Imagining the Real: Humphrey Jennings and Contemporary Documentary Filmmaking

Mr Charlie Ritchie

“…it might reasonably be contended that Humphrey Jennings is the only real poet the British Cinema has yet produced.”– Lindsay Anderson, Sight and Sound, 1954

Humphrey Jennings was a leading member of the British documentary film movement and created some of the most enduring images and sounds of British life during wartime. His posthumous book Pandaemonium is the acknowledged inspiration for Danny Boyle’s celebrated Olympic 2012 opening ceremony. A polymath graduate of Pembroke College, he worked in poetry, painting, theatre and scholarship, but his impact on documentary filmmaking is our focus for this course. We will assess Jennings’ achievement and innovation in making the documentary form a creative and critical response to changing social realities. Jennings work, particularly A Diary for Timothy (1945) always addresses the future as much as it records the past, and we will consider contemporary documentary filmmaking in the light of his example. Trained in the John Grierson realist school, Jennings was equally an organiser of the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and we will explore his legacy as one of creative vision, in the Blakean tradition of imaginative transformation, as much as archive record. Jennings has profoundly shaped the visual repertoire of 21st century British filmmaking. Boyle’s Olympic vision playfully and properly placed him at the heart of representations of British identity. As a co-founder of the Mass Observation movement, moreover, Jennings helped to initiate the kinds of social observation, ‘people-watching’, and quizzical investigations of lived reality that have become such a dominant mode in the media spectacle of everyday life.

 The second half of the course will deal with the contemporary status of documentary and the work of recent filmmakers like Kim Longinotto, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris and his followers. We will consider the input of documentary practitioners. Students will pursue individual research into documentary work and ideas, and classes will encourage discussion and audio-visual presentation work from the participants. There will be an opportunity to access the Jennings archive at Pembroke College with the course tutor .Term papers may be based on Jennings, contemporary work, or a comparison of the two. Some students may wish to submit a short documentary film as a final assignment.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: No prior background in film studies is assumed; creative interests are encouraged.

Transferable Skills: As well as developing skills of analysis, argument and research, this course will focus creative and critical understanding of film and media language.

Suggested Reading and Viewing

Texts: Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins (eds.), Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (Faber 1998)
Angus Calder The People’s War (Pimlico 1998)
Kevin Jackson, Humphrey Jennings (Picador 2004)
Films: Humphrey Jennings Collection, Filmfirst DVD



  • 1 Final Exam: 45%
  • 1 Final Essay or short film exercise: 45%
  • 1 Midterm presentation or paper: 10%


Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)