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April 23, 2008
John Grierson (1898-1972)
John Grierson from the Grierson Trust site
John Grierson was the founder of the British documentary movement. He was born in Stirling Scotland 1998. He was going to go to Glasgow University on leaving school but with the outbreak of World War I he joined the Royal Navy serving on a minesweeper.
After the war he went to Glasgow University ending up with a Masters Degree in philosophy and literature. He took up a temporary appointment at Durham University. He didn't complete the research fellowship he was awarded. Instead he moved to the United States to examine immigration problems there in 1924. Grierson returned to Britain in 1927 in January.
Whilst in the USA Grierson had become interested in issues of communications. Grierson developed a position that democracy and mass communications were highly compatible with democratic structures being able to work effectively providing there wre good public information systems. This was when Grierson developed the idea that film was able to communicate a system of public education that was able to develop democratic structures themselves. This became the underlying theory of the documentary film movement.
In 1927 Grierson contacted the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) which was a large British government publicity organisation. He was appointed to the post of Assistant Films Officer. After developing a production plan over the next couple of years Grierson emerged with his first film project Drifters (1929). This led to the establishing of the EMB film unit in 1930.
The EMB Film Unit
Grierson soon started hiring apprentice film-makers after 1930. His initial choices wer Basil Wright and John Taylor. A little later several other people were chosen including J. D. Davidson, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, Paul Rotha, Marion Grierson John Grierson's younger sister, Margaret Taylor (John Taylor's sister), Evlyn Spice, Stuart Legg and Harry Watt. Aitken comments that very few of these people were old enough to have been directly affected by the significant events taking place in the first quarter of the century. Although Grierson grew up near a hard pressed area in Scotland he was relatively distanced from this, and even his service in the first World War was well away from the trenches. Aitken notes that there are few references in his writings to the General Strike even though he was 28 at the time and it was clearly a highly significant event within British politics and society at the time.
There were quite significant differences in the approaches to life and culture amongst the membership of the EMB film unit. Grierson was on the whole anti-scholasticism at some point notes Aitken being scathing about 'bespectacled professors'. Grierson was also distinctly anti-gay whilst Wright and Cavalcanti and several others were gay. Grierson was also very masculinist despite the fact that he was prepared to employ women as directors. However none becoame significant figures within the documentary movement and few were employed after 1940.
The EMB was to prove an unstable organisation from which to build a documentary movement base. After the introduction of major tariff legislation in 1932/33 its reason for existence disappeared and it was abolosihed in 1933. Fortunately Stephen Tallants the sectretary of the EMB who had originally taken on Grierson scured a post at the General Post Office (GPO). One of the conditions of his accepting the post was that the EMB film unit should be transferred to the GPO.
Drifters notes Aitken (1998, p 11)
"...remains one of the most important films in British cinema".
The Empire Marketing Board wanted to produce a film on herring fishing however Drifters was very different from what was expected:
It was a poetic montage documentary , which drew heavily on the film-making styles of Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty and on Grierson's understanding of avant-garde aesthetics. (Aitken, 1998 p 10)
The EMB film committee wanted some of the spectacular film montage sequences removed however Grierson sneaked them back in again. The film received its premier on Sunday 10th November 1929 sharing the bill with no less a film than Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin at the London Film Society meeting and received favourable comparisons.
Drifters is an impressionistic account and is rather more an evocative representation than one based upon descriptive detail examining the relationship between the herring fishers and nature. Nevertheless there is still a lot of information within the film on the working practices of the Fishermen. It tends to prioritise the working activity in its represntation rather than the institutions involved which depend upon that activity. The film focuses primarily upon working class activity which makes it an unusual one. The film:
...comments on the way that labour is commodified and degraded by market forces. (Aitken, 1998 p 14)
Drifters became the only film specifically credited to Grierson although his influence upon large numbers of films that followed was highly significant in contributing towards their final look and feel. Although the film wasn't in the slightest way Marxist it did mark a radical shift in the fact that the working class were represented at all. Aitken cites Montagu Slater writing in Left Review 1935 who argued that this was a revolutionary act in itself. (Aitken, 1998 p 34).
This early documentary model was only used by Grierson in the EMB period and was gradualy superceded. Aitken puts this tendency down largely to the development of sound which reached the documentary movement in 1934.
The GPO Film Unit
Shortly after coming under the aegis of the GPO the unit gained larger premises and sound facilities. Quality was therefore improved and of course sound films were now produced. However Aitken (1998) comment that the overall quality of resources and quality of output remained relatively low over the 1930s. In 1935 Stephen Tallents left to take up an appointment with the BBC. Several other filmmakers shortly followed. Grierson himself followed in 1937 to establish Film Centre which was an organisation which had the objective of co-ordinating documentary.
Cavalcanti, Watt and Jennings remained with the GPO unit giving a more artistically based inflection to the work produced. Aitken comments that:
Cavalcanti had always disagreed with Grierson's conception of documentary, and had argued instead for a broader definition of realist cinema which could accommodate a variety of film-making styles. (Aitken, 1998 pp 21-22)
Grierson and the National Film Board of Canada
In 1939 Grierson took up the position of Film Commissioner at the National Film Board of Canada which he held until 1945. grierson had initially been approached by the Canadian High Commission in London with a request to create a report on developing government film-making in Canada. The report was submitted in June 1938 and became the basis of what was to become the National Film Board of Canada. Subsequently Grierson was offered the post of film commissioner at the new institution. Although it only started out with a personnel of 5 it expanded thoughout the war and by 1945 there were nearly 800 people employed there. It was the largest organisation Grierson had worked in and he also had far more autonomy than when he worked in Britain. He had deliberately ensured that the NFB wasn't subordinated to the Canadian Civil Service to avoid the constraints which had been faced at both the EMB and the GPO.
Sadly Grierson established a very instrumental regime himself which didn'y encourage creativity and imagination amongst his film-makers:
...on the contrary, to impose a tightly regulated regime based upon the mass production of standardised, formulaic propaganda films. (Aitken, 1998 p 27)
In Canada Grierson created a model of film making which was drawn from the compilation film which had first been used in 1930 in the documentary movement in the film Conquest. The principle was that footage would be used that had been shot inside the organisation where possible. Grierson adopted this model in Canada to allow more control over the propaganda messages. furthermore this type of film could be made quickly and inexpensively. Grierson combined this approach with a "threshold specialisation" model of labour in which people learned about one area and then moveed onto another one rather than become highly specialised. This was a more collaborative model of film-making. As well as thecontent and the labour system involved Grierson was also influential in the exhibition model. Here he strongly encouraged non-theatrical distribution. The rural circuit scheme was very successful with screening in schools, halls and other public sites across the country. There were over 170 projectionists employed screening to over 250,000 per month by the end of 1941.
Aitken points out that that there was considerable resistance to Grierson's intrumentalist approach from both inside and outside the documentary movement. In 1941 Cavalcanti made Film and Reality which is an aesthetic study of the documentary film as a critique of this method. Also Jack Beddington who had become head of film propaganda at the Ministry of Information (UK) thought that they were ver propagandistic whilst some in Canada thought the approach too authoritative.
Grierson from Central Office of Information (CoI) to Group 3
Early in 1948 Grierson returned to Britain to take up the position of Controller of Film at the Central Office of Information (CoI) which had replaced the Ministry of Information (MoI). In 1950 Grierson resigned and in 1951 he established Group 3.
Group 3 was the production arm of the National Film Finance Corporation with a brief of producing good quality 'socially purposive films'. The purpose of the whole NFFC was to develop the British film industry as a whole and the mandate of Group 3 was to produce a number of high quality low budget films. Grierson was placed in charge of production but as there were concerns about his administrative capabilities John Baxter (Director of Love on the Dole, 1941) was placed in charge of administration. Out of 22 films produced only one was considered a success (The Brave Don't Cry,1952). The overall project lost about half a million pounds in 4 years.
Whilst Grierson can be held as partially responsible particularly because he was a hard person to get on with - he fell out with firstly Baxter and then Michael Balcon who was the Chief Executive of the project - he was also inexperienced in developing full length feature films.
Aitken is also concerned to apportion a considerable amount of responsibility onto the commercial film industry blaming the lack of support in distribution and exhibition as the core reasons for the project being killed off. They disliked social-realist film-making because it lay outside of their control and also it was outside of their own commercial concerns:
The failure of Group 3 illustrates a continuing problem within the British cinema of finding adequate funding, distribution and exhibition for independent , innovative or experimental films. (Aitken, 1998 p 58)
By 1955 Group 3 had stopped production. Grierson left a little later in 1955.
Grierson and the World Union of Documentary
Increasingly there was a crisis developing in the British documentary movement towards the end of the 1940s. Grierson was central to the failures to respond to change in two areas.
Firstly there was Grierson's branding of the World Documentary Movement as a Communist front which caused most British documentarists to leave. This hostility stems in part from Grierson being accussed of having Communist associations and being refused a US visa. The large numbers of Eastern european countries having members in the World Documentary Union furnished Grierson with a reason to attack it and to ensure it was noted he was suitably anti-communist.
Grierson also failed to take on board the changing models of documentarism and realism particularly the Italian Neorealists. The neorealists had made a major impact upon the intellectual film cultures of Europe at the time - although it must be said that outside of Rome Open City most were box office failures in Italy. Grierson notes Aitken:
...rejected the model of independently produced realist films offered by neorealism, and insisted, instead, that documentary films must be made in close relationto the needs of governement departments, and to the imperatives of 'civic education'. (Aitken 1998, p 59)
Lindsay Anderson and the Free Cinema Movement which emerged during the 1950s were also very critical of Grierson. whilst they were keen on Humphrey Jennings the doumentarists in general were accused by Anderson of being largely protective of thier own position. For Anderson Grierson's post-war contribution was 'disastrous'. Certainly between the 1930s up until the 1950s Grierson was concerned to argue that documentaries should not be concerned with aesthetics. This led to the critical marginalisation of the Documentary Movement as the post-war cultural change followed the neorealists into post-neorealism in the work of Visconti, Rossellini and Fellini.
Cavalcanti who had many differences with Grierson summarises his contribution like this:
Grierson's achievements can now only be analysed in perspective. He was basically a promoter. He had little impact as a director or producer, but his flair for finding collaborators, his ease in providing wonderful titles to our worst films, his capacity as a great publicist and above all, his curious background, half Presbyterian half Marxist made him one of the most influential personalities in the movement. (Cavalcanti 'The British Contribution' in Aitken 1998 p 205)
Getting the Work of the Documentarists
Many of these films will be readily available on the forthcoming BFI multiple DVD
Land of Promise available from 28 April 2008
Aitken, Ian. 1998. The Documentary Film Movement: an Anthology.Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press
Aitken, Ian. 1990. Film and Reform. London: Routledge
Hardy, H. Forsyth (ed.). 1979. John Grierson: A Documentary Biography. London: Faber and Faber
Ellis, Jack, C. 1986. .John Grierson. a guide to references and resources. Boston: G. K. Hall
Pronay, Nicholas (ed.) 1989 'John Grierson: A Critical Retrospective', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 9/3
A useful podcast can be downloaded from this site on Grierson and the documentary movement featuring an interview with Ian Aitken a leading researcher on Grierson and the documentary movement.
March 30, 2008
British Directors (Non-Contemporary) Hub Page
For current or recently passed away British Film Directors please go to the Contemporary British Directors Hub Page.
This page is designed to allow visitors to access information on a range of past British diectors and where appropriate informational hubs and critiques of specific films as these are developed. The links are both internal and external ones
Non-Contemporary British Film Directors
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Lindsay Anderson (Above)
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Anthony Asquith (Above)
Roy and John Boulting (Above)
Box Muriel (1905 - 1991)
Muriel Box (Above)
Alberto Cavalcanti (Above)
Jill Craigie with Husband Michael Foot (Above)
Douglas, Bill (1937-1991)
Dupont, E.A. (1891-1956)
Forbes, Bryan (1926-)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
John Grierson (1898-1972)
Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)
Hamilton, Guy (1922-)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
David Lean on set
Lee, Jack (1913-2002)
Lee Thompson, J. (1914-2002)
Lester, Richard (US 1932-)
Losey, Joe (US but made many important films in Britain 1909 - 1984)
Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)
Tony Richardson (Above)
Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)
Russell, Ken (1927-)
Watkins, Peter (1935-)
Young, Terence (1915-1994)
For a useful range of biographical information also see the Screenonline Directors in British and Irish Cinema
June 16, 2007
This page functions as a portal into the important strand of British filmmaking described as social realist. Laid out chronologically this portal will be particularly useful for:
* Those unfamiliar with the history of the British cinema
* Students following undergraduate film studies course to provide an overview before tackiling more in depth work
* 'A' level media students following the current (2006 /07) OCR Media A2 Unit on Media Issues & Debates: Contemporary British Cinema. For the OCR unit it will historically contextualise the continuing use of social realism as a successful film form
* The WJEC Film Studies A level "British & Irish Cinema" Unit.
Social realism has played an important role in both British cinema and TV. The British documentary movement which developed under the leadership of John Grierson was enormously influential in stimulating what became a strand of fiction film described as social realism.
Humphrey Jennings who started out with this movement brought a sense of the surreality of popular culture in everyday life to his work. His wartime docu-dramas and documentary work are exemplary pieces of art working across genres to produce some of the best work ever made by a British director.
Jennings was an inspiration to Lindsay Anderson and those who gathered around him in the British 'Free Cinema'. Technical discoveries by cameraman Walter Lassally were to influence the work of the French New Wave Filmmakers and cinematographers.
The documentary work made by them led into the 'British New Wave' at the beginning of the 1960s.
This in turn led to social realist films and TV documentaries in the mid to late sixties with Ken Loach and Producer Tony Garnett being exemplary. Cathy Come Home was a TV drama which heldped the housing charity Shelter to set up. Poor Cow and Kes are classic Loach films from this period.
While the 1970s and 1980s saw less work of this style films such as Meantime by Mike Leigh were very influential. The actor Gary Oldman was outstanding in this and returned to this form as a director in Nil by Mouth made in the late 1990s.
There was a return to popularity for this kind of film in the 1990s particularly by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. This has continued up until 2006 with Ken Loach winning the Palm d'or at the Cannes festival for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) combining social realism with history.
Brtish social realism has also been strongly influential in other types of films which have combined genres into hybrids such as social-realist / comedy. The Full Monty (1997) and Brassed Off (1996) are good examples of this. Perhaps the first hybrid of this type was Billy Liar (1963) at the end of the British New Wave. This film provided a bridge into the 'Swinging Sixties' particularly in the next film by John Schlesinger Darling which starred Julie Christie as well.
The BFI "Screenonline article on comedy" cites several films which also appear elsewhere as social realistically inflected. Films dealing with changing British identity often combine social realist aspects of life with comedy including East is East (1999) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002).
Webliography laid out chronologically
This covers the British documentary movement and via Free Cinema moves into British Social Realism
BFI Screenonline Biography of Paul Rotha
Links previously on this page are now on the above page plus many more. The page is still under development and further links to analysies of his films are in the pipeline.
From Lindsay Anderson to the Free Cinema
The Impact and Influence of Social Realism in British Cinema a useful Screenonline article.
Tony Aldgate of the Open University discusses British Social Realism
Social Realists in British Cinema from 1990
These two directors have a reputation for working mainly within the social realist tradition although the approaches are still very different. Loach tends to be more macro whilst Leigh is more micro with a style closer to Kammerspiele or chamber plays.
Other British Directors who have used social realism
These directors have made films at times which have been strongly influenced by social realism:
Stephen Frears with Dirty Pretty Things, 2002
Lynne Ramsey Ratcatcher
Michael Winterbottom Welcome to Sarajevo (1998) is a social realist influenced film based upon a true story. His recent The Road to Guantanamo (2006) is a political response to the events and aftermath of 9/11.
Some Social Realist Films From 1990
Life is Sweet, 1990: Mike Leigh. It is marketed as a 'bittersweet comedy" which is quite a good description of many of the social realist / comedy hybrid films
Raining Stones, 1993: Dir Ken Loach
Nil by Mouth 1997: dir Gary Oldman
Authors of British Social Realist Films
Here is a link to Alan Sillitoe author of Saturday Night Sunday Morning commenting recently on the coming ban on smoking in public places