What Are The Best Documentary Film Schools?


Documentary Film School

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There are plenty of film schools in the United States but not every college or university offers a documentary film program specifically. Some documentary film programs are intensive self contained units independent of a larger college, and others may be a menu of documentary filmmaking courses within a film program at a liberal arts college where you will be required to take other classes to get a four year degree. Still other schools may organize documentary film courses under their television, journalism, or or communications departments. Just as there are many different types of documentary films (like feature length docs in theaters vs TV documentaries on the Discovery Channel vs short branded doc journalism that runs on 60 Minutes), there are also different types of documentary film schools.

Here is our guide to some of the best documentary film schools and documentary film programs:

If you’re interested in going to a documentary film school, it’s important to consider the approach of each school that you may be interested in researching. So we’ve organized the following documentary filmmaking programs into a three different categories: self contained documentary units that you can take without enrolling at a college/university, and documentary film programs within larger film schools or schools that are primarily film schools, and documentary film programs or centers within liberal arts colleges (though there is some overlap between the last two categories with certain colleges).

Self Contained Documentary Film Courses

George Washington University’s Graduate Certificate Program
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GWU’s Institute for Documentary Filmmaking offers a six month (January-June) intensive documentary filmmaking course. The program is split into two sections: first, an intensive dive into the history and concept of documentary film combined with technical camera workshops, and then second from May through June a capstone project where students work together to develop and produce a short documentary film. Course topics include an introduction to documentary film genres, workshops in lighting, shooting and editing, pitch sessions and documentary screenwriting.

Maine Media Documentary Film School Program
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Maine Media Workshops + College offers an annual four week documentary filmmaking workshop where students focus on hands on learning to craft short documentaries. During the summer workshop, students learn about how to research, develop, produce and edit a documentary film and work together in a group. Class films in the past have screened at film festivals and aired on PBS. MMWC also offers other stand-alone documentary film courses which you can find on their website.

New York Film Academy Documentary Conservatory
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Offered in both New York City and Los Angeles, the NYFA’s documentary conservatory is a one year documentary filmmaking program split into two semesters (3 for LA). This intensive program focuses somewhat on the history of documentary film and the art of the genre itself but more on practical documentary filmmaking. Students learn how to make documentaries by making them as part of this year-long program. Students exit the program with a thesis documentary film of up to 30 minutes in length.

Film Schools Teaching Documentary Making Courses

University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts
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USC has perhaps the top film school in the country and they have plenty of opportunities for students to work on honing their documentary filmmaking skills. Explains USC professor Mark Harris (winner of 3 Academy Awards): “We don’t have a program as much as an emphasis in documentary. Although graduate students can concentrate on documentary filmmaking, most take courses in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. We see them as complementary. Fiction courses help documentarians to tell better stories by giving them structural and narrative tools; documentaries help fiction filmmakers create more realistic and nuanced characters and more believable stories.”

Stanford University MFA Program in Documentary Film and Video
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Stanford’s Film and Media Studies program offers one of the best documentary film MFAs available. Its two year program accepts 8 new students per year and graduates are qualified to teach documentary film themselves at the university level. As you might expect from a documentary program housed within an Art & Art History Department, Stanford approaches documentary film as art, aesthetics and social awareness. Graduate documentary students learn about the history of documentary film and also learn practical documentary filmmaking skills and exit the program with a portfolio of documentary work.

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Liberal Arts Colleges Offering Documentary Filmmaking Courses

UC Berkley School of Journalism Documentary Film Program
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UC Berkeley offers one of the best documentary film programs in the country with a focus on documentary as journalism (not necessarily as film). It’s nestled within the Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and as such prepares largely prepares its students to work in television documentary film (an ever-expanding field). According to the program, students’ final projects are “venturesome, meaningful, and suitable for wide prime-time distribution via PBS, commercial networks, or cable TV. Every year several master’s project films are picked up for nationwide prime-time broadcast, and nearly all have regional broadcast and extensive exposure at film festival.”

American University School of Communications
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The name American University School of Communications probably sounds familiar to a lot of documentary filmmakers because its Center for Media & Social Impact published the extremely well known Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use document, which remains the authoritative document on the subject. Patricia Aufderheide, one of the most experts on fair use in documentary film also teaches at AUSOC. Additionally, American University School of Communications also has its own dedicated Center for Environmental Filmmaking, that will be of particular interest to any aspiring documentary filmmakers interested in producing nature or environmental documentaries considering documentary film school.

Columbia College Chicago
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While Columbia College Chicago is technically a liberal arts college, meaning it offers the same number of classes and departments that any other college would, it also houses America’s largest film school program, which means film gets a lot more attention than it might at other liberal arts schools with only communications programs. Within Columbia College’s enormous Cinema Art + Science department is the Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary Film, named after a former professor there who wrote one of the most well known instructional books on documentary filmmaking, Directing the Documentary. CCC offers over thirty classes in documentary film, primarily in its Cinema Arts + Science department but also in its Television department as well.

Duke University Center for Documentary Studies
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At 25, The Duke University Center for Documentary Studies is one of the oldest dedicated documentary film schools in the United States. CDS offers scores of documentary filmmaking classes which start with still photography and transition into documentary film, covering both practical production aspects and also academic documentary filmmaking studies. Duke also hosts hosts the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival each year, one of North America’s top documentary film festivals. Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies offers three options for studying documentary film: their normal undergraduate program, an MFA in documentary film, and a continuing education courses that any adult can enroll in during the summertime.