Program Overview

One of the Top Ten Documentary Film Programs in the Nation

Program overview

The annual January through June Institute for Documentary Filmmaking is the central educational offering of The Documentary Center. This six-month advanced nine-credit program leads to a Graduate Certificate in Documentary Filmmaking.

6 month program

A six-month, nine-credit program leads to a Graduate Certificate in Documentary Filmmaking.

Program Overview Docuwood

D.C. is the hub for non-fiction filmmaking in the U.S. Major production companies - including National Geographic Television, WETA, and more - are located within the DC metropolitan area.

Program Overview Internships

All students are eligible for hands-on internships during the first four months of the Institute and are highly sought after by production companies large and small.

There are no other intensive graduate documentary filmmaking programs in the nation like the Institute for Documentary Filmmaking at the George Washington University (GW). For close to 30 years, we have been the only institution that offers this type of concentrated, intensive training and education in nonfiction production. The Institute for Documentary Filmmaking has been ranked one of the top ten documentary programs in the nation.

Held in “Docuwood” - The Epicenter of U.S. Documentary Filmmaking

Our location adds to your unique experience in the Institute. Washington, D.C., is considered the “Docuwood” of filmmaking: PBS, Discovery and National Geographic are all based in Washington, D.C., as does an entire industry that supports these nonfiction giants. Our students regularly intern for these and other esteemed non-fiction production entities and these organizations frequently provide professional development and networking opportunities for our students. Our students also benefit from access to the largest historical collections in the world at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution in your everyday work that no other location or program can offer.

Welcoming Students From Diverse Professional and Academic Backgrounds

Individuals who attend the Institute come from such diverse backgrounds as broadcasting, law, psychology, literature, science, anthropology, museum studies, and education. Many participants do not have any media or filmmaking backgrounds, while others have extensive experience in these fields, so prior technical experience is not a requirement.

What all participants share, however, is a strong commitment to creating non-fiction stories and developing their expression in a visual form.  Moreover, each member of the Institute must have a demonstrated ability to work collaboratively, as this course – as well as all filmmaking – is a highly interactive, interpersonal experience.

Learn from the Best in the Business

GW Documentary Center Founder and Director, Professor Nina Seavey oversees all aspects of The Institute for Documentary Filmmaking. Throughout the course of the six-month program, she teaches classes, reviews assignments, meets with and counsels students, and works closely with Institute instructors and staff to ensure the success of the program. She also holds regular office hours each Tuesday and Thursday from 4:00 - 6:00 PM throughout the first four months of the program. During production, she is available 24/7 via email and phone to address questions as they arise. Similarly, she holds small-group critique sessions which all students are strongly encouraged to attend. Upon completion of the graduate certificate program, Seavey mentors Institute graduates throughout their journey towards becoming a filmmaker.

Priority Deadline for Admission to the 2019 Institute: November 1, 2018

Applicants who wish to have the option of enrolling in the staggered tuition payment plan must apply by this priority deadline. Any applications received after the priority deadline will be reviewed for admission on a space-available basis and admitted students may not be eligible for the payment plan. 


Assignments and Film Production

There are a variety of written and visual assignments due within the first four months of the Institute that help students explore the fundamentals of documentary filmmaking as building blocks to actual production.

The last two months of the Institute are devoted to a group production of a documentary film. You will not create a film on your own, as we emphasize that filmmaking is a collaborative process at the Institute. Most groups have approximately eight members, all serving in a variety of roles of each participant's choosing.

You should not come with a preconceived notion of what they want to make the group film about. Your ideas, perspectives, and insights into "what works and what doesn't" and "what's possible" will change radically from the first day of the Institute to the date by which the group decides what film to produce.

Course Outline

This six-month program is both a theoretical and hands-on exploration of the creation of documentary films. We believe that great documentary films are made with intention, vision and foresight.  Filmmakers must have a very strong sense of how to achieve their goals with the palette of visual modes available to them. And they need to hold, in the highest regard, the documentarian's ethical responsibility to find the truth in all subject matter. In other words, documentary film is not created by taking out a camera, shooting things that are "real" and then hoping, once you arrive in the editing room, that a compelling story reveals itself to you. It is from this basic premise that the Institute has developed into one of the leading programs in the nation devoted to the production and teaching of non-fiction films.

This is a rigorous, demanding and intensive course. We make no pretense in being able to cover everything offered by a two-year film school. But we do engage an extensive array of conceptual and practical material during the six months of the program. Our primary focus will be on the art and craft of creating documentary films and we will briefly touch on other elements, such as the business side of producing film.

First and foremost, we require that our students think intelligently about film; to see many films, deconstruct those films and understand the critical elements of making films in various genres. Our students do not pick up a camera and instead learn to edit right away. In the first phase of the program,we bring our students to a common vocabulary and understanding of documentary filmmaking prior to learning the more rudimentary lessons of how to operate the tools to make such films.

Students learn more about cinematography, lighting, sound and editing through technical training workshops the two months of production for the student-produced film.

Applicants should think of the Institute experience as a "boot camp" for documentary filmmaking.  It is a challenging, rigorous, fast-paced and intensive program.  It is expected that our students come to us with a commitment that is singular for this six-month period.  Our participants find that there is time for little else, especially when you are working on your story-board project, when you engage technical training and finally when you are in production on the capstone film.  In addition, we seek to have our students not only take responsibility for their own progress but equally for the progress of those around them.

PLEASE REMEMBER: You must receive at least a "B" in both the spring semester (six graduate credits) and summer session (three graduate credits) in order to successfully complete the program and receive a Certificate in Documentary Filmmaking.

Deadlines and Requirements

The Institute for Documentary Filmmaking runs from January to June each year. We traditionally begin accepting applications in July and notify accepted students in November and December.

  • From January through April the class will meet from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  • Classes range from  lectures to  seminar discussions on issues related to all phases of documentary filmmaking.
  • In addition, you will also participate in two workshops will be held outside of regular class hours - both over entire weekends and in additional day and evening hours - in lighting, camera, sound and editing where you will work in small hands-on groups.

All workshops are MANDATORY. We give participants plenty of advance warning as to when workshops will be held. Because of the personal one-on-one nature of our workshop approach, we cannot provide additional makeup workshops. Therefore, do not schedule travel or time-off for the spring or summer until you have closely reviewed the program syllabus to assure that there are no scheduling conflicts, and that you are certain to be able to attend the entire weekend, evening, and periodic weekday training sessions. There are no exceptions to this policy and these workshops are required to complete the program.

All of May and June will be devoted to the group production of a single short documentary. If you intend to work while you study at the Institute,  make arrangements with your employer to take substantial leave during these final two months while you complete your production. .