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.

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  1. It took me a while to blog for this week because this one was hard for me to put into words…
    ‘I look on cinema as a pulpit,’ he said, ‘and use it as a propagandist.’ When I read that part of the quote, I pictured what my pastor’s motive is on a sunday morning and I get it now. Grierson wanted to sell or convert the audience in my opinion. He certainly changed how we thought about his topics.

    • Exactly. To convert the audience to a particular opinion or belief is a big goal of social documentary. We will see more of this this week when we look at the American Documentary Movement…

  2. Documentary as a pulpit…that’s an interesting idea. By design a pulpit is in the front of everyone in a church. People come in, sit down, face the pulpit and await words of wisdom from someone they believe knows better than themselves. I believe to some degree, all people want to be told what to do, because if you do what you’re told, you reap the benefits. Grierson’s statement is completely understandable! He felt that people are ready and willing to be guided, so why not guide them in a productive, appreciative, beautiful way. The way his films (at least the ones I’ve seen) were made, showed people things they take for granted in a new way, a way that made them feel like they were a part of something bigger, something special.


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