American Documentaries in the 1930s

The documentaries of the 1930s tended to have more of a political focus. John Grierson took an approach that focused on informing the citizens of a nation. If a citizen was more aware of what was happening they would be more involved.

The documentary movement in the United States was immediately involved in political issues.

The situation in the United States in the 1930s was very grim. The Depression was dominating the lives of the majority of the people across the nation. Unemployment and poverty were rampant. President Roosevelt, elected in 1933, set forth a series of economic politics known as the New Deal.

Part of the New Deal was the establishment of many new government agencies. The power of film was already well known and several of these agencies were interested in using it.

Pare Lorentz, a movie critic with very loose family ties to the President, approached the head of the newly created Resettlement Administration and proposed the idea of a new movie – “Films of Merit” – as he would come to call them. He is often seen as America’s Grierson, but Lorentz differed from Grierson in several ways – The primary way was concerning the over emphasis on education and instruction in Griersonian films. There needed to be more drama and more persuasion mixed with the information. More emphasis on the poetic. This he did with his 3 major films, THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS, THE RIVER, and THE FIGHT FOR LIFE.

Lorentz also produced a number of films. In 1940 he produced POWER AND THE LAND, which was directed by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. For more on the relationship between Ivens and Lorentez click here. At this time in his career Ivens was living and working in the United States, and his films had become more political. POWER AND THE LAND is a wonderful example of American propaganda – focusing on an American family, with strong American values, supported by a soundtrack of American folk music and poetic narration. For a really interesting webpage and follow up documentary on the Parkinson Family (the family in the movie) check out the info on Power for the Parkinsons website.

Discussion Starter: Does FDR’s U.S. Film Service seem like a good idea to you? How do you feel about the government using taxpayer money to produce films some saw as propaganda for its own policies? Be sure to provide original and critical thought into your answer.

Ivens’ political interests began before POWER AND THE LAND. In 1937 he directed THE SPANISH EARTH, a film designed to inform Americans about the Spanish Civil War and to raise funds for allies (the Loyalists mentioned in the film). The film is considered the first real war movie. Ivens filmed the piece and Ernest Hemmingway did the narration – which has a personal feel – less authoritative and “unprofessional”, but very poetic in places.

Bonus Discussion Starter: THE SPANISH EARTH is considered Joris Ivens’ masterpiece. Why do you think this? What makes this film different from the others we have seen this semester? Comment on the film and add your own thoughts.

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.