Grey Room

Sol Worth, Film Theory, and the Politics of the Bio-Documentary

Henning Engelke

Barry Griffin, James Lucas, Luerell Mapp, Ronnie Mapp, Michael Watters, and Howard White, dirs. Not Much to Do, 1966. Frame enlargement. Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia.


In July 1964 the communication scholar and film educator Sol Worth screened two films made by his students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications to an audience of 350 schoolchildren in Harlem. He was eager to observe the children’s reactions. Hired in 1960 by the Annenberg School to teach documentary filmmaking, Worth quickly realized the broader research potential of his students’ films. Rather than looking at their explicit content, at what the films ostensibly represented, he became interested in what they revealed about the persons who made them. He coined the term bio-documentary to indicate that the films captured “a subjective way of showing what the objective world that a person sees is ‘really’ like.” At the same time, he wanted to use the films to study the process of visual communication. Were specific “film languages” or different “argots” used by members of different age groups, social classes, or cultures? Could members of the same age group better understand the films made by their peers?

Viewed not as depictions of external events but as records of subjective points of view, bio-documentaries were simultaneously conceived as a medium for community work, social research, and planning, and as material for research on the semiotics of film and visual communication. They were meant to provide insights into the psychology, cultural values, and cognitive orientation of young populations and to form an empirical basis for studying the structures and codes of film language. Teaching filmmaking to young people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds suggested groundbreaking possibilities of participatory research, but it was at the same time enmeshed in institutional policies aimed at controlling and containing youth populations. Tracing Worth’s theoretical research and film teaching across these diverse contexts, this article considers the interrelations and tensions surfacing in his work between the production of academic knowledge, film pedagogy, and the social politics of the War on Poverty. Doing so affords a look at the entanglement of emerging theoretical concepts in visual communication studies, film studies, and visual anthropology with conflicting practices and policies of nontheatrical film and participatory media.