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.

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