Date of Award


First Advisor

Asma Abbas

Second Advisor

Lawrence Burke


In 1926, John Grierson wrote of Robert and Frances Flaherty’s film Moana that, “it has some documentary value,” thus inadvertently coining the phrase of documentary film. Asking under what conditions documentary value is produced, this thesis examines documentary production in three parts. Beginning with an examination of the historical relationship between documentary and ethnographic film, I ask how these categories have become distinguished from one another and to what end. Putting these histories into conversation then necessitates examining the employment of film by ethnographers and documentarians alike to further projects of colonialism and capitalist expansion. Returning to Grierson’s phrase of “documentary value” and relating it to Karl Marx’s labor theory of value, I trace how and where documentary value is produced, from whom it is accrued, the processes by which it is made visible, and what constitutes the valorization of such value. In considering how contemporary filmmakers engage with documentary production, and perhaps in a counter to the production of documentary value, I turn towards Inuit and Native American filmmakers Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Zach and Adam Khalil. These sections coalesce in their consideration of documentary as a historical and political form of aesthetic production and relation.

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