How to Teach Documentary Filmmaking

This year’s Ji.hlava IDFF offered a panel discussion on how documentary filmmaking is taught in Visegrad countries. Methods used to teach documentary filmmaking in different V4 countries were discussed by lecturers from selected schools. Vít Janeček introduced documentary courses at Prague’s FAMU, Attila Kékesi represented Hungarian University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, Viera Čákanyová talked about study programmes at Slovak Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava – VSMU, and Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz discussed documentary education at National Film School in Lodz. What emerged from their fruitful discussion?

From What Remains made by Austrian student Jola Wieczorek as part of the DocNomads Master’s programme. Photo: DocNomads

The discussion about film education was kicked off by Vít Janeček by pointing out that first film schools were founded after the WWII as a result of the general boom in society. The idea behind their establishment promoted especially in Czechoslovakia at the time was that talented young people should get faster and more effective chance to become actively engaged in professional filmmaking work. This was seen as a better strategy than spending years as assistants who had limited possibilities of making their own films. It is therefore interesting to note that for almost half a century, there were no filmmaking or cinema schools and that unlike today, filmmakers had no formal education that is now taken for granted. Today, there is already a number of approaches to teaching documentary filmmaking (as also described in our panel discussion) – even in the countries of Visegrad region with similar modern history. 

The oldest of these film schools, the Prague-based Film Academy of Performing Arts – FAMU was founded in 1946 and gave rise to the Czechoslovak New Wave at the turn of 1950s and 1960s. As Vít Janeček put it, especially after 1989 this provided a certain “referential mythology” that inspired the revival of Czech and Slovak cinema. The Department of Documentary Filmmaking was first a part of the Directing Department and established as an independent unit in 1961. 

Bratislava-based Academy of Performing Arts was founded several years later – in 1949, but its Film and TV Faculty did not spin off until 1990, when also a separate Documentary Department was founded. Unlike FAMU and VSMU, the National Film School in Lodz founded in 1948 does not offer separate directing and documentary programmes and with these two fields of study merged into one. “We believe that this approach to education is enriches both of these film genres and, above all, enriches students and their understanding of reality and the ability to talk about it,” said Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz. 

This approach is also not surprising considering the fact that documentary and fiction filmmaking are generally linked. Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz added that in the course of a five-year study programme, students in Lodz are required to make three documentary and three fiction titles, each year working with a different tutor, which allows them to meet with different artistic approaches. Such workshops are also common at Prague’s FAMU and Slovak VSMU where students have a chance to move to change the workshop or tutor after one year.

From The Doctor Leaves Last made by Ukrainian student Svitlany Shymko during the DocNomads programme. Photo: DocNomads

Nevertheless, the unified system of study of fiction and documentary filmmaking as applied in Lodz is somewhat problematic in that most of the graduates pursue a career in fiction filmmaking – as a matter of fact, students at this school usually graduate with a fiction film. One big plus is the fact that students successfully collaborate with their fellows from other fields, namely from the field of cinematography and editing. The system described by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz is also untypical in that first year students create their films in collaboration with professional editors and cinematographers and are only required to work with students from other departments in the following years. However, she considers this beneficial and mentioned a recent success of student Yifan Sun who won the student Academy Award in the international documentary category with her film Family. Vít Janeček, on the other hand, said that not many documentary students at FAMU collaborate with their fellow-students from other departments. It is because especially students of cinematography follow a programme based on collaboration with students of fiction filmmaking, as a result of which some documentarians also learn to work with the camera and some even use their camera work talent to shoot films for their fellow-students, and later for colleagues. 

Attila Kékesi from the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest introduced a completely different concept. Their two-year Master’s programme in documentary filmmaking was opened in 2012 and it was founded by Attila Kékesi and Tamás Almási who are still active at the school as lecturers. The department’s short history can also be seen as an advantage because it allows for fostering original and time-specific concepts. This can be illustrated by unique project DocNomad based on the concept of a “mobile university”. This international Master’s project has brought together there universities: University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, Universidade Lusófona in Lisbon and LUCA School of Arts in Brussels. “Students start their studies in Lisbon in the first term, then move to Budapest for the second term and finally to Brussels for the third one. During the fourth term they are divided in three groups and make their graduation films in one of these three cities. During this graduation filmmaking process, the universities follow the same structure and have some common events, like the pitching session of the projects where we use the Cisco system, which provides us with one virtual classroom shared by the three universities. At the end of the two-year programme we have the final graduation exam screening in Brussels where we invite independent external jury members for evaluating the films,” said Tamás Almási. 

Vít Janeček noted that external collaborators are also invited to the screenings of final films (and film exercises), as also confirmed by Viera Čákanyová of VSMU. However, their role is different than that of the jury comprising external experts and professionals like in the case of the DocNomad project. Vít Janeček also appreciated the unique character of the “mobile model” stating that one of the pitfalls of FAMU International programme intended for foreign students of FAMU and offering lessons in English is the costs of the study which not everyone can afford. On the other hand, all of the represented schools offer internships abroad and exchange programmes.

As for the ratio of theory and practice, most lecturers stated that the proportion of practical and theoretical subjects is balanced. Attila Kékesi said that only the Budapest-based Theatre and Film University provides a rather practical framework to both its Master’s programmes, i.e. the one intended for Hungarian students only as well as the DocNomad programme. He also introduced somewhat untypical but regularly organised ten-day fieldwork exercises, during which “students work together in teams, in order to learn how to find a topic in a very short time, how to develop a project together, and how to shoot and edit it under the given circumstances. This also helps the group dynamic in the class.”

From Family made by Yifan Sun, student of Polish National Film School in Lodz, a winner of the Student Academy Award in the international documentary category. Photo:

The representatives of all of the aforementioned film schools agreed that their schools have top-quality technical equipment, namely post-production technology, but none of them works towards an extended promotion of practical internships at professional work environments. This is left up to the students themselves, who often in parallel with their studies pursue their professional careers. This may both interfere with their studies, but at the same time help them enhance their skills.  

Vít Janeček, among others, mentioned a general problem that is characteristic for school systems today. First year students often arrive immediately after completing their secondary education, whereas in the past it used to be common that FAMU accepted students who have already completed one university or were close to graduating elsewhere. “20 years ago a statistics was published showing, that about 50 percent of people accepted to study at FAMU were graduates or at least finishing some other university, which means, that their age when entering FAMU was around 23-25. In the past two decades, the trends go the way that this age is increasingly more typical for graduation. I believe original stylistic talent is less important than a kind of wisdom, ability to understand contexts, people and to follow the theme as well as the characters,” concludes Vít Janeček.   

The panel discussion at Ji.hlava IDFF showed that there are numerous approaches to teaching documentary filmmaking and the most progressive of them was the mobile university model implemented as part of the DocNomad project, bringing together three European universities and promoting diversity of cultures, approaches, teaching skills and styles. Greatly inspiring is also the strategy of combining documentary and fiction filmmaking invented at the National Film School in Lodz. The rather traditional approach to documentary education as followed by Prague’s FAMU could make way for new possibilities of opening up to the world. As a matter of fact, openness is the main vision of the newly appointed Dean of FAMU, Andrea Slováková, who also contributes to dok.revue and is a member of its editorial board.

Translated by Viktor Heumann

To learn more, read below the following texts written by our four panellists describing the documentary programmes at their schools (in English):

Vít Janeček / Documentary studies at FAMU (in a broader context)
→ Peter Kerekes / Department of Documentary Filmmaking, Film and Television Faculty, Academy of Dramatic Arts, Bratislava, Slovakia
→ Attila Kékesi / University of Theatre and Film Arts, Budapest, Hungary
→ Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz / Łódź Film School, Poland

Vít Janeček

Documentary studies at FAMU (in a broader context)

Cinema schools started to exist after WWII in response to general improvements in all human activities. Particularly in the field of cinema and particularly in Czechoslovakia, there arose the idea that talented young people should get a faster and more effective chance to develop in their professional environment (at the time limited to one state-controlled institution). This was considered a better alternative for young filmmakers to try make their own projects in comparison to  long-term assistance to older filmmakers  To test the new system, the first groups of graduates could use this opportunity – giving rise to the so-called Czechoslovak New Wave. 

There is one important common factor. All these people were mostly in or above their thirties. I remember Michelangelo Antonioni in his early career, referring to himself – in consensus with the interviewer – as to a “young director“. A “young director” at that time (and this changed perhaps in the 1980s) was someone aged 40 or more. All of us admit that there is a big gap in the perspective of a 22-25 year-old person (an age recently prevalent in graduating students) and someone who is around 40, entering the world of cinema. 20 years ago a statistics was published showing that about 50 percent of people accepted to study at FAMU were graduates or at least finishing some other university, which means that when entering FAMU they were at least 23-25. In the past two decades, the trends indicate that this age is increasingly more typical for graduation. This change has challenging consequences, especially in the field of documentary cinema, where I believe original stylistic talent is less important than a kind of wisdom, ability to understand contexts, people and to follow the theme as well as the characters.

Another framework issue is the teaching “tradition”. The Prague-based documentary department branched out from the fiction directing department, partly by accident, in mid 1960s. Soon after, during the 1970s, it became a hub where students were trained mainly in developing expository filmmaking skills, useful for soft propaganda, or a kind of humanistic but de-politicized approach. After November 1989 (a period driven by anti-authoritarian – and anti-communist – ethos and by the spirit of founding new democratic institutions) there were not so many people who could represent this new beginning – in terms of living an authentic life, not being connected with the previous regime, and in terms of having a filmmaking carrier. This was simply impossible. Subsequently, the school was taken over by the “grey zone” filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s, who had used to make depoliticized films and after 1989 some remained depoliticized (and making films from the “humanistic” perspective, often exposing personal issues). Some newly proclaimed their anti-communist attitudes and became more socially oriented in their work. 

Anyhow, there was very little left of the legacy of the Czechoslovak New Wave tradition, which was in general seen as a referential mythology for the resurrection of Czechoslovak cinema. This legacy started to be built on more than 10 years later, with the new deans: Jan Bernard slowly started, followed by more radical Michal Bregant (recently a CEO of the National Film Archive), who put New Wave filmmakers in charge of key departments. Karel Vachek (1940) became the Head of Documentary Department in 2003, leading the department until 2018. His input and effort was to bring complexity and social and political engagement into filmmaking, putting strong emphasis on originality as the key value for school work. The team of teachers was becoming quite diverse, but finally people of my generation prevailed (born at the turn of 1960s and 1970s).

In 2016, an attempt was made to restore the 1990s at the faculty, paradoxically coming with a dean from my own generation. Fortunately, this did not have a negative impact on the department itself, as the head was the experienced teacher and filmmaker Alice Růžičková, who continued on the path set out after 2000, and focused more on the cultivation of internationalization and pre-production skills (mainly dramaturgy) and the processes within the framework of recent institutions.

In terms of teaching, there are three key pillars:

  1. Mentorship – each week at least 4 hours of very personalized meetings related to the student's work, within a small study group (workshop = studio). Students can change their affiliation with the mentor once a year. 
  2. Dramaturgical seminar – mentorship combined with teaching general skills for work with texts in preparatory project stages
  3. Complementary subjects – a wider range of subjects from film history to social sciences, some taught on a weekly, some on a modular basis (modules usually span one or two days, about 9 hours each day). 

A workshop as a tool has two modes: mentorship is basically a continuous workshop on a weekly basis and it is complemented with various, often process-oriented, modules.

Practical work is at the core of the study programme in the sense that there are final screenings of compulsory films made in that year, which is a condition crucial for further continuation in the studies. The theoretical part of that level is tested during the state exam for BA and MA degrees. There is also a written reflection submitted in the form of a BA and a more complex MA thesis. During the year, subjects are offered supporting these key study goals.

Cooperation with other departments differs because of curricular as well as personal reasons. A crucial anomaly, having impact on the whole FAMU, is the curriculum of the Cinematography Department. The exercises are designed in such a way that students can graduate in the BA programme, while submitting only a single inter-department work. It sets priority for cinematography students who are assigned small exercises within their department, and collaboration with other departments is more a question of personal desire than systemic circumstances. This is basically impossible to change, as contracts of cinematography teachers are closely linked with their supervision of particular department exercises. A debate on reform of this situation has become essential, however it is strongly opposed by arguments of “disturbing the tradition” or “destroying craft processes”. Due to this fact, there is more space and demand for DOPs recruited also from among the visual talents studying at the documentary department. We can see this trend continuing later in the graduate's careers, as some of them are working also as DOPs for their colleagues or making DOPs on their own projects. In general, the school is now at the end the dean's term, which has been marked with an authoritarian approach, incompetence and deterioration of the relationships in the community. However, there is hope that this will be reflected as a warning example of methods that should not be repeated. The dean's position in the Czech university system is quite strong and is quite substantial for the development or deterioration of the school.

In terms of technologies, the school combines shooting equipment typical for an independent scene with high-end cameras often cheaper thanks to a lot of rental facilities located in Prague as a result of a large number of international (fiction) productions coming from abroad. Postproduction facilities are absolutely up-to-date, students have access to the last legal version of key SW in the field (Avid, DaVinci Resolve, Adobe pack, Final Cut X), and Pro Tools are commonplace in postproduction. 

As for international opportunities, the school has a lot of options – most accessible within the Erasmus and Free Mover schemes, but there is also a lot of opportunities to support individual study stays, arranged through bilateral agreements. Internships are basically not used at all, as the studies are hands-on oriented. 

Peter Kerekes

Department of Documentary Filmmaking, Film and Television Faculty, Academy of Dramatic Arts, Bratislava, Slovakia

We have a 3+2 years system of education: 3 years of the Bachelor’s degree and 2 years for the Master’s degree. During the first year, students learn the basics of documentary filmmaking. In the winter term, they have to make short silent film ­– “Production Process” – on how to create something. The film should be silent, without any dialogues or voiceover (exceptions are allowed). This important exercise is intended to teach them how to tell the story only using visual tools, to establish a relationship with the protagonists and to learn to build the second plan of storytelling. During the winter term, they also have to make an “observation of a certain place” film.  In the summer term, students have to shoot a film portrait – with a maximum running time of 10 minutes. 

After the first year, they have a chance to choose a “studio”. We have three “Studios” led by different teachers – directors with various approaches to filmmaking and also to the teaching on cinema. Students can choose the “studio” they want to attend and they can change it at the beginning of each new academic year. Students studying for the second and third Bachelor’s degree are joined together with the students from the Master’s degree. 

During the year, students are working on their films and in the studio, they have group consultations; the students are part of the process. The studio combines practical exercises and theoretical knowledge. As part of the Bachelor’s programme, students have to try different genres of documentary filmmaking – reportage, journalistic film, but they also have a chance to develop they own style when creating their student films at the end of each term. In the Master’s programme, they have to concentrate on their diploma film and also on their theoretical diploma thesis. 

Besides their work in the “studio”, students have lessons on documentary film dramaturgy, camera, editing, basics of documentary production and theoretical lessons – philosophy, history of art, and history of film. The ratio of practical work versus theory is probably 50% x 50%.

The documentary department is connected with the camera, editing, sound and production departments. During the studies, students from these departments are obliged to work together. Of course, in reality it is sometimes harder, as there are sometimes more directors than editors, for example. There is a popular subject “Contemporary Authorial Documentary Film” – with screenings and open discussions about the films. This subject is available also for students from other departments. On top of that, every year, we are organizing masterclasses, where we invite interesting documentary film directors to speak about their films (Nino Kirtadze, Boris Mitic, Piotr Stasik). 

Our school uses the most up-to-date technologies, and is usually only one or two years behind the current trends in cinematography, editing and sound equipment. 

Our students are used to study abroad, participating in the Erasmus programme (Poland, Finland, UK, Portugal). Internship programmes are not as popular as in other countries. 

Attila Kékesi

University of Theatre and Film Arts, Budapest, Hungary

The documentary MA faculty at the University of Theatre and Film Arts, Budapest, was established in 2012 by Tamás Almási and Attila Kékesi. The two, who have stayed as lecturers at the faculty till today, also participated in the leading Academic Board, and teamed up with two partner universities: Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon and LUCA School of Arts, Brussels, to organize the international joint masters DocNomads programme: the Hungarian film school is the consortium leader, and Erika Winkler is the consortium coordinator. 

Since the beginning, practical work has been in the center of both MA programmes. During the first three terms, each student has to make an examination film and two to three shorter exercises. In the fourth term, students work on their graduation films. 

The Hungarian MA class has eight students, and the whole class works participates in a kind of a workshop where they follow each other’s projects together under the guidance of the teachers. They discuss important questions related to all actual stages of the whole filmmaking process. Each semester has a main focus, and in order to find their own voice connecting to this focus, the students are assigned exercises to help them look at different aspects of their projects. Each week, they have to work on a new assignment which becomes a part of the film or helps them find a character, approach and style of the film or a way of telling their stories. During this process, other courses are involved to develop their cinematography, sound recording or editing skills and usually connecting to the specific task they are working on.

 Each term, there is a field work in the countryside for 9-10 days, where MA director students work together in teams in order to learn how to find a topic in a very short time, how to develop a project together, and how to shoot and edit it under the given circumstances. This also helps the group dynamic in the class.

For their graduation films, they can collaborate with students of other departments, who can be engaged as cinematographers, sound designers or editors in their projects.

In the international DocNomads classes, there are about 24 students in each edition, and students are divided into four groups for their practical projects and each group of students has a tutor during the semester. Connecting to their exercises they have group consultations which are very similar to the Hungarian MA class workshops and they also have individual weekly consultations with their tutor, who helps them further develop their projects.

DocNomads is a mobile school, where students start their studies in Lisbon in the first term, then move to Budapest for the second term and finally to Brussels for the third one. During the fourth term they are divided in three parts and make their graduation films in one of these three cities. During this graduation filmmaking process, the universities follow the same structure and have some common events, like the pitching session of the projects where we use the Cisco system, which provides us with one virtual classroom shared by the three universities.

At the end of the two-year programme we have the final graduation exam screening in Brussels where we invite independent external jury members for evaluating the films.

Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz

Łódź Film School, Poland

At the film school in Łódź where I teach, we have a tradition of teaching both: feature and documentary film in parallel. We believe that this approach to education enriches both of the film genres and, above all, enriches students and their understanding of reality and the ability to talk about it.

In the course of 5-year-long studies, students make three documentaries and three feature films.

In the first year, we teach the basics of documentary filmmaking skills: how to observe reality, what to choose from it, how to work with the character, and how to build a narrative. In the first term, we only have practical subjects supplemented with analyses of outstanding documentaries and student films from previous years.

In the second semester, students prepare a 10-minute documentary film, which they make with the students of the cinematography department, edited by professional film editors.

It is possible to make three films on a 35mm reel. We usually have 12 people a year.

At each of the following years of study, students work with new professors, thanks to whom they contact many artistic individualities at school. Gradually, more difficult issues related to film narration, as well as film work, are introduced – how to prepare for pitching, how to work on longer film forms.

Only in the first year, students work with professional film editors. From the second year on, they can work with colleagues from the editing department. Of course, cooperation with cinematographers is obligatory and we rarely approve of students shooting films by themselves. Students of the cinematography department have access to the best cameras at school and they can also show films made with students from the directing department as their work. The idea of ​​such cooperation is to come as as close as possible to the professional conditions during filmmaking.

When it comes to internships abroad, students can use such opportunities if they arrange them on their own. The school sometimes takes part in international workshops, students go to festivals, which is covered from the school's funds.

The school also deals with the promotion of student films, and is greatly successful. This year we won a student Oscar for a documentary film.

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