The Contradictions In The Blossoming British Documentary Film Movement


Amy (2015)Asif Kapadia’s Amy recently broke the box office record for documentaries in the UK, previously held by his own Senna (2011). Proof, if more was needed, that the British documentary is currently enjoying a purple patch.

Between 2001 and 2013, 8 of the top 20 highest grossing documentaries in UK cinemas were made in the UK, and in 2013 alone a massive 13% of UK cinema features were documentaries. A significant number when you consider that it was only 3.5% in 2002. More recently, as has been reported in the pages of Sight & Sound, documentaries provided some of the few highlights in an otherwise lacklustre summer for arthouse film.

Cinemas have been responsive too, with both the Curzon Bloomsbury and Picturehouse Central reserving screens for dedicated documentary use, recognising the demand to see original and provocative films on the big screen. Distributors like Dogwoof have been both the beneficiary and the cause of these successes; developing a glittering back catalogue of adventurous, original and important documentary films – showing the more conservative that risk can pay.

‘It’s fantastic,’ says Jane Callaghan of the Grierson Trust who are to hold their annual documentary awards on November 2nd named after the father of the movement John Grierson. ‘I think there is such a wealth and diversity of documentaries of all types and formats that there is a type for everybody. Documentaries have become so much more inventive in form recently and they are reaching a wider audience than they used to.’

For the first time, the Grierson Awards have a category for documentaries screened on digital platforms only, ‘We are not talking about little, thrown together, one-guy-and-a-hand-held-camera documentaries that people upload onto YouTube,’ says Callaghan, ‘but we are talking about fully produced documentaries going out on digital platforms that are competing with broadcast documentaries and documentaries that are shown in cinemas worldwide.’

Inside Job (2011)

Inside Job (2011)

Despite their evident popularity, not everyone is celebrating. For many, documentary is there as a tool for holding to account those with power. Investigative docs certainly have dominated the UK box office over the last decade in terms of popularity; with many of Michael Moore’s films and others like Super Size Me and Inside Job coming in the top 20. Many of the recent Grierson submissions are also films which look to empower the ‘underdog’ in one way or another.

Some have noted the shifting patterns in funding for documentaries as being potentially problematic; with less coming from public coffers and increasing amounts having to be sourced through a mix of more innovative methods like crowd funding, arts and corporate grants. ‘It is certainly the case,’ says Callaghan, ‘especially if you are doing feature docs or a big TV production, that you can no longer rely on just a single broadcaster to fund it.’

This was a big topic at the Sheffield Documentary Festival last year too, with fears being raised over the continued regression of impartial public funding and the slow creep of ‘branded content’. Not that it’s not a problem exclusive, of course. The Science Museum was criticised earlier in the year for being influenced on its environmental exhibitions by its sponsor Shell. And this is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to museums alone. Possibly the ironic mother of them all is the artist at the Venice Biennale who, without blinking, simultaneously directed a non-stop reading of Das Kapital whilst receiving funding from Rolls-Royce.

Whilst all this might sound like a very modern conundrum, it’s not. In fact, it is an issue that goes back to the very birth of the British documentary film movement and John Grierson himself.


Drifters (1929)

In 1927, the ambitious, silver-tongued Scot pitched an idea for a film to the Financial Secretary of the Treasury, Arthur Samuel. Grierson wanted to make it on herring fishing in Scotland, a topic on which he happened to know the Financial Secretary was a keen enthusiast, to the extent that he had endured writing a book on the subject. The film in question was Drifters; a landmark in cinema history.

Drifters follows the process of fishing for herring; from the dramatic haul at sea, to the packaging and selling at market. It is remembered now as a masterpiece of montage as energy and plot are generated from unconnected shots that are allowed to bounce off one another. The film premiered in London in 1929 alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and the influence from the great Russian director on Grierson is clear.

What is also interesting, and perhaps less well known, is that the film was made by the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (EMB) – the propaganda arm of the British Empire established by the influential civil servant and philanthropist Sir Stephen Tallents. Grierson worked primarily as a producer for the EMB Film Unit from 1927 until it closed in 1933, and was commissioned to make Drifters (for the EMB, like all his other work) in order to promote understanding of trade in the British Empire and help to achieve their primary goal: highlighting the positives of the Empire and unifying its disparate colonies as one. Through the quick editing and close shots he wanted to bring out not only the process of fishing itself, but the mechanistic beauty of labour and production, in Grierson’s own words in Grierson on Documentary: ‘all the complex details of porterage and export dissolved into each other…In other words the shots were massed together, not only for description and tempo but for commentary on it.’

‘He described himself as a propagandist,’ says Emeritus Professor of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, Nicholas Pronay, who has written on Grierson and his methods, and worked with him in the latter stages of his career. ‘He deeply believed in propaganda. He had an ambivalent view relationship to what you might call fact.’


O’er the Hill and Dale (1932)

It wasn’t just Drifters that was made for this purpose, but every film in this foundational period for the documentary movement made at the EMB Film Unit through Grierson’s production. Films such as O’er the Hill and Dale (1932) and Industrial Britain (1931) existed to help produce an image of Empire as a collective, interconnected economic and social organisation in which all layers of society worked together in a mutually beneficial partnership.

In 1933 the EMB film unit was closed and many of its most talented filmmakers moved to the General Post Office (GPO) where films such as Song of Ceylon (1934), produced by the Empire Tea Marketing Board, were made to promote the tea industry and Housing Problems (1935), produced by the British Commercial Gas Association, to build support for housing redevelopments. This is not to mention the hive of exciting experimental filmmaking which was the Shell Film Unit; established from many of Grierson’s old students and assisted by Grierson himself.

Documentary film, then, was formed and conceived by the very corporations and large government bodies which it today is tasked with holding to account. And yet, despite this, Grierson is still painted as a champion of the downtrodden. In an article in The Telegraph from 2011 Grierson is described as part of a wave of middle class intellectuals and ‘leading cultural figures who declared their support for the working class.’ Britain Through a Lens (2011), a BBC documentary to which the article refers, also portrays Grierson as a fearsome, hardy filmmaker dedicated to shining a light on the lives of the working class and uniting a Britain riven by social difference.

Britain Through A Lens (2011)

Britain Through A Lens (2011)

Like many public figures, Grierson’s life as a whole has been retrospectively reduced into a neat trajectory; the socialist intellectual who, having been born into a radical thinking family in a remote part of Scotland, pursued a life of political philosophy in Glasgow and Chicago before joining the Civil Service. The critic and close associate of his, Forsyth Hardy, wrote of Drifters: ‘For the first time the working man saw and recognised himself on the screen’. In an introduction to a collection of Grierson’s writings, he goes on to write: ‘Over ten years Grierson had seen the documentary movement grow in Britain to a point where it seemed as natural to find public issues being examined on the screen as it is today in television…there was a generation of filmmakers in Britain trained in the use of the film for informational and inspiration purposes.’

It is difficult to reconcile the idea that Grierson was both supporting the suppressed underclasses in Britain and trying to restructure ingrained hierarchies, whilst also working round the clock to promote the very epitome of class order in the established state and its surrounding semi autonomous organisations. In reality, Grierson’s concerns lay with neither.

‘From his point of view there was no contradiction in any of this’, says Professor Pronay, ‘This was an age when the dominant political ideas were totalitarianism and propaganda. People believed therefore that what you needed was a new kind of government which would lead the people and command the economy. Not to do what the ordinary people might have wanted but what was good for them…Grierson was of this age and he was 100% in favour of this.’

Industrial Britain

Industrial Britain (1931)

Indeed, he was aware of this and proud to be harnessing film for state propaganda. Far from seeing the production of propaganda as being stifling, Grierson felt liberated by it. ‘The dogs of the commercial world are harried and driven to quick box-office results. The dogs of the propaganda world are more wisely driven to good results…To command, and cumulatively command, the mind of a generation is more important than by novelty or sensation to knock a Saturday night audience cold’. Grierson was saying that it was precisely because propaganda film had an ulterior motive that it allowed experimentation and ‘permitted a unique measure of freedom’ for which he and many others credit Stephen Tallents at the EMB.

These beliefs go back Grierson’s youth where the Calvinist idea of the Elect, whose salvation was thought to be predestined by God, ran through his early education. ‘As far as Grierson was concerned,’ says Professor Pronay, ‘he was part of God’s Elect, so the idea that everything comes from above and not below is integral to his world view.’

Later too, this belief was strengthened on reading the influential Public Opinion (1922) by Walter Lippmann from which he took the idea that, in the words of the historian and writer an Aitken: ‘the public comprehended the social world in terms of generalised subjective judgement rather than in terms of cognitive rationalism… he argued that the documentary film should not try to teach the public “to know everything about everything all the time”, but should instill an understanding of the significant generative forces in society.’

Grierson developed the view that he was among the select few with the requisite knowledge and skills to harness film in order to instruct the lower echelons of society in how the world functions and their place within it. Not on a purely factual basis, but by transforming facts into an impressionistic film format: ‘We thought, indeed, that even so complex a world as ours could be patterned for all to appreciate if we only got away from the servile accumulation of fact and struck for the story which held the facts in living organic relationship together.’

‘He, if you like…,’ Professor Pronay deliberates, ironically it turns out, in choosing the correct word to describe what Grierson’s real legacy was, ‘articulated a view of the cinema which was beyond entertainment. He took the cinema seriously in terms of the effect it can have.’ Whilst debates ensue over the purity of funding for the blossoming indie doc scene and some gently herd into a category of political filmmaking, it is entertaining to think that its origins lay with a self confessed propagandist for the British Empire.

Grierson trophies

Maybe it’s just entertaining and nothing more. After all, it’s history now. Or maybe it’s the case that the origins of the form tell us something of its real purpose; not a simple political one but an artistic one from which political consequences might follow. It is about shining a light on human emotion and constantly trying to point the camera in new directions. Grierson’s most favourable legacy should be that he was among the first in Britain to turn the camera away from the studio and onto the infinite tales of the real world. ‘If you can tell me a story more plainly dramatic [than reality],’ he said, ‘I promise you I shall make my next film on it forthwith.’

The Grierson Awards take place in London on Monday, November 2. Visit the Grierson site for more info.


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Part-time film writer and maker. Enjoys Mark Cousins’ voice, Mark Kermode’s hands and Lindsay Anderson’s If.

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