Camera Tips from Grierson

John Grierson trained the filmmaker’s in his newly formed British Documentary Movement. Here is an example of some of the training – “A tips for shooting” sheet.

Giving Art a Purpose

John Grierson (1898-1972) is the father of the British (and Canadian – as we’ll discover is a few weeks) Documentary Movement(s). Even those who argue against Grierson’s theories and practices cannot deny that he had a tremendous influence on the development of the documentary. Most of the films that we have seen up to this point have not looked like a traditional “documentary.” As discussed in class, this is mainly because our definition of documentary has been formed by doc history. When John Grierson began making his first film there was no formula.

Grierson had two major cinematic influences, the first being Robert Flaherty. Grierson had seen NANOOK OF THE NORTH around 1924 and immediately saw the power of that the yet to be classified documentary had. Flaherty had done something that Hollywood had not done. Grierson wrote in this essay ‘First Principles of Documentary,’ “We believe that the original (or native) actor, and the original (or native) scene, are better guides to a screen interpretation of the modern world.” It was Flaherty’s determination to his subjects, spending over a year or two living with subject, to learn about them, and to allow the story to arrive naturally. Most importantly was Flaherty’s search for drama in the normal lives of regular people.

Grierson’s second cinematic influence was the Russian filmmakers of the time – who were using the cinema for propagandist goals (remember that “propaganda” was not a bad word at the time). He was not a fan of Vertov’s focus on formalist style.

Grierson’s work in the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit and later the General Post Office Film Unit helped define a new, and dominate, style of documentary – the social documentary.

“Grierson’s Calvinst background led him to believe that the only worthwhile type of cinema was factual and useful – of educational or material benefit to society. If a film served its utilitarian function well, he believed, it would also be of artistic merit. If it was entertaining, so much the better – but that was of secondary concern. He wanted his films to do good. ‘I look on cinema as a pulpit,’ he said, ‘and use it as a propagandist.'” ((Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print. pg 94.)

Discussion Starter: After viewing some of the early works of Grierson’s documentary movement comment on one or several of the films – using the quote above as a guide.

Readings for Next Week

Next week we will be discussing the Avant Garde Documentary movement (which “Man with a Movie Camera” has connections with). We will watch (hopefully if the DVD come in) “Regen” by Joris Ivens. We will also be watching clips from “Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City” Chapter 4 covers this movement for next week – but focus more on these two films.

I would also like you to begin reading Chapter 5 concerning the birth of the British Doc movement. We will be discussing John Grierson and his impact on Documentary next week.

If you want to learn more about Vertov read chapter 3.

The Start of the Documentary Tradition

Discussion Starter #1 – The First “Documentary” Filmmaker
Robert Flaherty is often called the founder of the Documentary. As we discussed last week in class, documentary has it’s roots at the dawn of film itself. Flaherty finished NANOOK OF THE NORTH in 1922 – 30+ years after the dawn of film – and he is considered the founder? What did he do that made that much of an impact to the documentary world?

The answer is NANOOK OF THE NORTH. Nonfiction films before this tended to have no structure, or were structured as newsreels. What made NANOOK different? Simple: a narrative structure very similar to fiction films of the day.

Robert Flaherty created a narrative out of what seems everyday life for the Inuit. These people allow their lives to be recorded openly and honesty… as much as audiences of the day could tell.

Of course one of the things that we don’t know is that the film known as NANOOK OF THE NORTH actually was the 2nd film made about the Inuit. The first film, which Flaherty thought was bad, actually was lost in a fire.

In Flaherty’s own words:
“My wife and I thought it over for a long time. At last we realised why the film was bad, and we began to get a glimmer that perhaps if I went back to the North, where I had lived for ten years and knew the people intimately, I could make a film that this time would go. Why not take, we said to each other, a typical Eskimo and his family and make a biography of their lives through a year. What biography of any man could be interesting? Here is a man who has less resources than any other man in the world. He lives in a desolation that no other race could possibly survive. His life is a constant fight against starvation. Nothing grows; he must depend utterly on what he can kill; and all this against the most terrifying of tyrants – the bitter climate of the North, the bitterest climate in the world.

… The urge that I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them. This was my whole reason for making the film. In so many travelogues you see, the filmmaker looks down on and never up to his subject. He is always the big man from New York or from London. But I had been dependent on these people, alone with them for months at a time, travelling with them and living with them… I couldn’t have done anything without them. In the end it is all a question of human relationships.” (Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “Robert Flaherty Talking.” 1950. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print.)

Discussion Starter #1 – Flaherty clearly manipulates in NANOOK OF THE NORTH. Defend or criticise Flaherty’s decision to do this.

Discussion Starter #2 – “I am Kino-Eye”

“Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Denis Kaufman – better known as Dziga Vertov – was the eldest of three brothers who all had an impact on cinema history, but it is Vertov’s imprint that is most impressive.

Vertov believed that the camera (hand in hand with editing) could reveal truth that the human eye would usually miss. The kino-eye (cinema-eye), in Vertov’s opinion, was much superior to the human eye. The kino-eye could capture images over a huge distance, in slow motion, etc. Editing could allow people to see one scene from a multiple of perspectives. His kino-eye theory was central to all of his work.

His most important work, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, which falls into the classic “city symphony” films popular during the time, is essentially a film about the making of a film. Vertov’s cameraman (his brother Mikhail Kaufman) experiments with his camera to obtain some of the most fascinating film footage seen at the time. Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova, is seen in the film – furiously working away creating the very montages that we are watching. The camerawork and the editing is all brought to the forefront in the film.

In Vertov’s words: “Until now, we have violated the movie camera and forced it to copy the work of our eye. And the better the copy, the better the shooting was thought to be. Starting today we are liberating the camera and making it work in the opposite direction – away from copying.

The weakness of the human eye is manifest. We affirm the kino-eye…

I make the viewer see in the manner best suited to my presentation of this or that visual phenomenon. The eye submits to the will of the camera and is directed by it to those successive points of the action that, most succinctly and vividly, bring the film phrase to the height or depth of resolution… The camera ‘carries’ the film viewer’s eyes from arms to legs to eyes and so on, in the most advantageous sequence, and organises the details into an orderly montage study.”(Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “The Council of Three.” 1923. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print.)

Discussion Starter #2 – Comment upon Vertov’s Kino-Eye theories. Does he have a point?

Here is the entire film on Youtube. We stopped watching at the 52:00 minute mark.

The Kingdom of Shadows

Here is the full text of Maxim Gorky’s article that I read from Wednesday night.

Maxim Gorky: The Lumiere Cinematograph 
4 July, 1896

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.



If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there—the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air—is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow, It is not motion but its soundless spectre.



Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. I was at Aumont’s and saw Lumière’s cinematograph—moving photography. The extraordinary impression it creates is so unique and complex that I doubt my ability to describe it with all its nuances. However, I shall try to convey its fundamentals. When the lights go out in the room in which Lumière’s invention is shown, there suddenly appears on the screen a large grey picture, “A Street in Paris”—shadows of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see carriages, buildings and people in various poses, all frozen into immobility.



All this is in grey, and the sky above is also grey—you anticipate nothing new in this all too familiar scene, for you have seen pictures of Paris streets more than once. But suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life. Carriages coming from somewhere in the perspective of the picture are moving straight at you, into the darkness in which you sit; somewhere from afar people appear and loom larger as they come closer to you; in the foreground children are playing with a dog, bicyclists tear along, and pedestrians cross the street picking their way among the carriages. All this moves, teems with life and, upon approaching the edge of the screen, vanishes somewhere beyond it.



And all this in strange silence where no rumble of the wheels is heard, no sound of footsteps or of speech. Nothing. Not a single note of the intricate symphony that always accompanies the movements of people. Noiselessly, the ashen-grey foliage of the trees sways in the wind, and the grey silhouettes of the people, as though condemned to eternal silence and cruelly punished by being deprived of all the colours of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.



Their smiles are lifeless, even though their movements are full of living energy and are so swift as to be almost imperceptible. Their laughter is soundless although you see the muscles contracting in their grey faces. Before you a life is surging, a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours—the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life.



It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows … Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you—watch out!



It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice.
But this, too, is but a train of shadows.



Noiselessly, the locomotive disappears beyond the edge of the screen. The train comes to a stop, and grey figures silently emerge from the cars, soundlessly greet their friends, laugh, walk, run, bustle, and … are gone. And here is another picture. Three men seated at the table, playing cards. Their faces are tense, their hands move swiftly, The cupidity of the players is betrayed by the trembling fingers and by the twitching of their facial muscles, They play … Suddenly, they break into laughter, and the waiter who has stopped at their table with beer, laughs too. They laugh until their sides split but not a sound is heard. It seems as if these people have died and their shadows have been condemned to play cards in silence unto eternity. Another picture. A gardener watering flowers. The light grey stream of water, issuing from a hose, breaks into a fine spray …



This mute, grey life finally begins to disturb and depress you. It seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim …



Besides those pictures I have already mentioned, is featured “The Family Breakfast,” an idyll of three. A young couple with its chubby first-born is seated at the breakfast table. The two are so much in love, and are so charming, gay and happy, and the baby is so amusing …



I am convinced that these pictures will soon be replaced by others of a genre more suited to the general tone of the “Concert Parisien.” For example, they will show a picture titled: “As She Undresses,” or “Madam at Her Bath,” or “A Woman in Stockings.” They could also depict a sordid squabble between a husband and wife and serve it to the public under the heading of “The Blessings of Family Life.”



Yes, no doubt, this is how it will be done. The bucolic and the idyll could not possibly find their place in Russia’s markets thirsting for the piquant and the extravagant. I also could suggest a few themes for development by means of a cinematograph and for the amusement of the market place. For instance: to impale a fashionable parasite upon a picket fence, as is the way of the Turks, photograph him, then show it.


It is not exactly piquant but quite edifying.

Making your class blog

Making a blog on wordpress is quite easy. When you arrive on the wordpress.com website you will see a “get started” button off to the top left. Click it and fill it out. You will need to create a name for your blog – you don’t need to be overly creative here if you don’t want to. You can choose whatever domain you want, but the .wordpress.com one is free.

Probably the most daunting thing is the dashboard screen (it sometimes still gets me). The most important thing you need to remember (especially if you are simply doing this just for class and don’t care about how it looks) is the POSTS button and the ADD NEW button. This will take you to a page so you can create your entries.

When you are leaving comments on other blogs be sure that you are logged into wordpress. This way people will be able to go straight to your blog. When people start to leave you comments on your posts you can see them on your blog page or by clicking the comments button. You will need to approve the comments in order for them to appear on your blog.

If you are interested in making your blog “look cool” then click on Appearance and explore.

Hope all this helps.

Why Study Documentary?

This is a question that some of you might be asking. Why study something that is boring?

“Boring”…?

For most of you the only exposure to the genre of documentary comes from watching films in school. These films are about subjects like “How a Law becomes a Bill” and “The Life Cycle of a Mollusc.” These films using have an unknown voice telling you the information. Some are good, but most are… I hate to say it, boring… but this is not the extent of documentary.

I’m sure that you have heard of the phrase “stranger than fiction.” This phrase embodies much of what documentary can be.

For me documentary is one of the most fascinating forms of film, but if I was to boil down documentary to a simple phrase I would say that it is “A moment of truth is captured and preserved for time.”

What is “truth?” For ages that philosophical question has been asked. Truth is immediately associated with the word documentary and because of that every film that bears the title “documentary” immediately has power. Truth is at the heart of the documentary process, but there are documentaries that bend the truth, give half truths, and many times even lie.

This semester we will be looking at some of the most important documentary films over the last 120 years. Many of these films you will never have heard of. Many will be in black and white. Some will deal with subject matters that you might not have an interest in. All of them have had an impact of the direction of film history. Many changed the way people watch movies and tv. All of them will present some element of truth.