As part of 2014’s Glasgow Film Festival, Documenting Grierson, a film by Laurence Henson, was screened, allowing the audience an all too brief encounter with the ‘father of documentary’ John Grierson. Henson’s film highlights the importance and influence of Grierson’s philosophies and ideologies regarding cinema, social welfare and education during the interwar years in Britain.
In an excerpt from Henson’s film, Grierson talks passionately about the purpose of documentary as being, “A chance to say something, a chance to teach something, a chance to reveal something, a chance, possibly to inspire, certainly always an opportunity for influence of one kind or another.” Grierson wrote a lengthy manifesto outlining the principles of documentary, discussing the ethical issues and function of filmmaking (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.15.2). Today the artistic and pedagogical significance of documentary filmmaking continues, with The Grierson Trust awarding accolades each year to the most inspiring films. Academically, documentary techniques are rigorously theorised, crucially analysing the distinction between the ‘real’ or non-fiction aspect and the fictitious or ‘wish-fulfillment’ style, as pioneering documentary theorist Bill Nichols suggests.
Early on in his career John Grierson decided that producing films would be more advantageous to the cause, especially when negotiating for government funding. He employed like-minded people to execute technical duties such as, camera work and editing. The core production crew consisted of, Harry Watt, Edgar Anstey, Basil Wright and Stuart Legg, a mix of aspiring young filmmakers. Grierson’s tenacity and ability to get things done changed the way we viewed the world and through the Empire Marketing Board film unit, headed by chief commissioner Stephen Tallents, society was presented with information, education and choice – a testament to the power of cinema (ref. Grierson Archive, G4.31.3).
Grierson encouraged others with his documentary making views through lectures and publications, sometimes subversively, but always expressing an over-arching importance. He is quoted in The Daily Herald (1935) saying, “I wish the B.B.C., instead of sterilizing its speeches in the cabins of Broadcasting House, would take its microphones out to the people” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.14.1). A method that Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey incorporated in their film Housing Problems (1935) – an idea attributed to John’s sister Ruby Grierson, also a filmmaker.
Grierson dealt his contemporaries with equal amounts of contempt and praise. In an article in Cinema Quarterly (1932), he pitted other disciplines against the prestige of documentary – “newsreel is just a speedy snip-snap of some utterly unimportant ceremony”, continuing to say, “[they] avoid…the consideration of any solid material” (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.15.2). However acerbic Grierson’s humor might have sounded, the importance of documentary and for those involved was paramount.
The British Documentary Movement went into decline after the Second World War and as a consequence of those who had experienced ‘real’ war, the documentary style became more about technique than content. As the political restructuring of Britain began, Grierson’s production unit splintered and with the introduction of television to the mass audience in 1953, produced a new style of documentary. Grierson et al welcomed this shift and went on to produce a variety of documentaries for the new medium.
(Susannah Ramsay, M. Litt. in Film Studies)
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This year the wonderful Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema featured a stunning new soundtrack to John Grierson’s Drifters by Jason Singh. Accompanied by members of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Jason fused electronic effects, clattering beats and his own voice to create a striking contemporary response to Grierson’s 1929 documentary about North Sea fishermen. The energy and power of the film was heightened by Singh’s beat-boxing, the engines of the fishing trawlers fueled by his propulsive beats. His performance responded beautifully to the changes in tempo and tone in the film, voice and effects demonstrating the power of the waves crashing off the rocks, then quietening to reflect the underwater images of the shoals of herring sought by the trawlermen and the seagulls flying above the boats. The performance ended with a memorable recreation of the sounds of the bustling fishmarket where the trawlermen’s catch was bought and sold. After the elemental sounds of the sea and the mechanical hum of the trawlers the babble of voices brought us back to land.
Drifters was made at a turning point in the history of cinema when silent films were beginning to be replaced by the ‘talkies’ and the use of sound in films was becoming more common. Grierson was quick to realise the potential of sound and his archive includes a printed document distributed to cinemas providing a scene-by-scene musical accompaniment to the film. The recommendations are divided into two sections. The first provides popular tunes to be played by a cinema orchestra, while the second lists gramophone recordings of classical music for cinemas without musicians. These were to be played using “non-synchronous tables” (gramophones set up to play likes today’s DJ turntables). As the fishermen prepared their nets before casting them into the sea Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Part 1 was to be played. Later in the film the threat of the gathering storm clouds was accompanied by Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture. Grierson was keen to utilise the technological advances of this time to enhance his pioneering documentary – Jason Singh uses 21st century techniques and equipment to breathe new life into the film for contemporary audiences.
As the Bo’ness silent film festival enters its fourth year, the five-day programme promises to deliver classics from the silent cinema era, including the unambiguously titled double bill, Before Grierson Met Cavalcanti on Sunday the 16th March. Showing first is Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti’s Nothing But Time/ Rien Que Les Heures (1926), an experimental film portraying a day in Parisian life. Following that is John Grierson’s groundbreaking documentary Drifters (1929), which depicts the epic journey of herring fishermen. It was first shown in London in the winter of 1929 to critical acclaim and mass audience approval.
Drifters, not only documents but also dramatises the struggle between man and nature, both poetically and cinematically. Much thought went into the musical score for its original screening and has been updated for the 21st century. The musical accompaniment to Drifters will be Jason Singh, a human beatbox.
At the time of release and for years after, the filmic technique of Drifters has been compared with the Russian school of filmmaking of the 1920s in particular Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘montage’ theory and practice. Eisenstein suggested that the purpose of film editing was to create drama and conflict within the narrative, while creating symbolic meaning through the relationship between shots by means of juxtaposition. In essence, editing consists of several individually filmed shots, that when put together produce a coherent story, thus creating a ‘montage’ or sequence. When the individual shots, such as action/reaction shots, POV (point of view) shots and cutaways (general views) are edited together, a dialectic or conflicting element can arise through these opposing images on screen. In the case of Eisenstein’s films such as, Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) this provoked an immediate reaction from the audience as they grappled to make sense of the visually generated narrative truth. By interpreting the film subjectively the viewing subject was offered a rich cinematic experience. Over time symbolist editing techniques were used by Eisenstein and other directors as a propaganda tool for Russia.
It was Battleship Potemkin that influenced Grierson’s own nascent editing techniques. Film critics and reviewers supported the use of Grierson’s editing style, articulating a new intelligence found in filmmaking and the way films were being read.
“It is really in it’s editing, it’s ‘montage’, that ‘Drifters’ begins to live,” wrote Henry Dobb from the Sunday Worker on 3rd November 1929. (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.24.1)
‘HT’ writes in The British Film Weekly,
“[…] His beautifully chosen angles, the cleverness of his cutting, the beauty of his editing, created a dramatic and thrilling picture.” (ref. Grierson Archive, G2.24.2)
Drifters, was a success for the socially conscious Grierson and in terms of film form and language he adapted to the new techniques, and to the introduction of sound to accommodate his didactic and creative nature. John Grierson went on to produce a plethora of innovative and artistic films, developing over the years to establish his own pedagogical approach to Britain’s social problems, through government-funded films.
(Susannah Ramsay, M Litt. in Film Studies)