, surfacing in his work, between the production of academic knowledge, film pedagogy, media activism, and the social politics of the “War on Poverty”. I argue that Worth’s work sheds a light on how documentary film practice and social research informed theoretical conceptions of film and visual communication, while also revealing hidden biases inscribed in cinematic epistemologies. I also address the methodological implications for scholarship on non-theatrical film and participatory media.

Henning Engelke

Henning Engelke is a German Research Foundation Fellow in the Department of Media Studies at Philipps University Marburg. He has written on topics including the media history and theory of research films, ethnographic film, art documentaries, and experimental film culture. His current research focuses on intersections between social science films, film activism and experimental film in the 1960s and 1970s. His books include Dokumentarfilm und Fotografie: Bildstrategien in der englischsprachigen Ethnologe, 1936-1986 (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 2007) and Metaphern einer anderen Filmgeschichte: Amerikanischer Experimentalfilm, 1940–1960 (Marburg: Schüren, 2018).

Bio-Documentary as Urban Research Practice: Youth, Media, and Archaeologies of Participation

This paper will highlight historical resonances in transnational digital humanities, especially in projects that aim to harvest insight and data from crowd-sourced, documentary recordings. Such efforts as SenseCityVity 2015 ( are premised on the value of the affective and perceptual data teased out of digital imagery gathered by high school students in Guanajuato (and later evaluated by scientists in Switzerland and Mexico). What is most evident from the vantage point of documentary studies, however, is the reverberation of participatory filmic cultures from the latter half of the 20th century in many of the most recent efforts to mobilize digital media and interactive documentary practices to gauge perceptions, feelings, and attitudes. For instance, Sol Worth’s theorization and implementation of what he characterized as the “bio-documentary” closely approximates the language and aims of efforts such as SenseCityVity. Worth’s famous Navajo Filmmakers Project (undertaken with John Adair in 1966) embraced the “bio-documentary” approach and its appeal had to do with the ways in which it captured “a subjective way of showing…the objective world” while shedding light on “values, attitudes, and concerns that lie beyond the conscious control of the maker.” As researchers engage in increasingly elaborate and transnational participatory media activities, opportunities persist for historians of documentary to underscore the alignments and dissonances between past and present participatory media practices.

Stephen Charbonneau

Stephen Charbonneau is Associate Professor of Film Studies and Graduate Director of the School of Communication and Multimedia Studies at Florida Atlantic University. His work on media pedagogy, youth media, and documentary film has been published in several anthologies as well as Screening the Past, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Jump Cut, Framework, Spectator, and the Journal of Popular Culture. His books include Projecting Race: Postwar America, Civil Rights and Documentary Film (Wallflower/Columbia UP, 2016) and InsUrgent Media from the Front: A Global Media Activism Reader (co-edited with Chris Robé; Indiana UP, 2020).

Respondent: Jane Gaines

Jane M. Gaines is Professor of Film at Columbia University, and Professor Emerita of Literature and English at Duke University. In 2018 she received the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Distinguished Career Award. She is author of three award-winning books: Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice and the Law (North Carolina, 1991) and Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era (Chicago, 2001) and Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? (Illinois, 2018). Her articles on intellectual property and piracies, documentary theory and radicalism, feminism and film, early cinema, and critical race theory have appeared in Cinema Journal, Screen, Critical Inquiry, Cultural Studies, Framework, Camera Obscura, and Women and Performance. Most recently she has been engaged in a critique of the “historical turn” in film and media studies and is part of a group researching the internationalization of workers film and photo leagues in the 1930s.