British Documentary

Film StillBetween 1930 and 1939 in Britain some sixty filmmakers working together in collaborative film units produced over 300 documentaries, a body of work central to the historic development of the documentary and documentary film practice. Several of the films made by the filmmakers associated with the Empire Marketing Board (the EMB), from 1930 to 1933, and with the Government Post Office film unit (the GPO), from 1933 to 1939, became crucial references for almost every subsequent documentary movement. While much of the production in the British state-sponsored film units was collaborative in nature, strong personalities quickly emerged and asserted themselves as creative artists who could authorize the final forms of the films as unique statements about the real conditions of the British working class. The tensions and contradictions between art and document, film and reality, creative authorship and collective work, play themselves out in the production histories of these units, and I think you can see these contradictions at work in the films of this program.

The works produced by these units that are considered to be the most innovative and the most creative in terms of film form and film style, and therefore attributable to a particular creative personality or to a film artist, are the films that are best remembered by film historians. These films have therefore become the most influential works for other filmmakers and have become part of the British documentary canon.

Undoubtedly, the strongest and the most forceful personality of the British film units was their organizer, producer and ideological leader, John Grierson. Though he directed only one film by himself, he was responsible for the formation of the units and the continuing education of the various filmmakers who worked on them, and he was involved in one way or another in a majority of the films made by the units before his departure to Canada to take up the government post of Film Commissioner, where he helped establish the National Film Board of Canada.

Because of his successful organization of the EMB and GPO film units and because he was considered the leading spokesperson for the documentary film in the 1930s, at least in Europe and North America, Grierson was already a mythic individual of international reputation by the time he came to work in North America in the late 1930s. Grierson was born in Scotland and he served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. In 1923 he took a degree in philosophy at Glasgow University and the following year he traveled to America, actually to the University of Chicago, to study the press, the cinema and other forms of mass communications. He was particularly interested in the Chicago school of sociology which was then emerging and which stressed the environmental determination of individuals and personality.

In the U.S. Grierson came under the influence of the social critic Walter Lippmann, who convinced him that the problems created by mass society made democracy and proper citizenship next to impossible without the existence of a dedicated group of non-partisan intellectuals and impartial experts who could interpret for the masses the complex social conditions of modern society and escalating quantity of information being produced by an expanding bureaucracy and mass communications apparatus. Since everyday folks lack the privileged position of social scientists, Lippmann thought that the role of the new social science was to help the masses overcome their alienation from themselves and their everyday lives. Grierson saw the cinema as an instrument capable of such a project. A commitment to public service, to education and to social engineering became an important part of Grierson’s philosophy of the documentary film and the role of the documentary filmmaker in society.

The other very important American influence on Grierson’s conception of the documentary was the idea that important factual material should be treated artistically. While in the United States in the mid-1920s, Grierson became acquainted with Robert Flaherty and became a champion of his ethnographic films. In fact, Grierson is actually credited, whether it’s true or not, with coining the very word “documentary” in discussing Flaherty’s docudrama about Inuit life, Nanook of the North, a popular 1923 feature film. While Grierson disliked Flaherty’s obsession with the so-called primitive and exotic cultures, he was attracted by the highly dramatic and suspenseful treatment of cultural information that Flaherty had achieved in his work. The idea of “treatment” became an important part of Griersonian aesthetics, and Flaherty’s influence on Grierson’s first film, Drifters, is unmistakable. Flaherty actually co-directed Industrial Britain with Grierson: Flaherty did the initial shooting but they had a falling out and so most of the rest of the film was done by Grierson.

Rather than lending a dramatic treatment to the representation of non-European cultures as Flaherty had done, Grierson, both in Drifters and in most of the work he oversaw in the 1930s, sought to present, on the screen, British workers in the social context of their work by vividly dramatizing the labor process. The premium that Grierson placed on narrative and drama can also be seen in the filmmakers who worked under Grierson, on both the Empire Marketing Board and the Government Post Office units and who, while always using actual workers and other non-professional actors in their films, had no problem whatsoever with scripting the action of the events or scripting dialogue. For example, in Housing Problems, by Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey, a film which is often credited by historians with innovating the direct address of the documentary subject to the camera — that is, the talking head that we’re all familiar with from television and that we now take for granted now — even here the speeches of the Cockney slum dwellers about the conditions in which they live were scripted by the filmmakers out of earlier interviews that they had had with the tenants.

By the time Grierson returned to Britain in 1927 he was already enamored with the possibilities of film. Before leaving America he had arranged for the release of Eisenstein’s Potemkin by negotiating with the New York State Motion Picture Commission which, fearing the possibility that the film might produce Bolshevik agitation in New York State, had banned the film as a danger to the public. Grierson had prepared a print of the film acceptable to the demands of the Commission, and he proved himself an able diplomat and  a negotiator capable of compromise.

When he returned to Britain he immediately went to work for the Empire Marketing Board, a government agency set up to promote trade among the colonies of the British empire. At that particular moment, “empire” was a word the British government was becoming a little bit embarrassed by and they were trying to emphasize the “commonwealth” of imperialistic holdings.  So for Grierson, who had a kind of progressive identity, the Empire Marketing Board was an odd place to be.

The EMB already had a small film unit when Grierson got there in 1927 and he set his sights on taking charge of that unit by proposing to make a film about the herring fishing industry in Britain, an industry which not coincidentally was the chief concern of the treasurer of the EMB, who held the purse strings for all film projects. He made the film on a fairly small budget, and it was premiered at the London Film Society in late 1929, on a double bill with Eisenstein’s Potemkin. Drifters benefited in reputation from the radicalism associated with the controversial Soviet film but, unlike Potemkin, Drifters enjoyed a national release in the UK. It earned Grierson control of the film unit, which he then filled with his left-liberal friends, most of whom were from Cambridge, and these would become the directors of films in this program: Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey and, later on, Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings.

The films of the EMB and GPO were supportive of the working classes but their radicalism was restrained. Often, as a result of state and sometimes corporate sponsorship, the films ended up supporting a nationalism that sought to reassure British workers that industry was not degrading labor nor deskilling a great number of British workers, but was advancing a tradition of craftsmanship, pride and quality that stood Britain apart from the rest of the world. This idea that “quality” is still the watchword of British industry is evident in a film like Industrial Britain.

On occasions, however, Grierson acknowledged his integrationist politics and his support of a reformist liberal state, as when he remarked about his representation of the work of fishermen in Drifters: “As the catch was being boxed and barreled I thought I would like to say that what is being boxed and barreled was the labor of men.”  Of course Grierson, too, had a product to deliver to his bosses and any such criticism was lost in the film’s ending, which stresses the sublime vastness of a world market and the greatness of an empire which that made such a market possible.

This introduction was presented by Mark Lynn Anderson at a screening of British Documentary on 12 November 1999.

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About Mark Lynn Anderson

Mark Lynn Anderson is [2012] Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. As Edwin S. Curtis Fellow in Film Studies, he was Assistant Programmer of the Motion Picture Collection at George Eastman House, 1997-1998. Author of Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America (University of California Press, 2011) and articles on the Hollywood star system, celebrity scandal, early film education, media censorship and regulation, and film historiography, Anderson is currently writing about the corporate legacy in American film historical writing.