Accessibility statement

Useful Cinema: Documentary, Educational, & Activist Film - ENG00097M

« Back to module search

  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Michael McCluskey
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20

Module summary

This module focuses on films made as propaganda and forms of protest—from the emergence of documentary in the 1930s to the current use of phone cameras to capture otherwise unreported events.

It brings together iconic and up-and-coming filmmakers, films on student uprisings and famous trials, recent forms of media activism, and other examples of what emerging work in film studies has termed ‘useful cinema’: films made expressly ‘to convey ideas, convince individuals, and produce subjects in the service of public and private aims’. We will interrogate the idea of useful cinema through our study of films produced in response to some of the most serious challenges of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Through a discussion of this body of work, produced in different countries and at different moments in time, we will examine the connections between documentary and other film genres and challenge the concept of ‘useful cinema’ itself.

The module foregrounds the debates in which these films intervene and considers, more broadly, the work of film in helping to shape attitudes, articulate responses, and change behaviours. It will encourage you to make connections between social, political, and media histories and to analyse the strategies that filmmakers and their funders use to make these connections as well. Overall, the module tracks a history of films made to promote the interests of dominant power structures and reveals some of the voices raised in opposition. Through screenings and readings drawn from historical sources, cultural studies, and film theory and criticism, we will consider how these films create a space for the circulation of otherwise unheard opinions and undocumented experiences and what they can tell us about the on-going challenges we face today.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

The aims of the module are to provide a history of documentary and non-fiction film, to examine different strategies and technologies that filmmakers use, and to introduce the theoretical debates that surround documentary and other forms of ‘useful cinema’.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an advanced understanding and engagement with documentary history and theory;
  • Demonstrate advanced research skills which will enable you to study film within its theoretical and cultural contexts;
  • Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with strategies and sources for working with film archives;
  • Produce independent arguments and ideas for writing and presenting on film, situating your work within the broader critical fields of film studies, media studies, and cultural studies.


Task Length % of module mark
4500 Word Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will hand in an essay of approximately 2,000 words in Week 6 of the Autumn term. The main purpose of the essay is to ensure that the department can identify those students who may require additional assistance with academic writing skills. Material from the procedural essay may be re-visited in either one of the January essays or the dissertation. It is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. The title topic of the essay, like the title topic of all assessed work for the degree, is left open to the individual student.


Task Length % of module mark
4500 Word Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Feedback on summative essays is normally available by the end of week 7 of the Spring Term. You are encouraged to discuss your feedback with your MA convenor, module tutor, or supervisor.

Indicative reading


  • Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, UK, 1935)
  • Coal Face (Alberto Cavalcanti, UK, 1935)
  • Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings, UK, 1941)
  • Why We Fight (Frank Capra, USA, 1945)
  • Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1939)
  • Chronique d’un été (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, France, 1961)
  • High School (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 1968)
  • The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, USA, 1984)
  • The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, USA, 1988)
  • Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, USA, 1990)
  • Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, USA, 2003)
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America (Judith Ehrlich, USA, 2009)
  • Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, UK, 2014)
  • A Girl in the River (Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Pakistan, 2016)
  • I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, USA, 2016)
  • Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy, 2016)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.