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A story of documentary film

Written in partnership with the BFI, this Open University online short course traces the history of the documentary form in Britain.

Documentary has been described as Britain’s greatest contribution to cinema. This accolade is often only associated with John Grierson’s documentary movement of the 1930s and 1940s. This course surveys the wealth of non-fiction films made in this country from the late Victorian period to the present day. Expert curators guide you through some of the world’s most fascinating films and filmmakers, many from the outstanding collections held by the BFI National Archive. You'll be encouraged to think about the documentary form across a century’s worth of cinema, in a variety of styles, genres and subjects.

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Standalone study only

This module is available for standalone study only. Any credits from this module cannot be counted towards an OU qualification.


Module code




Study level

Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
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What you will study

This six-week course is structured along these key themes:

Week 1: Introduction: the seeds of documentary in Britain.
You'll be introduced to the great diversity of non-fiction films created in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and explore the ways in which, even from the earliest days of film, the seeds of the documentary form were being sown. By studying the work of pioneer filmmakers, such as Charles Urban and Mitchell and Kenyon, you'll learn about the use of film for social and educational purposes and other forms of non-fiction, such as newsreel to capture ‘slices of life’.

Week 2: The Documentary Film Movement
This week focuses on John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement, and how documentary became recognised as a distinct form in the 1930s. We look in-depth at two classic documentaries which bear his imprint – Drifters (1929) and Night Mail (1936). We also consider the experimental film Coal Face (1935), which involved many of the same crew and contributors.

Week 3: Documentary at War
We turn our attention to Britain at war and how documentary filmmakers adjusted, and even flourished, during a period of huge societal upheaval, uncertainty and devastation. Using Humphrey Jennings’ work as a lens to view this unique period of British history and filmmaking, you'll be exploring poetry, propaganda and the people’s war.

Week 4: Independent voices
You'll discover a fracturing in the singular ‘mainstream’ narrative of British documentary that we’ve studied so far. We'll examine a selection of independent or ‘alternative’ films which were not state-funded and which were made outside the framework of the film industry. Uncovering these fascinating and, on occasion, provocative voices will take us back to the 1930s and then to the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s

Week 5: The camera is ours: Britain’s women documentary makers
You’ll consider the often-neglected stories of female filmmakers (the subject of a recent BFI project of the same name). Mary Field, Ruby Grierson and Molly Dineen are this week’s case studies and you will study a rich array of non-fiction films made by women, including natural history, political and campaigning, advertising and educational films.

Week 6: Living in an unreal world: TV and documentary
In the final week we'll consider what the advent of new and different forms of the moving image has meant for the possibilities of documentary making and watching. You'll study five different programme examples that suggest the growing breadth of documentary styles, from the commemoration of partly filmed history in 1964’s The Great War to the presenter-guided approach on human achievements in Civilisation (1969), the experimental sociological observation of Seven Up! (1963) and its sequels, to the ‘fly on the wall’ portrait series The Family (1974) and the quasi-documentary drama enactment of Cathy Come Home (1966).

The additional key film texts you'll study in this course include:

  • Rough Sea at Dover (1895)
  • A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910)
  • Housing Problems (1935)
  • The Silent Village (1943)
  • Listen to Britain (!946)
  • London Me Bharat (1972)
  • Women of the Rhondda (1973)
  • Handsworth Songs (1986)
  • The Heart of the Angel (1989)

The set films are intended to build your knowledge and understanding of this rich and varied tradition in filmmaking, and each week connections are made between what you’ve watched and learnt previously, highlighting the impact of influences and innovators along the way.

This course is also designed to develop your comprehension of the language of film, helping build your confidence when watching and discussing a wide range of moving images, especially in relation to British archive film.

You will learn

After completing this course, you will have gained:

Knowledge and understanding of:
  • the evolution and development of non-fiction film and documentary filmmaking in Britain from 1895 to the present day
  • how documentary film reflected society and how society impacted documentary
  • some fundamental principles behind documentary practice, and some of the choices that are available to filmmakers
  • film archives and their collections, as well as the work of curators.
Cognitive skills with the ability to:
  • understand and use key concepts and critical vocabulary from film and media studies when engaging with non-fiction and documentary film
  • understand the language of film and be confident when discussing moving images
  • understand the use of examples, illustrations and case studies when assessing an argument
  • reflect on your standpoint and the standpoint of others with respect to the content discussed in the course.
Key skills with the ability to:
  • effectively communicate information accurately and appropriately to the subject, purpose and context
  • communicate with and learn from others in an online environment
  • use feedback and self-reflection to improve your own learning.
Practical and professional skills with an:
  • ability to plan, study and manage a sequence of work that meets a deadline
  • understanding of future study opportunities.

Vocational relevance

This course has relevance for those interested in working in film and the media. It teaches skills of visual and critical analysis, self-reflection, time management, and engaging in forums.

Learner support

Expert, confidential learner support is available when you need it from a Study Adviser, who will respond to you directly. Other support is available via the course forum, StudentHome website and computing helpdesk.

If you have a disability

The course is delivered online/onscreen and the material is visually rich, using video and audio. Descriptions of visual elements (including transcripts) will be provided where appropriate. Visually impaired students may therefore find an external study helper useful in order to achieve some learning outcomes.

Outside the UK

There are no restrictions to studying this course. While you will not be able to access the BFI Player if you are studying outside of the UK, all videos and other assets are embedded in the module materials with full access to all registered students.

Teaching and assessment


There's no formal assessment, although there will be three ‘review and reflect’ points built into the course which you'll use to reflect on your understanding.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations, which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

Entry requirements

There are no entry requirements for this course.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the course, please contact us.

Course length

You’ll study for around 8 hours per week for 6 weeks. In total this course will require around 50 hours to complete.


Start End England fee Register
05 Oct 2024 Nov 2024 £125.00

Registration closes 05/09/24 (places subject to availability)

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2027.

Ways to pay

Credit/Debit Card – We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron.

Sponsorship – If this course is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could ask your employer to sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. Your sponsor just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.

The fee information provided here is valid for short courses starting in the 2024/25 academic year. Fees typically increase annually. For further information about the University's fee policy, visit our Fee Rules.

Can you study an Access module for free?

Depending on eligibility and availability of places, you could apply to study your Access module for free.

To qualify, you must:

  1. be resident in England
  2. have a household income of less than £25,000 (or be in receipt of a qualifying benefit)
  3. have not completed one year or more on any full-time undergraduate programme at FHEQ level 4 or above or successfully completed 30 credits or more of OU study within the last 10 years

How to apply to study an Access module for free

Once you've started the registration process, either online or over the phone, we'll contact you about your payment options. This will include instructions on how you can apply to study for free if you are eligible and funded places are still available.

If you're unsure if you meet the criteria to study for free, you can check with one of our friendly advisers on +44 (0)300 303 0069, or you can request a call back.

Not eligible to study for free?

Don't worry! We offer a choice of flexible ways to help spread the cost of your Access module. The most popular options include:

  • monthly payments through OUSBA
  • part-time tuition fee loan (you'll need to be registered on a qualification for this option)

To explore all the options available to you, visit Fees and Funding.

What's included

All learning materials are delivered entirely online. You’ll have access to a course website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific materials and activities
  • audio and video content
  • discussion forums
  • free access to BFI Player (not available to international students)

You will need

The films in this course are only available to stream online, therefore you will need a good internet connection capable of streaming and watching the film content.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS Ventura or higher.

Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.