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The political avant-garde: Oppositional documentary in Britain since 1990

Presence, Steve



This thesis explores radical left-wing documentary produced in Britain since 1990. Despite constituting a lively and diverse part of contemporary British film culture, oppositional documentary has been overlooked by film and media scholars for much of the last twenty-five years. Indeed, the last book-length study of radical British filmmaking was Margaret Dickinson’s Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film in Britain, 1945-90 (1999). The lack of subsequent research on the topic suggests that a politicised documentary film culture in Britain is now all but non-existent. Yet, on the contrary, the thesis reveals oppositional documentary to be a thriving aspect of alternative British culture, albeit one that has undergone significant changes as it has adapted to the major technological, socio-economic and political developments that have taken place since 1990.

As well as recovering this history, this thesis also suggests some reasons for its neglect in the first place. Asserting an admittedly problematic yet necessary distinction between the aesthetic and the political avant-garde, I claim oppositional documentary as a manifestation of the latter: an explicitly partisan and committed kind of filmmaking in which the need for aesthetic innovation is subordinate to the communication of political ideas. The legacy of a trend dominant in political film theory since the 1970s, I argue that the values and priorities of the aesthetic avant-garde have become the benchmark of political film practice such that the very existence of the political avant-garde has been effaced altogether. Exploring both the video-activist and feature-length efforts of oppositional documentary filmmakers over the last two decades, this thesis re-claims the political avant-garde as an important part of contemporary radical filmmaking in Britain.


Presence, S. The political avant-garde: Oppositional documentary in Britain since 1990. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Sep 5, 2019
Public URL


The Political Avant garde Oppositional Documentary in Britain since 1990.pdf (1.8 Mb)

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