John Grierson ~ Documentary Film Maker

John Grierson – Born at Deanston (borders of Stirling and Perth) on 26 April 1898. He is credited with initiating the 1930s British documentary film movement. “John Grierson (April 26, 1898 – February 19, 1972) is often considered the father of British and Canadian documentary film. Grierson was born in Deanston, near Doune, Scotland. His father was the local school master, his mother an early feminist and ardent Labour Party activist. From an early age, both parents steeped their son in liberal politics, humanistic ideals, and Calvinist moral and religious philosophies, particularly the notion that education was essential to individual freedom and that hard and meaningful work was the way to prove oneself worth in the sight of God. After a stint working on minesweepers in the Royal Navy during World War I, Grierson entered the University of Glasgow, where he spent a good part of his academic career enmeshed in impassioned political discussion and leftist political activism. In 1924, after graduating from the university in moral philosophy, he received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship to study in the US at the University of Chicago, and later at Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focus was the psychology of propaganda–the impact of the press, film, and other mass media on forming public opinion. Grierson was particularly interested in the popular appeal and influence of the “yellow” (tabloid) press, and the influence and role of these journals on the education of new American citizens from abroad. Like a number of other social critics of the time, Grierson was profoundly concerned about what he perceived to be clear threats to democracy. In the US, he encountered a marked tendency toward political reaction, anti-democratic sentiments, and political apathy. He read and agreed with the journalist and political philosopher Walter Lippman’s book Public Opinion which blamed the erosion of democracy in part on the fact that the political and social complexities of contemporary society made it difficult if not impossible for the public to comprehend and respond to issues vital to the maintenance of democratic society. In Grierson’s view, a way to counter these problems was to involve citizens in their government with the kind of engaging excitement generated by the popular press, which simplified and dramatized public affair. It was during this time that Grierson developed a conviction that motion pictures could play a central role in promoting this process. (It has been suggested some of Grierson’s notions regarding the social and political uses of film were influenced by reading Lenin’s writing about film as education and propaganda.) Grierson’s emerging view of film was as a form of social and political communication–a mechanism for social reform, education, and perhaps spiritual uplift. His view of Hollywood movie-making was considerably less sanguine: “In an age when the faiths, the loyalties, and the purposes have been more than usually undermined, mental fatigue–or is it spiritual fatigue?–represents a large factor in everyday experience. Our cinema magnate does no more than exploit the occasion. He also, more or less frankly, is a dope pedlar.” Grierson’s emerging and outspoken film philosophies caught the attention of New York film critics at the time. He was asked to write criticism for the New York Sun. At the Sun, Grierson wrote articles on film aesthetics and audience reception, and developed broad contacts in the film world. In the course of this writing stint, Grierson coined the term “documentary” in writing about Robert Flaherty’s film Moana (1926) (New York Sun, February 8, 1926: “Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value.”). During this time, Grierson was also involved in scrutinizing the film industries of other countries. He was involved in arranging to bring Sergei Eisenstein’s groundbreaking film The Battleship Potemkin (1925) to US audience for the first time. Eisenstein’s editing techniques and film theories, particularly the use of montage, would have a significant influence on Grierson’s own work. Grierson returned to Great Britain in the late 1920s armed with the sense that film could be enlisted to deal with the problems of the Great Depression, and to build national morale and national consensus. Filmmaking for Grierson was an exalted calling; the Filmmaker a patriot. In all of this there was more than a little elitism, a stance reflected in Grierson’s many dicta of the time: “The elect have their duty.” “I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist.” In the US Grierson had met pioneering documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. Grierson respected Flaherty immensely for his contributions to documentary form and his attempts to use the camera to bring alive the lives of everyday people and everyday events. Less commendable in Grierson’s view was Flaherty’s focus on exotic and faraway cultures. (“In the profounder kind of way,” wrote Grierson of Flaherty, “we live and prosper each of us by denouncing the other”). In Grierson’s view, the focus of film should be on the everyday drama of ordinary people. As Grierson wrote in his diaries: “Beware the ends of the earth and the exotic: the drama is on your doorstep wherever the slums; are, wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty.” “‘You keep your savages in the far place Bob; we are going after the savages of Birmingham,’ I think I said to him pretty early on. And we did.”) On his return to England, Grierson joined the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), a governmental agency which had been established several years earlier to promote British world trade and British unity throughout the empire. One of the major functions of the EMB was publicity, which the Board accomplished through exhibits, posters, and publications. In 1930 Grierson convinced government funding agencies to establish a film unit within the EMB and to assign him the directorship of the unit. It was within the context of this State funded organization that the “documentary” as we know it today really got its start. In late 1929 Grierson and his cameraman, Basil Emmott, completed his first film, The Drifters, which he wrote, produced and directed. The film, which follows the heroic work of North Sea herring fishermen, was a radical departure from anything being made by the British film industry or Hollywood. A large part of its innovation lie in the fierce boldness in bringing the camera to rugged locations such as a small boat in the middle of a gale, and leave relatively less of the action staged. The choice of topic was chosen less from Grierson’s curiosity than the fact that he discovered the Financial Secretary had made the herring industry his hobbyhorse. It premiered in London on a double-bill with Eisenstein’s then controversial film The Battleship Potemkin, and received high praise from both its sponsors and the press. After this success, Grierson moved away from film direction into more production and administration within the EMB. He became a tireless organizer and recruiter for the EMB, enlisting a stable of energetic young filmmakers into the film unit between 1930 and 1933. Those enlisted included filmmakers Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha, Arthur Elton, Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, and Alberto Cavalcanti. This group formed the core of what was to become known as The British Documentary Movement. In 1933 the EMB Film Unit was disbanded, a casualty of Depression era economics. Grierson’s boss at the EMB moved to the General Post Office (GPO) as its first public relations officer with the stipulation that he could bring the EMB film unit with him. Grierson’s crew were charged with demonstrating the ways in which the Post Office facilitated modern communication and brought the nation together, a task aimed as much at GPO workers as the general public. During Grierson’s administration, the GPO Film Unit produced a series of groundbreaking films, including Night Mail (dir. Basil Wright and Harry Watt, 1936), and Coal Face (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1936). Grierson eventually grew restless with having to work within the bureaucratic and budgetary confines of government sponsorship. In response, he sought out private industry sponsorship for film production. He was finally successful in getting the British gas industry to underwrite an annual film program. Perhaps the most significant works produced during this time were Housing Problems (dir. Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, John Taylor, and Grierson’s sister Ruby Grierson, 1935) and Song of Ceylon (dir. Basil Wright, 1935) In 1938, Grierson was invited by the Canadian government to study the country’s film production. He proposed the government create a national coordinating body for the production of films. In 1939, Canada created the National Film Commission, which would later become the National Film Board of Canada. Grierson was the first Commissioner of the Board. When Canada entered World War II in 1939, the NFB focused on the production of propaganda films, many of which Grierson directed. After the war, it focused on producing documentaries that reflected the lives of Canadians. The NFB is recognized around the world for producing quality films, many of which have won Academy Awards. From 1957 to 1967 Grierson hosted a successful weekly television program on Scottish television, This Wonderful World, which showed excerpts from outstanding documentaries. In 1957 he received a special Canadian Film Award. The Grierson Documentary Film Awards were established in 1972 to commemorate John Grierson and is currently supervised by The Grierson Trust. The aim of the award is to show outstanding films that demonstrate integrity, originality and technical excellence, together with social or cultural significance.

Grierson Awards are presented annually in nine categories:

Best Documentary on a Contemporary Issue
Best Documentary on the Arts
Best Historical Documentary
Best Documentary on Science or the Natural World
The Frontier Post Award for Most Entertaining Documentary
Best Drama Documentary
Best International Cinema Documentary
Best Newcomer
Trustees’ Award

Filmography as director:

Drifters (1929; first screened at the British premiere of Battleship Potemkin)
Granton Trawler (1934)
Filmography as producer/creative contributor:

O’er Hll and Dale (dir. Basil Wright 1932)
Cargo from Jamaica (dir. Basil Wright 1933)
Industrial Britain (dir. Robert Flaherty 1933)
Cable Ship (dir. (Alexander Shaw and Stuart Legg 1933)
Coming of the Dial (dir. Stuart Legg 1933)
Liner Cruising South (dir. Basil Wright 1933)
Man of Aran (dir. Robert Flaherty 1934)
New Operator (dir. Stuart Legg 1934)
Pett and Pott: A Fairy Story of the Suburbs (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti 1934)
Post Haste (dir. Humphrey Jennings 1934)
Spring Comes to England dir. Donald Taylor 1934)
Six-thirty Collection (dir. Harry Watt and Edgar Anstey 1934)
Song of Ceylon (dir. Basil Wright 1934)
BBC: The Voice of Britain (dir. Stuart Legg 1935)
A Colour Box (dir. Len Lye 1935)
Housing Problems (dir. Edgar Anstey, Arthur Elton 1935)
Introducing the Dial (dir. Stuart Legg 1935)
Coal Face (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti 1935)
B.B.C. Droitwich (dir. Harry Watt 1935)
Night Mail ( dir. (Basil Wright, and Harry Watt 1936)
Saving of Bill Blewitt (dir. Basil Wright 1936)
Line To The Tschierva Hut (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti 1937)
Children At School (dir. Basil Wright 1937)
We Live In Two Worlds (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti 1937)
Daily Round (dir. Richard Massingham, Karl Urbahn 1937)
Trade Tattoo (dir. Len Lye 1937)
The Face of Scotland (dir. Basil Wright 1938)
The Londoners (dir. John Taylor (director) 1939)
Judgement Deferred (dir. John Baxter 1951)
Brandy for the Parson (dir. John Eldridge 1952)
The Brave Don’t Cry (dir. Philip Leacock 1952)
Miss Robin Hood (dir. John Guillermin 1952)
Time Gentlemen Please! (dir. Lewis Gilbert 1952)
You’re Only Young Twice (dir. Terry Bishop 1952)
Man of Africa (dir. Cyril Frankel 1953)
Background (dir. Daniel Birt 1953)
Laxdale Hall (dir. John Eldridge 1953)
The Oracle (dir. C.M. Pennington-Richards 1953)
Child’s Play (dir. Margaret Thomson 1954)
Devil on Horseback (dir. Cyril Frankel 1954)
Seawards the Great Ships (dir. Hilary Harris 1960)
The Heart of Scotland (dir. Laurence Henson 1961)
The Creative Process (dir. Donald McWilliams 1961)