One of the most up and coming fields in the world of film is the art of documentary and experimental films. In the beginning of the 20th century with the commercialization of film, many documentaries were produced with anthropological aspects. Many travelers, anthropologists, naturalists, and adventurers used the modern technology to document the strange and new discoveries they had found. In more recent times, documentaries have been produced to educate on a mass scale, for example, Michael Moore’s documentaries. The majority of modern documentaries are based on political and economic situations on a global scale. Many naturalistic documentaries are still produced and have become quite a common occurrence thanks to the widespread acceptance of works by the National Geographic Society.
The beauty of documentaries was defined by John Grierson in the early 20th century who claimed that it was a new form of art. The actor and actress are no longer needed, it is enough just to have a camera in the right place at the right time, and we ourselves in our natural state are the actors of these films. In this sense, the art of documentary can become experimental and truly artistic in the right hands. For such a simple, yet complex, technique of film it is not entirely necessary to study at a film school, however, with the arrival of the 21st century, a whole century’s worth of techniques and methods have been developed that should be studied and understood by an aspiring documentary maker.
Many of universities offer Documentary Studies departments, some of those which are more well-known are those of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, The Documentary Center at George Washington University, Maine Media Workshops’ Documentary Filmmaking courses, Stanford University’s Documentary Film and Video course, UC Berkeley School of Journalism, The New School’s Documentary Media Studies, and the New York Film Academy’s Documentary Filmmaking Conservatory. Each program varies slightly from the other, and some institutions offer both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Documentary Studies.
Nonetheless, the usual coursework outline consists of both practical and theoretical classes such as film/video writing and directing, nonfiction film production, digital video, advanced documentary directing, advanced film and video production, producing practicum, theories of the moving image, documentary issues and traditions, and international documentary. Although the history of documentary film is quite young compared the history of other artistic fields, it has already created itself quite a broad resume of traditions such as romanticism, city symphony, Kino-Pravda, newsreel, cinéma vérité, and political weapons. The knowledge of these classical traditions and modern film history are quite crucial to an aspiring documentary maker. In addition to practical work, it is highly advised to achieve a strong understanding of these methods and analyze them before beginning your career.