Portraying ‘Reality’?: A Look Back at the Documentary Film Movement

It’s fair to say that the events these past few weeks have focused a lot of attention on how ‘reality’ or ‘the facts’ should be presented across the media. In the US the success of Donald Trump has seen the recurrent accusations that the Presidential Race is little more than a reality TV event become even more vociferous, while in Britain there was bitter acrimony from both sides of the Brexit referendum over how the campaigns were waged. Since the result was announced in the early hours of Friday morning increasing attention has been given to the distortions at the centre of the Leave campaign, the perceived lack of trust large sections of the country now has for ‘facts’ and ‘expertise’, and to how media coverage of the EU might have played a role in the final outcome. One particular medium of nonfiction storytelling, documentary film, has also been a notable presence. The annual Sheffield Doc/Fest featured a wide range of offerings encompassing all manner of subjects and stylistic approaches. Movies from two of the biggest contemporary names in the genre, Louis Theroux and Michael Moore, were screened there, and popular film critic Mark Kermode contrasted the approach taken by Moore with that of the Italian documentary, Fire at Sea.[1]

It therefore seems like a good time to look back at an important part of film history, the Documentary Film Movement (DFM). The movement first came to my attention because of its role within the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), an organisation founded in 1926 with the aim of strengthening imperial ties, and because in 1940 one of its members, Paul Rotha, made a documentary about The Times, a newspaper which features prominently in my own research. The movement’s name was never used as a formal title by those involved, but in time it became the commonly used description for a collective of filmmakers who often worked together and shared some aesthetic and ideological concerns.[2] Despite the fact that the media landscape has changed dramatically during the intervening decades, the activities and the programmatic aims of its core members and their thoughts on the medium are worthy of attention.

The movement originated through the actions of the filmmaker John Grierson. He made his name with a 1929 documentary about North Sea fisherman, Drifters, before joining the EMB in 1930. While there he gathered around himself a number of prospective talents that shared his sensibilities, such as Arthur Elton, Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey and Stuart Legg. Documentaries had been a part of British film history previously, but the DFM was the first moment at which the medium gained truly widespread recognition. The EMB film unit was transferred to the General Post Office in 1933, becoming the GPO Film Unit. By the mid-30s the movement was becoming more diffuse, with its influence spreading to a number of different organisations including Imperial Airways, Shell, Strand Films, and the Realist Film Unit.

John Grierson presenting This Wonderful World

John Grierson presenting This Wonderful World

Grierson left the GPO in 1937, and Britain in 1939, after becoming disillusioned with the bureaucracy of Whitehall. He went to work with the National Film Board of Canada, remaining there until 1945, and therefore played no direct role in the production of British documentaries and public service films during the Second World War. However, many of his protégés did. In 1940 the GPO Film Unit transferred to the Ministry of Information, and was renamed the Crown Film Unit. This ensured the movement a major role in British wartime propaganda, and Grierson himself had some unofficial input as he stayed in contact with his ‘boys’ that were within the Ministry, such as Elton and Wright.[3] Many of their films, for example London Can Take It, filmed during The Blitz, greatly contributed to popular visual representations of the conflict. After the war, members of the movement and those they inspired pursued careers in new fields such as advertising and television, most notably Grierson’s long running ITV series This Wonderful World. They also ensured the movement’s perpetuation in an institutional sense, with some of the members procuring key roles in organisations such as the British Film Institute (BFI), the National Film School and UNESCO.

London Can Take It! (1940)

London Can Take It! (1940)

Ventures like the BFI and their writings about the documentary form were perhaps the movement’s greatest legacy, beyond even the films themselves. Members penned numerous books outlining their ideas, while most of the core participants contributed to journals such as World Film News and Documentary News Letter. The main objective of their films was to inform the general public. This was seen as important following franchise extensions in 1918 and 1928 that inducted the working classes and women. It could have taken a very top down, didactic form, but the movement aimed at inclusivity, showcasing various British regions and imperial territories, showing how each fit within the larger Empire, and how their activities contributed to its continuation and vitality. A key aspect of this was a veneration of the working classes.[4] The presentation aimed at ‘realism’, inspired by the works of Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. This meant taking what has often described as a ‘journalistic approach’, though there were still aesthetic considerations.

A good example that combines all of these factors is one of their most famous and influential films, The Night Mail (1936), written and directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, with poetry by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten.[5] It focuses on the activities of the Royal Mail’s overnight service, and all of the individuals who made it possible. The details of their working practices take centre stage. Great emphasis is placed on the settings through which it passed, the British countryside contrasted with modern industry. The rugged, simple aesthetic finally segues into an abstract artistic flourish, a droning verse of poetry from Auden emerging from, and melding with, the chugging of the train’s pistons.

Night Mail (1936)

Night Mail (1936)

Yet for all of their success and the lasting imprint they left on the form, the DFM had a number of limitations. Adhering to a rigid formula, its acolytes failed to incorporate many of the innovations exhibited in the works of the subsequent Free Cinema movement, and of new filmmakers such as Chris Marker. New approaches and techniques are necessary, and over the decades have allowed documentaries to retain their power to shock and provide alternate ways of viewing issues.[6] However, the biggest criticism that can be directed at the movement is its unwillingness to be critical of those with power. Befitting its origins within the EMB it consistently showed a deference towards the state and imperial institutions, and, contrary to their earlier valorisation of the workers, many of its members ended up providing public relations material for large companies.

Even though the media landscape has changed so dramatically, filmmakers and audiences still need to think about the issues that concerned the DFM. What should we be focusing on? What questions should we be asking? Should we try to show, or explain? And should we acknowledge the subjective decisions that underlie both approaches? What techniques best transmit an argument, or emotion, or empathy? These are questions that are important beyond documentaries. They cut straight to the heart of knowledge, education, and power. They may now be more important than ever. The interwar period was a time of great media expansion, and many amongst the elite feared the uneducated masses would be defenceless against the messages they received from new, seemingly potent and intoxicating mediums like radio and cinema. Those fears were of course vastly overstated, although the new media did have the power to influence. Now, the internet and twenty-four-hour television spanning hundreds of channels provide a deluge of information. In theory, these resources should enable verification and elucidation, but in reality it can be hard to know what to trust and how to evaluate competing opinions. It is easy to fall into echo chambers, relying on sources that merely reinforce your own views. Increasing access to equipment means more people than ever before can create content, including documentaries. Youtube is full of amateur efforts, many of very dubious quality and peddling all manner of conspiracy theories.

It is the responsibility of filmmakers to think about their choice of subject matter and how to inform and engage, but also of audiences to hone their critical abilities. They should remember that no matter how ‘authentic’ a documentary or other media production might seem it has still been crafted by people with their own fixations, and that the individuals that feature are likely altering their behaviour because they are in the spotlight. As Robert Greene has recently pointed out, grasping this fact is often necessary if we are to understand the dynamics of important issues, and the ensuing media coverage. Audiences should expose themselves to different subjects, styles, and viewpoints to combat their own biases. That is why initiatives such as Doc/Fest are so welcome, with its plurality of topics and approaches, genuine attempts to inform and to provide a window into other worlds, and explorations of the possibilities of the medium.


Further Reading

Aitken, I., Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement (London, 1990).

Anthony, S., Mansell, J.G., ‘Introduction: The Documentary Film Movement and the Spaces of British Identity’, Twentieth Century British History, 23:1 (2012), pp. 1-11.

Fox, J., ‘From Documentary Film to Television Documentaries: John Grierson and This Wonderful World’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 10:3 (2013), pp. 498-523.

Winston, B., ‘The Griersonian Tradition Postwar: Decline or Transition?’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 11:1 (2014), pp. 101-15.

Aaron Ackerley is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield examining how the British interwar daily press presented economic ideas. He is one of the editors of this blog, and tries to fit some informative documentaries in amid all the sci-fi and horror movies.



Title image: Drifters (1929)

[1] Although his distinction between telling and showing  is far too arbitrary and ignores the manufactured nature of both approaches, as will be made clear.

[2] Recent scholarship has argued that the extent of the homogeneity of those involved has been exaggerated, but it is undeniable that there were a lot of commonalities. Rifts between many of the members and Humphrey Jennings have been identified, as well as between Grierson and Alberto Cavalcanti. A. Aldgate, J. Richards, Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War I (London, 2007), p. 329, 241; R. Aitken, ‘A ‘World Without End’: Post-War Reconstruction and Everyday Internationalism in Documentary Film’, International History Review, 35:4 (2013), n. 7, p. 677.

[3] J. Fox, ‘John Grierson, his ‘Documentary Boys’ and the British Ministry of Information, 1939–1942’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 25:3 (2005), pp. 345-69.

[4] Despite the filmmakers themselves being almost universally middle class.

[5] The BFI website provides free access to a number of their films, and indeed a wide range of documentaries from across the whole of British film history.

[6] This has resulted in powerful and unique projects such as 2012’s The Act of Killing, where former members of Indonesian death-squads re-enacted their atrocities.


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