John Grierson

Drifters 1929
41 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

John Grierson was to become the chief architect of the British documentary film movement which emerged during the 1930s. Grierson’s first film, Drifters 1929, about the North Sea herring fishing fleet, can be seen as marking the beginning of the movement. It was in part a response to avant-garde, Modernist films, adopting formal techniques such as montage – constructive editing emphasising the rhythmic juxtaposition of images – but also aimed to make a socially directed commentary on its subject. Drifters was both a critical and commercial success and established Grierson as a significant force in film-making.

Granton Trawler 1929
11 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Grierson described documentary as ‘the creative use of actuality’, stressing the role of filmmaker as interpreter.& Granton Trawler 1934, on which Grierson worked alone as both director and cameraman, returns to the subject area of Drifters – here it is a trawler out fishing on Viking Bank, off Scotland’s north-west coast. Owing to the limitations of sound recording equipment at the time the soundtrack was added later; this audio collage was created by the veteran Modernist filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti and exemplifies his avant-garde experimentation with sound. Both films demonstrate Grierson’s belief that film should focus on the everyday drama of ordinary people.

Alberto Cavalcanti

Coalface 1935
11 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

The documentary film movement of the 1930s encompassed a broad range of approaches to filmmaking. Coalface by Cavalcanti exemplifies his non-naturalistic approach to factual cinema blending poetry and realism, while other films made at this time such as Housing Problems had a more directly sociological intent. Even so, Housing Problems& broke new ground by allowing the working class inhabitants of the slums to speak directly to camera about the appalling conditions in which they lived. Norman McLaren’s Hell Unltd combines politics with formal experimentation. This agitational, anti-fascist film criticises the armaments industry. McLaren here combines animation, dramatised sequences, and archival footage.

Norman McLaren

Hell Unltd 1936
15 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton

Housing Problems 1935
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Humphrey Jennings

Listen to Britain 1942
20 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Jennings’s poetic film Listen to Britain 1942, a masterpiece of propaganda, was commissioned by the Ministry of Information ostensibly to encourage the United States to join the Second World War. Making distinctive use of familiar images of England and Englishness, Jennings presents a Britain in imminent danger of disappearing. His use of associative montage in the film, combining filmed images with music and poetry, challenged straightforward definitions of documentary at the time – it is often considered the pinnacle of his distinctive style. His avant-garde approach had a profound influence on subsequent generations of filmmakers.

Basil Wright

Song of Ceylon 1934
40 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Song of Ceylon, a film in four parts, focuses on the effect of industrialisation on the traditional way of life for the Sinhalese (the dominant ethnic group of Sri Lanka – then known as Ceylon). It was hailed a cinematic masterpiece at the time by critic and author Graham Greene, and is notable for its experimentation with sound and the use of sound effects as metaphor. The first two sections of the film focus on traditional rituals and the natural environment, while the third sequence suggests the encroaching threat of industrialism. In the last section the relationship between the modern and the traditional is more harmonious – ultimately implying that nature and native traditions can co-exist with modernity.