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As the Edinburgh International Film Festival gets ready to commence on 18 June, it’s interesting to reflect on how one the oldest and indeed the longest continually run film festival came to be. Its roots date back to the postwar cultural revitalization of Scotland. In 1947 the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama was established, and Norman Wilson realized that the medium of film was not going to be represented. Recognizing that this was a perfect venue to showcase film–as film historian Thomas Elsaesser later termed it, a ‘cultural clustering,’ a mixture of different art forms coming together for a rich community experience–Wilson, along with the Edinburgh Film Guild, went into action and took on the challenge of bringing a film festival together with limited financial backing.
“The aim of the founders, the Edinburgh Film Guild, was to have the cinema worthily represented at the first international Festival of the arts to be held in Britain” (ref. Grierson Archive, G7:44:61).The world was watching and they did not want to fail this challenge. In determining what their focus would be, they decided to showcase Scotland’s strongest contribution to film—documentaries.
“The first international Film Festival to be held in Britain will be devoted entirely to Documentary. This is no accident; for not only does Britain lead the world in documentary production, but the documentary approach—an innate feeling for reality—is now the distinguishing characteristic of British feature films” (ref. Hardy 3:9:8)
With the focus on documentaries, who better to invite to give the opening address and set the tone for the festival than Scottish-born John Grierson, the father of the British documentary movement?
The first film festival was modest, with only about seventy-five films shown during the eight day festival, but with the critically acclaimed films they did showcase, including Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan and Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique, they set the standard for what to expect at the festival.
Norman Wilson, serving as Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Festival in 1950 , explained what kind of films the festival looks for and the power of documentaries:
“It is the film of reality that the Edinburgh Festival is especially concerned with, and many people believe it is in this sphere that film-makers come nearest to the basic qualities of the cinema as a medium of creative arts. The great virtue of the film is that it can capture reality through the lens of the camera. By getting art into the country, and into the city streets among real people—into the world of everyday, which has within itself all the drama and romance of life without fabrication—the film can interpret and synthesis realities in its own creative terms. That is its unique quality as an art form, and that is what we look for in the films selected for showing at the Edinburgh Festival.” (ref. Hardy 3:8:1)
(Kelly Kloser, M.Litt. in Film Studies)
Nearly eighty years after its release, Night Mail (Wright & Watt, 1936), produced by the General Post Office Film Unit, is still relevant to documentary filmmaking – its style, content and representation being key to the fundamentals of the non-fiction film. Night Mail follows the journey of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway postal service from London to Scotland, as it collects and delivers Britain’s mail.
Forsyth Hardy, film critic and John Grierson’s biographer, wrote in 1979 about the lasting appeal of the film in his book Grierson on Documentary – “Of all the hundreds of films which emerged from the documentary movement in the 1930s it has most surely stood the test of time.” Perhaps this is because the nostalgia evoked, was of a time in British culture that seemed untouched by modernity. Paradoxically however, the film proved to be stylistically and socially progressive. Modernist concepts such as commercial rebranding and details like expressionistic images – the beveled, clean lines of the titles, the specially commissioned music and poetic verse suggested a cultural shift.
Founded by Grierson in 1933, the G. P. O. Film Unit made documentaries to promote British industry to the British public. Films such as Granton Trawler (Grierson, 1934), about the fishing industry reminded the nation that respect and gratitude should be given to everyday workers. Referring to this concept Night Mail director Basil Wright said that the film was, “commissioned by the post office […] to explain to the Post Office workers how this particular aspect of the vast organization happened” (ref. Grierson Archive, GA.10.55). Grierson went on to say, “It was some satisfaction to take those letters G.P.O and make them stand for what was most progressive in the cinema” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.14.5).
Night Mail’s appeal was partly due to the collaboration of modern disciplines and experimentation in sound and visual style. The combination of Grierson’s production, Cavalcanti’s sound direction, W.H.Auden’s poetic verse and music by composer Benjamin Britten constructed an almost avant-garde aesthetic. The juxtaposition between man and machine – the close-up shots of the moving pistons, the point of view shots from the engine drawing the audience in and the precise timing of the mail bag pick-up as postal workers listen to the beats of the wheels on the track – evokes a poetic artistry. Talking to the B.B.C about the pre-production, Grierson recounts the emotional connotations, “The train had become the living embodiment of a whole slice of British life” (ref. Grierson Archive, G7.23.3).
On its release, Night Mail was successful, in part due to transportable projection units. In Sight and Sound in 1937, J.B. Holmes, director of productions at the G.P.O discussed their method of distribution, “With machines, operators, screens and films, they were capable of showing in almost any sort of premises” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.P4). Aside from the influential use of the cinematic device and the modernist propaganda ascribed to the film; far beyond the filmmaking world, railway enthusiasts have sustained the appeal of Night Mail and as a result, in 2013 a sculpted bust of Grierson was introduced to Stirling railway station.
(Susannah Ramsay, M. Litt. in Film Studies)
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)
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)
In April 1985 Wham! became the first western pop group to perform in China. The band’s management hired Lindsay Anderson to direct a documentary recording this historic event. Unfortunately this was an ill-fated project with Anderson being removed from the film in October 1985. His portrayal of the Chinese tour did not meet with the approval of the band or their management. A new director was brought in and a shorter film, very different from Anderson’s documentary, was produced. This article draws on Anderson’s correspondence and diaries to provide the story behind the directors ‘lost’ film.
Lindsay Anderson accepted the invitation to record Wham!’s visit to China at a time when he was finding it increasingly difficult to get his own films made. In 1982 he released the film Britannia Hospital, a biting satire set in a hospital preparing for a royal visit to celebrate its 500th anniversary. It was a critical and commercial flop, its prospects not helped by the film appearing to be ‘unpatriotic’ at a time when Britain was fighting the Falklands War.
Britannia Hospital had failed to repeat the success of Anderson’s earlier films. In the years following its release he turned to the stage, where he always found it easier to work, and directed a number of productions in London and the US. At the start of 1985 he had just returned from Washington DC where he had directed a troubled production of Hamlet which was plagued with problems and closed after a short run.
Anderson rarely worked as a ‘director for hire’, preferring to have total control over the films he made. However he was tempted by the offer of returning to his documentary roots. Anderson had begun his filmmaking career in the 1950s making documentaries. Indeed he won an Oscar for a short documentary, Thursday’s Children (a film about a school for deaf children) in 1954. In a letter to a friend written in January 1986 he explained that he undertook the Wham! project “in a spirit of curiosity. Curiosity about China and curiosity about the odd confrontation of China and Wham! – and even a certain curiosity, not very great, about the phenomenon of Wham! itself.” (Ref. LA 1/10/3/8).
Anderson travelled to China with Wham! in April 1985. The tour began with two concerts in Hong Kong and then moved to China where Wham! performed in Beijing and Canton. During the tour Anderson suffered a fall and spent much of his time in a wheelchair. His diaries also reveal that he was suffering from arthritis in his legs and hands (something he hoped Chinese medicine might cure).
The summer and autumn of 1985 were spent editing the footage shot in China. In October 1985 Anderson screened his film for Wham! and their management. The film was far from being a straight pop promo as it looked away from the band and spent some time examining China and its people. It also stripped the glamour away from the event, showing the tedium of touring. A few days after the screening Anderson was informed that he was being removed from the project because his film was not what was expected or required. Before he left Anderson’s made a copy of his version of the film, which he called If You Were There and it is this tape which is part of the Anderson Archive.
Following Anderson’s removal a new director was brought in and additional concert footage was shot in London at great expense. A new version of the film entitled Foreign Skies was screened at Wham!’s farewell concert at Wembley Stadium on 28 June 1986. This film was 20 minutes shorter than Anderson’s, added far more concert footage of Wham! and removed most of Anderson’s documentary footage of China.
In If You Were There Anderson attempted to do far more than just produce a pop promo. The visit of Wham! to China came at a time of great change as consumerism, pop music and western tastes and fashions began to be absorbed by the old communist state. Anderson captured a society on the cusp of change. As with his award-winning documentary films of 1950s Anderson treated his subjects with warmth and compassion. The people the camera encounters are full of life, friendly and enthusiastic, and Anderson captures the vibrant atmosphere of street life in Beijing and Canton.
He does not forget, however, that this is a film about Wham! and their historic visit to China, live performances of the band in Beijing and Canton forming the climax of the film. While George Michael and Andrew Ridgley sometimes seem bemused by the welcome extended by their Chinese hosts (there are only so many members of the Communist Party you can shake hands with) Anderson manages to catch some unguarded moments of fun and laughter where the excitement of being performers at the peak of their popularity shines through.
Angered by the rejection of his film Anderson wrote an open letter to the crew who worked with him on the documentary in November 1985. In it he detailed the circumstances surrounding his removal from the project. He also summed up his frustration with the situation in characteristically bullish style (Ref. LA 1/10/3/7). Anderson never had an opportunity to release his version of the film. Such are the complexities of the rights relating to If You Were There that it has never been publicly screened. The story of this most unusual project can, however, be traced in Anderson’s personal and working papers.
As we head towards the end of the year it’s the time to collect and collate the statistics for the use of our collections in 2011. By combining the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room the most popular collections this year were… in third place the university’s own institutional records; in second the papers of the filmmaker Lindsay Anderson; and comfortably ahead in first place the John Grierson Archive.
Often described as ‘the father of documentary filmmaking’ John Grierson had a long and colourful career directing and producing documentaries, and making an important contribution to the development of filmmaking in Britain and the Commonwealth. Grierson’s archive provides a comprehensive record of his working life, from his work as a pioneering documentary filmmaker in the 1920s, the establishment of the GPO Film Unit in the 1930s, and National Film Board of Canada in the 1940s, through to his later years when he brought the best of the world’s documentary films into the living rooms of Scottish viewers in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the television programme This Wonderful World.
The wide variety of subjects related to Grierson for which we received enquiries in the past 12 months reflects his long and varied career. And their geographical spread highlight his international importance and influence with enquiries received, and researchers visiting the archive, from across Europe, Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Deposited with the university in the early 1970s the Grierson Archive has been a major resource for those interested in the history of documentary and the development of cinema for many years. Our statistics for this year show quite clearly that the collection’s research possibilities have yet to be exhausted!
It’s always nice to see material from your collections featured on TV and radio and in the press. On Tuesday 19th July BBC 4 is screening Britain Through the Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, a programme about the pioneering British documentary filmmakers of the 1930s. One of the key figures in this group was John Grierson and a number of images from our Grierson Archive feature in the programme.
Often described as ‘the father of documentary film’ Grierson began his filmmaking career in 1927 when he persuaded the Empire Marketing Board that it needed to set up a film unit. Grierson’s unit set about making a string of promotional films extolling the virtues of various products made in the British Empire. It was while he was at the Board that Grierson made the film Drifters, a documentary about herring fishing. The film had a huge impact and created a template for documentary films which many others followed.
On the back of the success of Drifters Grierson moved to the General Post Office in 1933 where he ran their film unit and produced a string of documentary and public information films. Probably the best known of these films is Night Mail which followed the post train from London to Scotland. It featured music from Benjamin Britten and poetry from W H Auden (the final lines of which, when the train reaches Scotland, are read by Grierson). He was responsible for launching the careers of a generation of young British filmmakers who flourished under his watchful eye. The Stirling-born, Oscar-winning animator Norman McLaren was one of those who benefited from Grierson’s support and encouragement. He is fondly remembered in Canada where in 1939 he took on the huge challenge of setting up the country’s National Film Board. For many Scots however Grierson is perhaps best known as the presenter of This Wonderful World, a television programme which brought the best of the world’s documentary films into Scottish sitting rooms in the 1950s and 1960s.