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The 10 Best Academic Programs for Documentary Filmmakers

These days, it’s fairly easy to find an excellent place to learn how to make narrative films. Ten Best lists exist by the fistful, and a Google search of “learn filmmaking” returns more than 30,000 hits.

But what about those students who want to learn how to make documentaries? Although many of the best programs present opportunities to learn a bit about non-fiction filmmaking, it is rare to find one that focuses solely on the craft. Student filmmakers are typically given free reign when it comes time to propose a thesis or end-of-term project, but their coursework up until that point is often biased.

Aspiring documentarians shouldn’t be preemptively disappointed, however. Plenty of courses just for them have cropped up over the last decade, some of the best in just the past couple of years. The ten most promising of these rare programs are listed below, in no particular order. To keep things fair, the group is evenly split between university degree and non-degree programs.

Duke Center for Documentary Studies

Duke offers a highly interdisciplinary bachelor’s program and continuing education course, both of which emphasize still photography and its influence on the documentary. The curriculum also focuses strongly on the history of the art form, with courses this year on Classic Documentary Films and Traditions in Documentary Film. Students are encouraged to pursue relevant coursework in other departments such as history and sociology, in the hopes that they produce work that utilizes the craft as an agent of social change. In fact, the Center runs a program called “Literacy Through Photography,” wherein students from local public schools are given workshops to capture images from their own lives.

To learn more about this program, visit http://cds.aas.duke.edu/.

The Documentary Center at George Washington University

If you’re looking for a program with a firm base in history and theory, GWU’s six-month course is a wonderful choice. Students of the Documentary Center are first immersed in critical courses and encouraged to let their ideas about future projects percolate before they ever get their hands on a camera. After four weeks of getting a sense of the documentary approach through screenings and written assignments, the small group of students (15 or so) begins learning the basics of production. Eventually, the group chooses a topic for a thesis film that they all work on together for the final eight weeks. Center Director Nina Gilden Seavey is also the Executive Producer of SILVERDOCS: The AFI/Discovery Film Channel Documentary Festival, which presents students with an excellent opportunity to watch films by industry professionals and attend informative seminars.

To learn more about this program, visit http://www.gwu.edu/doccenter/institute2.htm.

University of Florida – The Documentary Institute

With visiting filmmakers including D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams), and Margaret Drain (PBS’s American Experience series), the Documentary Institute at UFL has an outstanding reputation. Its two-year master’s program has a strong emphasis in documentary history and even offers a course on the ethics of non-fiction filmmaking. In addition to having access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, students have the opportunity to set up an internship for the summer between their two years of coursework. The internship coordinator at UFL has placed students at National Geographic, HBO Documentary Productions, and the Discovery Channel. Films produced at the institute have won numerous awards and have been screened at such venues as the New York Underground Film Festival and the Vancouver International Film Festival.

To learn more about this program, visit http://www.jou.ufl.edu/documentary/.

Maine Media Workshops’ Documentary Filmmaking courses

Though Maine does offer a comprehensive four-week Documentary Film program, its shorter, more specialized workshops are what set it apart from other schools. Students can choose from a sizable list of rare courses, such as Producing the Historical Documentary and The Art of the Interview. The Maine school is perhaps the best bet for students already versed in narrative filmmaking who are seeking more advanced documentary experience. Rather than start from scratch, they can go straight to learning about making a feature documentary without having to retake unnecessary production classes. Jack MacDonald, who teaches the four-week course and many of the shorter workshops, is an Emmy award-winning writer and director whose work has been shown on National Geographic Explorer, Discovery, TLC, and PBS.

To learn more about this program, visit http://www.theworkshops.com/catalog/calendar.asp?SchoolID=21&CatID=178.

Stanford University – Documentary Film and Video

One of the biggest advantages of this two-year M.F.A. program is that it starts with the basics. In addition to learning all the facets of digital production, students are also versed in 16mm film, giving them a better sense of the true origins of documentary filmmaking. Though the list of electives available is not very extensive, master’s students get a solid grounding in theory and history, not to mention preparation for filmmaking in the real world – the Producing Practicum course teaches the ins-and-outs of documentary financing. When working on their thesis film, students have access to their own Final Cut Pro editing system. Past theses have been accepted to some of the most prestigious festivals, such as Sundance, Berlin, and Edinburgh.

To learn more about this program, visit http://art.stanford.edu/graduate/mfa-documentary-film/.

Digital Media Academy’s Documentary Filmmaking Camp

DMA’s weeklong documentary intensive is geared toward novice filmmakers who want to get a quick but comprehensive taste of the craft. Students are immersed in a camp-like atmosphere, with the option to stay at the school as an “overnighter” or simply attend classes from 8:30-4:30 every day. The daily schedule works as follows: theory and technique in the morning, production workshops through midday, and shooting exercises in the afternoon. Meals and activities are offered for overnighters, making DMA’s program an excellent option for aspiring teen filmmakers.

To learn more about this program, visit http://www.digitalmediaacademy.org/courses/computer-camp-documentary-filmmaking.html.

UC Berkeley School of Journalism

Some of the main concerns of Berkeley’s documentary program may seem unnecessary to the aspiring filmmaker. But when you consider the degree it yields – a Master of Journalism – the TV news reporting requirements make a lot more sense. This two-year course is all digital, and it places a predictably heavy emphasis on working with found footage, making it a great fit for students more interested in historical documentaries. Though students don’t get to do much hands-on production work until their second year, they do develop a very strong sense of their craft in the first. Courses like Law and Ethics and History of the Documentary allow them to get a clearer idea of the kind of work they want to do and how they’ll eventually go about executing it. Berkeley provides invaluable opportunities for students to meet and speak with legendary figures in the media, like Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite.

To learn more about this program, visit http://journalism.berkeley.edu/program/courses/bydept.php?q=documentary.

The New School – Documentary Media Studies

The New School’s graduate certificate in Documentary Media Studies is perfect for aspiring documentarians who already have a great idea for the kind of film they want to make. In fact, it’s a requirement for entry into the program; in addition to having a B.A. from another institution, students applying to TNS must have a thesis proposal drawn up in advance. The one-year program is brief but thorough, with highly specified courses such as Documentary as Social Practice and Emerging Media and Documentary Practice. As an addendum to their classes, students are required to attend biweekly “Doc Talk” events, featuring noteworthy documentarians like D.A. Pennebaker, and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp). The already fantastic reputation of this program recently got an extra jolt with alum Cynthia Wade’s Oscar win in the Short Documentary category this past year.

To learn more about this program, visit http://newschool.edu/docstudies/.

New York Film Academy’s Documentary Filmmaking Conservatory

Though only a year old, this intensive, hands-on program shows incredible potential. Columbia alum and Program Chair Andrea Swift works hard to implement NYFA’s main credo: learn by doing. Students in the documentary course get to work with a camera from day one and have unprecedented access to equipment outside the classroom. NYFA boasts a long roster of industry professionals who regularly give talks and master classes, and this new program is no exception. The first graduating class had the opportunity to pitch a reality TV show to a Discovery Channel executive and to work with Emmy award-winning editor Bob Eisenhardt (The Body Human, Soldiers of Music) on their thesis films.

To learn more about this program, visit http://www.nyfa.edu/documentary-school/.

Ryerson University – Documentary Media

This two-year master’s program is the only one of its kind in Canada and one of the best of its kind, period. Ryerson, like Duke, places a strong emphasis on still photography, and just recently acquired The Black Star Collection, an impressive resource of almost 300,000 photos. The coursework at Ryerson is equally astounding, with several advanced electives like Topics in Cross-Cultural Communication and Movements/Issues in Contemporary Photography. Faculty members include filmmakers, scholars, and historians from all over the world, connecting students with opportunities to intern and apprentice both locally and abroad.

To learn more about this program, visit http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/documentarymedia/about.html.

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9 Responses to “The 10 Best Academic Programs for Documentary Filmmakers”

  1. Anonymous

    There is also a brand new MFA program in documentary filmmaking at the School of VISUAL ARTS in New York City. The faculty are all working filmmakers at the top of the field and brand new department home will be located in the heart of Manhattan.

    http://www.mfasocdoc.sva.edu

    Reply
  2. docfilms

    Wth the great track records of the established doc programs such as Berkeley, USC, Stanford, etc. it makes little sense to try a “new” program.

    While they have some excellent and seasoned doc filmmakers on the faculty they will need a good decade to get out the kinks. Unlike Else and the faculty running the other programs this one has yet to produce a single fim.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    Thanks for the write-up about our MFA program in documentary film. I would like to note a few things. The listed URL link to the program is incorrect. You can find information about our program at:
    http://art.stanford.edu/graduate/mfa-documentary-film/

    Additionally, Cynthia Wade, who you mention in the description of The New School, received her M.A. degree from the Stanford Documentary Film Program.

    Jan Krawitz
    Director, MFA Program in Documentary Film and Video
    Stanford University

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    My personal belief is that in order to get an education about documentary filmmaking, you need to be educated in an environment that is suitable for it. This means the physical location of the program needs to be in a place where you can actually practice filming. Folks thinking about getting a formal education in documentary filmmaking should consider this point. http://www.aramaoptimizasyonu.com

    Reply
  5. johnvarles

    The Doc Institute at UF has moved and is now at Wake Forest University. With the move they changed the name to the Documentary Film Program at Wake Forest University and added an MFA program to the existing MA program. The program has expanded in size and got all new state of the art equipment. The professors not only have a wealth of teaching experience, but they also produce their own films. Their most recent film is really fantastic, it is titled “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz” http://www.petrginz.com/

    Check out the program at: http://www.wfu.edu/documentary/

    Reply
  6. mfasocdoc

    While it is true that new programs do have kinks to work out – they are also inspired, fresh and exciting places full of new possibilities. We are now welcoming our fourth class in the fall of 2012 and our alumni are entering the documentary filmmaking world with amazing thesis films, top contacts and practical filmmaking experience. More information about the program and what our alumni are doing can be found at http://www.mfasocdoc.sva.edu.

    Reply
  7. bthomaswalker

    does anyone know of any good programs being offered in the UK / europe? I’ve been researching graduate schools and it looks like they’re much cheaper abroad and only take a year to complete.

    Reply

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