Skip links

Where to Study Documentary Filmmaking?

In our new series about “Where to Study Film”, we’re providing you with a short and sweet overview of various established places where you can go back to school, if you’re into that sort of thing. We’ll be focusing on different areas of study—starting with documentary filmmaking. In addition, because we’re all about affordability, we’ll target primarily Europe—one of the last bastions of inexpensive education and a surprising amount of English-taught courses.

After your positive responses to our blog post about studying film in Denmark, we realized many of you are very interested in learning more about formal and affordable film education. You’ve come to the right place—we love getting nerdy about all aspects of film! With a background in visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking, I’m especially excited to promote non-fiction filmmaking. Curious why learning about documentary filmmaking could be useful for you? I mention a couple pros and cons below.

First things first—do you actually need to go to film school?

We’re not big fans of binary answers. Life is much more complicated than a bunch of “yes”s and “no”s. What works for one can be the downfall of another. You can find legendary filmmakers both with and without formal training. 

You don’t need to study film to be an excellent filmmaker. Similarly, skipping on formal film education altogether is not guaranteed to make you a top-rated filmmaker. The wonderfully chaotic world of creative industries departs significantly from the traditional A-to-B career paths of olden days.

We’ve said it before—many of the talented filmmakers we meet and work with at our independent film events around the world are self-taught. Incredibly driven, passionate people who have a dream and throw all their resources into making that dream reality. One could say the entire independent film industry has historically been about breaking rules and going against the grain. Certainly, nowadays, even the most isolated filmmaker can learn practical skills with the help of the internet. If you live in North America and are looking at a 6-digit college bill, you would be excused if you mentally checked out. 

That said, formal education—especially when affordably priced—continues to be a reliable source of support in your professional development. Putting aside many of the flaws of traditional educational systems, one thing is for sure—you won’t leave school without a stable network of like-minded individuals (among many other things). A reliable network is one of the most important things you need as a filmmaker. Going back to school can be extremely helpful, especially when you’ve had some practical, “real-world” experience. For more about the pros and cons of formal film education, you can (re)visit this insightful IndieWire article.

Now that we’ve put to rest this age-old dilemma…

Why Study Documentary Filmmaking?

The short answer—because I’m a fan. 

The slightly longer answer—because docs are having a new moment in the spotlight, with more people than ever watching and producing non-fiction content. 

The tl;dr answer—because learning how to shoot non-fiction teaches you valuable skills that can be applied in any artistic endeavour that requires observation and critical thinking competencies.

Working in all kinds of environments, often outside of your control, with little to no budget, and having to improvise in the face of adversity. These are all essential elements of the independent filmmaker’s toolkit.

Finally, non-fiction filmmaking opens a world of career opportunities, from working with corporate videos, to working in the reality TV industry. If you think that’s selling out, there’s more public and private funding available for social issue documentaries than ever before. This is not to say life as a documentarian is peachy—it’s far from that. Still, when you’re an independent filmmaker, struggling with every aspect of production and development, every little helps. 

With that in mind, let’s dive in.

An Inexhaustible List of Learning

I divided the list into short courses and long / graduate degrees.

There’s a significant contrast in duration and tuition fees between these. To clarify, I won’t try to convince you a Masters degree is better value than a 6-week-long course (although this article will try to convince you of the opposite!). Everyone’s needs and resources are different. Hopefully, those with less time and money on their hands will find the section on short courses more useful. And those with more time and money on their hands (if that’s even a thing in the world of independent filmmakers!) can check out the section on University / Longer Education Degrees. 

In each section, I highlight one Best Value option—this is the course that offers most for the money, so search below for it!

Courses / Short Programmes (up to 8 weeks)

The following courses are listed in the order they’re taking place, with priority given to courses who have a waitlist open. Generally speaking, the following courses & short programmes focus on practical teaching, with at least one short documentary project as output.

a group of filmmakers on a lawn discussing documentary filmmaking
Frances Flaherty leading a discussion at an early Seminar in Vermont © The Flaherty Seminar

Duration: 1 week, June 13 – 19, 2020

Location: NY, US

Tuition: $1,550 if you apply before April 1

Quick recap: This weeklong annual summer seminar, named after Robert Flaherty, the father of non-fiction filmmaking, has been taking place for more than 50 years. Each year, a different theme is explored. Perfect for anyone looking for an immersive, idyllic week spent debating and reflecting on the genre. This is a theoretical seminar, but a great place to develop important networks with fellow filmmakers, programmers and critics.

Duration: 2 weeks, June 15 – 26, 2020

Location: Manchester, UK

Tuition: £1,150

Quick recap: This Short Course in Ethnographic Documentary is best suited for beginners with a social science or scientific background. No filmmaking experience necessary and, by the end of the course, you’ll have planned, shot and produced a thoughtful short documentary ready to be shared with the world.

Duration: 2 weeks, starting on July 6, 2020

Location: Nottingham, UK

Tuition: £1,100, or £990 if you apply and pay by March 31st, 2020 

Quick recap: With accommodation coming to around £300, all in all, this is one of the best value opportunities for anyone with at least one year of undergraduate studies looking to produce a short doc with cutting-edge facilities and industry standard equipment.

Duration: 6 weeks, June 15 – July 24, 2020

Location: London, UK

Tuition: £2,995 if booked by May 4th, 2020

Quick recap: If you have an idea for a documentary and want to turn your dream into reality, this intensive, 6-week course will provide the grounding you need to transform your initial concept into a gripping factual film. The bonus? You get to pitch your final project to a panel of documentary industry professionals, which is priceless industry experience.

Two people conducting a video interview in a winter landscape
© Raindance Documentary Foundation

Duration: 1 day a week, 5 weeks

Location: London, UK

Tuition: £215, 10% Early Bird discount if you apply by June 2002

Quick recap: This five-evening intensive practical course is led by award-winning director and documentarian Col Spector. He guides students through his legendary 8 golden rules for how to make documentaries that audiences will engage with and broadcasters will hopefully buy and festivals will select. This top-rated course is best suited for writers, directors and producers already working in documentary or for those wanting to cross over into non-fiction.

Duration: 8 weeks, July 6 – August 28, 2020

Location: London, UK, or Berlin, Germany

Tuition: £4,995 (but they do have a 10% Early Bird Discount when you book six months ahead of the course start date, so keep an eye out for future courses)

Quick recap: Perfect for beginners looking to develop a finished short documentary from scratch, paired with top-class tuition from experienced industry professionals.

Duration: 1-2 weeks

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Tuition: $1,950 – 3,000

Quick recap: With short, intensive courses in Directing Documentary or a Masterclass in Developing Documentaries, the Filmschool for Shorts and Documentaries in Denmark will definitely have something for anyone. Don’t get scared by their Danish website—we have it on good authority that their English tuition skills are just as sharp.

Duration: 6 weeks

Location: NY or LA, US

Tuition: $4,365 plus Equipment Fee: $829

Quick recap: This is an intensive program that combines in-class instruction and hands-on production workshops. The workshop will take you through learning about and practicing shooting observational films, interviewing and creating a final documentary project.

Graduate / Longer Education Degrees (1-2 years)

The following graduate degrees have a balanced blend of theory and practical exercises, with a couple of short non-fiction films throughout the degree and, usually, one longer documentary project at the end of the programme.

If you’re interested in more theoretical programmes, let me know in the comments, and I’ll update the list.

Duration: 1 year, deadline for application March 31, 2020

Location: Prague, Czech Republic

Tuition: €15,980 

Quick recap: This program offers an intensive hands-on experience and academic disciplines with mentorship enabling the student to complete several art works by the end of the academic year. In short, this is a great option if you’re undecided between a short course or a longer graduate degree, but still want to experience making a documentary (on 16mm, if interested!) in one of the most picturesque cities in Europe.

Duration: 2 years

Location: Lisbon, Portugal; Budapest, Hungary; Brussels, Belgium

Tuition: €18,000 (paid in 3 instalments); if you’re from EU/EAA/CH, you can apply for an Erasmus+ scholarship that would cover at least half of the tuition fee

Quick recap: This is a unique Masters programme that takes full advantage of the diminutive size of Europe. Over the course of 2 years, you get to live and study in 3 different European capitals. This kind of diverse, international experience is hard to come by. Students are continually learning from each other and from the wide-range of practical and aesthetic problems the different assigned exercises offer. Aimed for students with a BA degree in Film Studies, in Arts or in Media Communication studies.

A group of students preparing a documentary film shoot
© The New School

Duration: 1 year

Location: NY, US

Tuition: $15,830

Quick recap: The Graduate Certificate in Documentary Media Studies is an intensive professional education program for prospective documentarians. In the course of one year, you develop, shoot, direct, and edit an original short documentary film on a New York City-related subject. Applicants must have a BA degree from an accredited institution and submit a portfolio; previous study of filmmaking is not required. The program includes: participation in the student documentary festival, Truth Be Told, and monthly talks with guest artists and professionals in the field of documentary cinema

To sum up, there’s new documentary programs popping up every year so this is only a teaser of all the places where you can study documentary filmmaking in Europe. Have you had some great experiences with places not on this list? Then, let me know so I can add them to this post.

  1. Thanks really helpful. Will certainly share site with my pals.

    1. So happy to hear that, James!

Comments are closed.