Between Empire and Nation: Grierson in Australia

Uploaded 1 July 1999 | Modified 14 July 1999

In many of the international histories and accounts of documentary film John Grierson is afforded a substantial role. Numerous books on documentary film attribute to Grierson the first use of the term “documentary ” in relation to film[1]  while others are compelled to begin with Grierson.

Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins in their 1996 book Imagining Reality, go further, asserting in their introduction that: “John Grierson has a lot to answer for. … In Britain, Canada, the United States and various other parts of the world we’ve been suffering from a Griersonian hangover ever since; suspicious, if not down-right dismissive, of all other forms of documentary”. [2]  Although this salvo is employed to support their “primary aim” .. . “to demonstrate how diverse and fascinating our documentary heritage is”, it again turns to what they understand to be the obdurate discourse of Grierson.

Brian Winston’s recent Claiming the Real seems to have two subtitles – “the documentary film revisited” and “the Griersonian documentary and its limitations” – both linking Grierson to a certain tradition in documentary film which begins by tracing origins. [3]  Predictably, Forsyth Hardy elides the study and production of documentary film and the subject of his research writing: “in the early thirties a new word and a new name began to appear with some regularity in the public prints of the English-speaking world. The new word was ‘documentary’ and the new name John Grierson”[4] . Grierson was a major contributor to the early writing on documentary. His essays in World Film News, Cinema Quarterly and Documentary Newsletter not only served his purpose of drawing attention to the films, they also became part of the fledgling international network of cinema journals. Grierson’s forcefulness in “First principles of documentary”, “The E.M.B. Film Unit” and “The course of realism” were prominent contributions to the discourse of realist film and, of course, to the figure of John Grierson. [5]

For film communities outside of Britain these essays often preceded the availability of the films Grierson had been involved in and invited a particular reception of the films. Not only were the films made by Harry Watt, Edgar Anstey, Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Robert Flaherty understood as “Grierson films”, they were often understood through the vision for them that Grierson proposed. [6]

One prominent way that Australian documentary (and, to some extent feature) film production has been understood is in relation to a legendary trip made by Grierson to this country in 1940 on behalf of the Imperial Relations Trust, to advise on Australia’s use of documentary film. Undoubtedly, the majority of documentary films made here have been produced with government sponsorship and there has been a lineage established between the various incarnations of government documentary making. The Commonwealth Cinema and Photographic Branch of the Department of Agriculture, to the Australian National Film Board (ANFB), to the Films Division, Department of Information, to the Commonwealth Film Unit and then Film Australia, have provided an institutional continuum conducive to the writing of historical accounts which are introduced by turning to Grierson. Albert Moran explains the “metamorphosis” of the Film Division of the Department of Information into the ANFB in 1945, writing: “to understand this change, we must begin with the 1940 visit to Australia of John Grierson, the ‘father of the British documentary film'”.[7] Underpinning Moran’s understanding is a reliance on the figure of Grierson as a foundation upon which the discourse of documentary film in this country has been built.

In this essay I want to emphasise some other things that were occurring in relation to 1940s Australian documentary film, that diminish the role often attributed to Grierson. I’d like to begin by tracing what I see as a particular and perhaps defining moment in Australian film history; and this isn’t Grierson’s visit to Australia, although it is often related to that visit. It is the period prior to and just after the setting up of the ANFB in May 1945, as a moment in Australian documentary film history which is much more complicated than can be accounted for by recourse to the discursive formation “John Grierson”. I will then go on to suggest some reasons why Grierson’s suggestions to the Australian Government were modified and delayed and, finally, to propose some reasons why Grierson has remained such a strong figure in Australian documentary film’s efforts to understand itself.

Grierson’s visits to Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the period 1938-40 need to be contextualised. Joyce Nelson writes that Grierson’s initial visit to Canada was in 1931 for the Empire Marketing Board and was “to report on the strength of the nationalistic spirit in Canada and especially the strength of the English spirit in Toronto”.[8]  From this visit he gleaned that, not only did Canada have a government-sponsored film unit which “reached 25 million in North America each year” and from which the E.M.B. could learn a great deal about equipment and organisation, but also that French-Canadian nationalism was, in his view, anathema to the assimilation of ethnic minorities because “the dominant ethnic-cultural identity had encouraged the other groups … to maintain theirs”. [9] His second visit, in 1938 on behalf of the Imperial Relations Trust, according to Nelson, must be understood in relation to the possibility of war. [10]  Britain was concerned with strengthening its ties with the dominions, so Grierson was sent to Canada, then to Australia and New Zealand, to “survey the possibilities of setting up a film centre in each of these countries”. [11]  Nelson quotes Gary Evans, who asserts that the “specific goal” of Grierson’s assignment for the Imperial Relations Trust was “to set up a North American propaganda base to urge Canada and (more important) the United States into an active partnership with Britain at war, if war came”.[12] It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Grierson’s role in Australia and New Zealand was to be not much different.

Grierson had adapted the British model for documentary film to the Canadian system (presumably bringing to it a degree of “creative expertise ” if there already existed distribution and technical know-how that Grierson saw as superior to his own at the Empire Marketing Board). His visit to Canada can be understood as the first employment of the Documentary Movement model, where ” it is possible to see in Grierson’s activities in Canada an extension of the ideas and experiments he was developing in Britain”. [13] This extension meant that Grierson obtained full support and didn’t have to deal with the kinds of divisions between the member countries of the United Kingdom. In Canada the Grierson model was an attempt to represent “what Canadians need to know and think about if they are going to do their best by Canada and themselves”.[14]   Nevertheless these sentiments were “to unite the country and serve national purposes without advocating nationhood”. [15]  More importantly, the Canadian National Film Board “was to serve as a North American propaganda base, encouraging the United States to abandon its isolationist neutrality and reinforcing Canada in its partnership with Great Britain”.[16]  His visit to Australia seems to have had similar aims.

During the war, Australian propaganda purposes were served by the Commonwealth Department of Information (DOI) which was “formed five days after the outbreak of war [and] was to coordinate and censor all media information released in Australia dealing with the war … and the Film Division of the DOI was intended to coordinate government and commercial film activity ‘and to mobilise the film medium for national ends’ “.[17]  In February 1940, the DOI sent a small film unit initially to the Middle East: their footage was made available to the Newsreel companies Cinesound and Movietone, with the former said to have “emphasised only the Australian war effort” while the latter “tended to place it in an international context, interspersing Australian footage with material available from its overseas branches”.[18]  These newsreels became a familiar component of cinema-going during the war years, and were screened in specialist newsreel theatres: “by mid-1942 … newsreels were ninety per cent war content and were seen by ninety-seven per cent of patrons and included the Canada Carries On series of films that Grierson is said to have initiated at the Canadian National Film Board.” [19]  The New Zealand National Film Board was set up in 1941 and adopted a magazine style of newsreel in its Weekly Review , which was also to promote the war effort. In Australia during the war “a total of ninety-four films were made under the DOI’s auspices, “where production was farmed out to producers who were deemed experienced enough to make valuable contributions to the war effort”.[20]  These included some of Australia’s high profile directors, Ken Hall and Charles Chauvel and people like Mervyn Murphy and John Heyer who were involved in the ANFB. These factors temporally criss-cross Grierson’s visit, preempting his recommendations to the Menzies Government, as a continuation of Government film production newly focused in the war effort.

Post war Australia was envisaged as needing reconstruction as a nation and documentary film was to play a major role in this nation building. Sounding a lot like the words employed in Canada, Grierson’s 1940 “Memorandum to the Right Honourable, the Prime Minister”, written at sea on his way to New Zealand, has been understood as a kind of manifesto for the ANFB and includes these words:

1. The film is a powerful medium of information and if mobilised in an orderly way under a determined government policy, is of special value to the Australian Government at the present juncture .

2. It could do much in the following vital matters:
(a) Break down sectionalism and induce a national viewpoint, by bringing a love of Australia to itself in terms of films describing national effort and constructive contributions to the more important fields of national activity.
(b) Bring the disparate elements of the war effort together and create in the Australian mind an integrated view of the national war purpose and war effort.
(c) Bring into the public imagination the problems, responsibilities and achievements of Government.
(d) Project to other countries a view of Australia as a powerful and progressive people, fulfilling its responsibilities to a large new territory – a matter of great importance today in international information.
(e) By projecting Australia, contribute substantially to the “projection ” of the British Commonwealth of Nations (my emphasis). [21]

This repetition of ideas used in Britain and Canada represents Grierson’s position on Australia as a representative of the Imperial Relations Trust and as a member of the Commonwealth, clearly containing the sentiments of a dual support of empire and nation. For Australian documentary, it is the latter that has been understood to be the primary legacy of Grierson’s recommendations, yet it also has much in common with the earlier nationalistic New Deal model of the Roosevelt administration of the 1930s in the United States, which can provide a mirror to Australian government initiatives. In distinguishing between the British, Canadian and United States models it is important to consider two factors: that the ANFB was not set up until 1945 and that Grierson’s proposals should be seen in the light of the changes brought about by Australia’s post-war governments.

The major change brought about in Australia under the Curtin and Chifley Labor governments in the immediate post-war period and in the United States under the Roosevelt administration was the strengthening of the role of Government. In Australia, one of the more significant creations of the Curtin Government was the Department of Postwar Reconstruction. This was set up in 1942 with what was said to be the :

ablest in cabinet and they were supported by an outstanding group of public servants, mainly young graduates. They created policy in an atmosphere of intellectual excitement seldom encountered in Canberra. Some of them were influenced by the ideas of Keynes and Laski. Equally, if not more, potent was the example of the United States President Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal legislation and sponsorship of the Tennessee Valley Authority provided a model of purposeful social engineering in a free enterprise capitalist society. [22]

Both Governments responded to rapid change in similar ways. The U.S. in the thirties was responding to the Depression that the previous Hoover administration had been seen to have handled so badly, while for Chifley the second world war provided, or more precisely, demanded, new initiatives.

The setting up of the ANFB in 1945 must also be understood in relation to a number of war time initiatives of this Department of Post-war Reconstruction, including the Commonwealth Universities Commission, the Australian National University, the Snowy Mountains Authority (a hydro- electric scheme administration) and the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. [23]

Like the U.S. in the thirties, what was most significant about the response of the Australian government to the problems of rebuilding a postwar nation was that it was to alter what has been described as “the very idea of what ‘government’ implied, the images conjured up by the term, and the effects on people’s lives that its use assumed”. [24] Both the Roosevelt and the Curtin/Chifley governments had at the heart of their platforms the promise of social reform. These changes are where the similarities are the strongest. The Roosevelt administration provided a domestic economic model for the Australian Labor government of the postwar years. But it is important to remember that both administrations placed an emphasis on the imaging of governmental initiatives and the way that images were employed to posit a sense of regionalism as a component of national unity. In Australia it emerged in the creation of the ANFB, in Roosevelt’s United States the New Deal photographers and documentary filmmakers.

In this cultural, economic and administrative reshuffle, the ANFB is sometimes misunderstood as providing a break or at least a “new hope” for documentary in Australia, and for this reason is often positioned separately from the long tradition of Government filmmaking that had in one form or another been in existence since the turn of the century. [25]  However, a significant number of the personnel who moved from what was the Department of Information’s Film Division were involved in Government propaganda and were to form the initial group of filmmakers at the Board.

For many people the tenets of Griersonian documentary reappeared most prominently in the form of personnel and filmic product in Harry Watt’s production of The Overlanders (1945), a film made in Australia in 1944 by the British Ealing studios[26] . This is a docu-drama of a cattle drive from Western Australia to Queensland, couched in terms of nation building, with the government as the enabling force behind the drive. For the documentary film community, much of the fervour surrounding Watt’s visit was in response to his name as one of the people who made films such as Night Mail (1936) and his associations with Grierson. [27] It has been said that:

The original stimulus for The Overlanders came from the Government’s complaint to the British Ministry of Information that the Australian war effort was not being sufficiently publicised in British propaganda. The grievance – revealing Australia’s continued dependence on Britain and the lack of its own propaganda – led to the BMI discussing the matter with Michael Balcon. As Harry Watt had already expressed interest in Australia, he was assigned to travel, in Balcon’s words, “not with a film to make but to find a theme for a film which would in some way deal with the problem”.[28]

Watt had been the first of the British documentarists after Robert Flaherty to effectively incorporate dramatic episodes and, also like Flaherty, was prepared to spend months familiarising himself with actual locations and people before the development of a storyline. [29] After “five months and 25,000 miles of travel in Australia”, Watt had five ideas and scrapped the lot, eventually “finding his subject during a conversation with the Commonwealth Food Controller – the overland drive in 1942 of 100, 000 head of cattle from the Northern Territory to the Queensland coast when a Japanese invasion seemed imminent”.[30]

In The Overlanders it is possible to see a coalescence of the imperial and nationalist templates for documentary in Australia provided by Grierson, including the aesthetic and social requirements of documentary that he propounded and that were also behind the documentary work performed under the New Deal. It seems that the end of war ideology brought about an interest in representing the country in a way which would reinforce the idea of nationhood and unity, as well as the problems that needed to be addressed and represented by the nation in this process. Like the New Deal emphasis on the role of government in social engineering, The Overlanders proposes, perhaps for the first time in Australian feature film, that the government is supporting the local initiatives of ordinary people, particularly extraordinary actions such as those undertaken by Dan McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) and his friends.

While the cattle drive from Wyndham to Brisbane is understood to be a commercial venture in that there is a to-do about “the contract” and the possibilities of a “bonus” at the conclusion to the drive, there is also a strong sub-text involving the Curtin government and the War effort. Early on in the drive, the party comes across a road and Rafferty’s narration provides an official introduction: “So it was quite a thrill for us to come on the brand new North-South road, built across Australia to supply the fighting in the islands”. Mrs Parsons (Jean Blue) remarks: “I never thought I’d see a bitumen road in the territory”. To which McAlpine replies: “They tell me it’s gonna be like this all the way to Darwin. Takes a War eh?” This sequence, followed by the “parade” of service people heading towards Darwin invoking terms such as Tobruk and Kokoda, draws the war effort into the narrative as well as providing contemporary documentary information. [31]  While by the time of the film’s release the war had ended, the benefits that the country was to enjoy from government departmental initiatives is one of the primary messages the film carries. Geoffrey Bolton cites the highway employed in the film as a particularly “New Deal” achievement of the Allied Works Council which:

recruited a Civil Construction Corps which by mid-1943 numbered over 50, 000. Its achievements included the 1, 500 kilometre bitumen topped Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs, a project long deferred in peacetime and now completed in twelve months. [32]

This road entered popular imagination as a pioneering effort, much like the cattle drive that the film documents.

Later in the film as the party approaches the Queensland border. The subtext of a beneficent government overseeing initiatives is emphasised when an airplane is heard and Corky (John Fernside) remarks: “Maybe it’s Mr Curtin come to congratulate us”. When the journey is completed, an unspecified government Minister (Marshall Crosby) is shown making a speech to a newsreel camera. The Minister looks not unlike a combination of Roosevelt and Chifley with white hair and round spectacles.

Terry Cooney locates Franklin Roosevelt in a similar way in John Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). In the migrant camp run by the federal government where the Joad family believes it has finally found rest from their trials, the figure who runs the camp and eventually intervenes when state interests attempt to intimidate the campers is one resembling Franklin Roosevelt. [33]  This figure takes a much more active role in the story, of course.

In The Overlanders it is possible to see a coalescence of the New Deal culture and Grierson’s ideas that film should “bring the disparate elements of the war effort together and create in the Australian mind an integrated view of the national war purpose and war effort”, as well as “project to other countries a view of Australia as a powerful and progressive people, fulfilling its responsibilities to a large new territory”.[34]   (These ideas were also apparent in the U.S. Office of War Information films made during the second world war). The film does this by employing the landscape, a subject that conforms to Grierson’s ideas about projecting a particular representation of Australia in relation to the Commonwealth. O’Regan comments:

In doing this The Overlanders was reflecting the optimism and priorities of post-war reconstruction. This post-war reconstructionism drew upon a long standing pioneering/developmental ethos. In it Australia appeared as a zone of possibilities: the Australian continent existed as a dramatic, imaginative space where emptiness could be converted to fullness, where undreamed of potential could be realised, and where distance was symbolically banished. In the process the outback became a metaphor of Australian society and character. It was a mythic setting, revitalising the Australian nation and its rural and secondary industries. [35]

In these ways, The Overlanders contains most of the ingredients that were to guide the formation of the ANFB. Grierson’s mission on behalf of the Imperial Relations Trust four years earlier emphasised both nation and empire, but the latter recedes in The Overlanders, which renders the Australian war effort more in terms of nation-building than of relations with the mother country.

A later film, The Valley is Ours (1948), [36] remakes  The Overlanders , this time taking the films made and produced by Pare Lorentz as a significant model. Unlike linear structured documentaries such as Watt’s Night Mail and Pare Lorentz’s The River (1936), The Valley is Ours employs a modified journey motif, when the image of the Murray River’s journey from the mountains to the sea is invoked then departed from in order to take into account the workings of the communities that surround the river. Also unlike Night Mail and The RiverThe Valley is Ours insistently focuses on the individuals who populate the valley, moving in on their stories then extending these anecdotes out onto the fabric of the valley as a metaphor for nation building and reconstruction.

The prologue to the film exemplifies this process. To introduce the Murray Valley, as the first images are of snow covered plains and mountains, a man skiing with the principle narrator saying “there is snow on the roof of Australia”. These images and narration set up the notion of “the thaw”. The film then makes its first shift into a personal anecdote. A farmer in a pick-up truck, with a calf in the rear, is depicted driving through the valley and the narration now belongs to him. The camera then enters the pick-up and the spectator travels with him, noting head movements appropriate to the narration:

Looks like there’s nobody home at the Stewart’s place. Tom’s probably out getting his droving plant together. He took two thousand Merinos up on top after the thaw last year. Jim Bourke with a mob of … . Herefords, must be bringing them into his own paddock ready to go up on the high plain after the thaw. Best food you can get up there after the snow’s gone. Nice cattle.

The farmer in the pick-up is then shown with the roadsign to Melbourne in the foreground, as he moves off into the distance. The film then shifts again to a sequence where the snow melts and the litany of river names takes us to Goolwa at the mouth of the river. After this scene, the film again shifts back to the personal and anecdotal when images of sheep and drovers are accompanied by another first person narration:

We move off at first light and average about five miles a day. It used to be a two to one gamble but the government put bores along the route like this one. A drove could be anything from three or four days to three or four months. Sixteen weeks living in a saddle and making your home in a plant wagon. Our plant’s usually me, the missus and kids, two hands and fourteen horses and the old man. We’re taking this mob to Deniliquin. Got about two hundred miles to go yet.

This pattern occurs throughout the film. At the same time the initial journey motif that the film sets up, with the narrative of snow melting into rivulets, streams and rivers which eventually disgorge into the Murray River and thence to the sea, is diminished through the shifts in narration, subject matter and, in particular, place.

This film has as much in common with the films of Lorentz and with Victor Turin’s Turksib  (1929) as it does with Griersonian models. It has been dismissed as being a poor imitation of Lorentz’s The River , and like that film, as well as Night Mail , it is about a journey. Yet this is an episodic, clumsy journeying of yarning and tale telling, which is a kind of remake of the earlier The Overlanders .

It also has much in common with Joris Iven’s films about communities and the land, Spanish Earth  (1937), and Power and the Land  (1940). If we are going to search for institutional models we need search no further than Flaherty’s renegade Government film-poem The Land  (1942) [37] .

While Flaherty’s other film – Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), Man of Aran  (1934) and Louisiana Story  (1948) – employed individual protagonists around which to spin a web of episodic accounts of the struggle to survive, often in harsh environments, The Land , like The Valley is Ours , is all-encompassing, ranging across many states and agricultural issues in its concern not for the land so much as for the people who depend on it. For Brian Winston, ” The Land demonstrates the centrality of ‘treatment’ by showing how far from any concept of a fully formed film a series of almost random shots and mini-sequences, even if they are on a consistent theme, is”.[38]   Winston wants to understand The land in relation to “narrative structure”. [39]  Yet, for the purposes of this discussion, The Land is close to The Valley is Ours , employing a vaguer sense of linearity than the kind of journey motif that Night Mail employs. The Land is concerned with agriculture because of its relationship with people. It may be said, again as Winston indicates, that the journey that holds the film together is that taken by the film crew, in particular the “Innocent Eye” as Arthur Calder-Marshall puts it, of Flaherty. [40]

At times the narration is personalised, such as when the film shows a farmer’s meeting in Pennsylvania: where Flaherty’s narration takes up the words of a particular farmer, whose image is repeated throughout the film, first in the fields with his wife but also in the meeting where he is speaking and gesticulating, the film obliquely associating Flaherty’s words with one voice representing many. The farmer’s narration is like the initial personal journey spoken by the town official in The Valley is Ours : like Heyer’s film, The Land roams across vast geographical spaces which ultimately form the web of images, comments and traces of stories that maintains the communities along the river.

These considerations all problematise the profile afforded the figure of John Grierson in Australia. The world-wide expansion of film societies enabled a practice of modelling and remaking that we have seen occurring in relation to The Overlanders , The Valley is Ours , The River and The Land . Films from all over the world were readily available and put into service by these institutions including the ANFB. To argue that these films are Griersonian addresses only one available model.

A larger consideration is a political and economic one. The models proposed for Canada, Australia and New Zealand were war effort models; the dominions were being encouraged to participate in the production of propaganda, that is newsreels, as part of an imperial project combined with the nationalist viewpoint that Grierson saw as a component of a National Film Board. In Australia, the Conservative Government of the day, in particular Prime Minister Robert Menzies, is said to have initially “agreed to co-operate with Grierson and provide him with whatever information he needed for his report to the Trust”.[41]   However, upon his arrival Grierson is said to have been “puzzled and frustrated at the politely distant reception and the difficulty of obtaining an interview with the Prime Minister”. [42] Given Grierson’s Canadian model it seems reasonable to suggest that the Australian Government considered itself already committed and active in the area of propaganda production in the service of empire, and were less appreciative of the nationalist sentiments that Grierson was promulgating. Most accounts of the frosty reception afforded Grierson have put this down to a clash of personalities, Menzies possessing a similar gruff assertiveness to Grierson. Yet it seems that, by attending to Joyce Nelson’s emphasis on the imperial impetus of Grierson’s visit, it may be that Grierson was simply providing a model which was, to some extent, already in existence.

However, as we have seen, when the ANFB was set up in 1945, it occurred in a post-war culture closely related to the institutional initiatives of the governments in the cause of nation-building . That is, as early as 1945 the Labor Government was understood by some to be “draining the blood of the Empire” in the pursuit of a “parochial nationalism”. [43] The ANFB emerged from a culture conducive to its aims of representing the nation to itself. One of the most prominent of lobbyists was Professor Alan Stout, who wrote in words recalling the New Deal:

The film can help us to look at ourselves, and can bring home to us vividly how different sections of the community live, the problems they have to face, and how they are facing them … Its special power lies in the appeal to the imagination, and in its ability to simplify issues, focus attention and bring contrasts into sharp relief. [44]

Yet these aims were implicit in Grierson’s proposals, which allowed the various lobbyists for a national system of production and distribution to employ these proposals while addressing them to the resurgent nationalism of late-war and post-war Australia. This tendency in Grierson’s proposals, while paralleling similar New Deal sentiments, remain at the heart of the history of how Grierson influenced Australian documentary.

In conclusion, Grierson’s proposals for Government film production and distribution, based on the model taken up in Canada, were built on the dual foundations of empire and nationalism; foundations that he deemed appropriate to the wartime service of Britain. Australia in 1940 had already initiated a programme for propaganda production that the Menzies Government believed was serving the empire and therefore had no need for this component of Grierson’s model. By 1945 when the Post-war Labor Government began nationalising institutions it included in its raft of initiatives the ANFB, historically tied to the nationalist components of the Grierson model. The nationalist component has, because of the way it was conducive to the resurgent nationalist movements in Australia, provided an immediate delimited filmic model for government propaganda. The five years between 1940 and 1945 saw massive economic, administrative and cultural shifts not only in Australia but world wide. In Australia, in relation to Grierson’s model for Government filmmaking, it was a discursive shift between empire and nation.


The Overlanders (1946) Australia, 91 mins, 35mm, B&W. Production company: Ealing Studios. Producer: Michael Balcon. Associate producer: Ralph Smart. Script and direction: Harry Watt. Research: Dora Birtles. Photography: Osmond Borradaile. Camaera operator: Carl Kayser. Camera assistant: Axel Poignant. Supervising editor: Leslie Norman. Editor: Inman Hunter. Music. John Ireland. Production supervisor: Jack Rix: Unit manager: Arch Spiers. Sound recording: Beresford Hallett. Second unit director: John Heyer.

The Land (1942) USA, 43 mins, 35 mm, B&W. Production company:The Agricultural Agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. Script, direction and photography: Robert Flaherty. Additional photography: Irving Lerner, Floyd Crosby. Production manager: Douglas Baker. Editor: Helen van Dongen. Music: Richard Arnell. Narration written by Russell Lord and Robert Flaherty. Narration spoken by Robert Flaherty.

The Valley is Ours (1948) Australia, 36 mins 30 secs, 35 mm, B&W. Production: Dept. of Information for the Australian National Film Board. Script and directed: John Heyer. Photography: Reg Pearse, Edward Cranstone, Jack Rogers. Music: John Kay. Narration: Nigel Lovell. Assistant director: Malcolm Otten. Research: Jules Feldmann, John Murray. Recording: Alan Anderson, Don Kennedy. Supervision: Stanley Hawes.

[1]  Grierson wrote that “of course Moana , being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value” : “Flaherty’s poetic Moana “, New York Sun, 8 February 1926, in The Documentary Tradition, 2nd ed., Lewis Jacobs (ed.) (New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 1979), 25-26.
[2] Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), xi.
[3] Brian Winston, Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited (London: BFI. 1995).
[4] Forsyth Hardy, “Introduction”, Grierson on Documentary , ed and comp. Forsyth Hardy (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 13.
[5]“Documentary”, Cinema Quarterly 1, no.2 (Winter 1932): 67-72; 1, no. 3 (Spring 1933): 135-139; “The E.M.B. Film Unit”, Cinema Quarterly 1, no. 4 (Summer 1933): 203-208 ; “The course of realism”, Footnotes to the Film , (London: Peter Davies, 1937).
[6] Harry Watt writes in Don’t Look at the Camera (London: Paul Elek, 1974, 189) that Grierson: “had the quality of an evangelist, which made it difficult to question his theories and beliefs.”
[7] Albert Moran, Projecting Australia: Government Film since 1945 (Sydney: Currency, 1991), 2.
[8] Joyce Nelson, The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1988), 37.
[9] Nelson, 39.
[10] Nelson, 43.
[11] Nelson, 43.
[12] Nelson, 33.
[13] Hardy , 26.
[14] Hardy, 27.
[15] Nelson, 57.
[16] Nelson, 58.
[17] Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years.2nd ed. (Sydney: Currency Press, 1989), 166.
[18] Shirley and Adams, 166.
[19] Shirley and Adams, 167.
[20] Shirley and Adams, 167.
[21] John Grierson, “Memorandum to the right honorable, the prime minister”.
[22] Geoffrey Bolton, The Oxford History of Australia: vol. 5 The Middle Way: 1942-1995, 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1996), 29.
[23] Bolton, 2.
[24] Terry A. Cooney, Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s (New York: Twayne, 1995), 33.
[25]  In Shirley and Adams the section on the setting up of the Board is titled “Documentary hopes” (174), while in An Australian Film Reader the chapter on documentary is called “Documentary hopes” (67) and the first entry is Grierson’s “Memorandum to the right honourable, the Prime minister”.
[26]  See filmography at the end of this article.
[27] By “documentary community” I mean the filmmakers emerging from the DOI into the ANFB and the film society members. Of course there was much cross over between these kinds of organisations.
[28] Shirley and Adams, 168-9.
[29] Shirley and Adams, 169.
[30]  Shirley and Adams, 169.
[31] Joyce Nelson in The Colonized Eye (48) writes about the construction of Canada’s first super-highway, the Queen Elizabeth way, a link between Ontario and the US, as a kind of North American “vertical axis” representing international capitalism. Later (58), Nelson describes the CNFB as a “an institution that might serve in place of the unfinished Trans-Canada Highway an East-west interprovincial link. A better metaphor for Grierson’s wartime NFB would be the Queeen Elizabeth way: a new north-south axis blessed by both empires and paving the way for a greatly improved economy of God”. By this statement Nelson is referring back to the quote from the then Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, with which she begins the chapter ‘Spectacle, Absences, and the Economy of God’ (45-58.): “Each nation may find the salvation of its own industrial life by losing itself in an effort to save the industrial lives of other and rival nations. It is in such ways, through the course of time, that the economy of God gains world expression.”
[32] Bolton, 13.
[33] Cooney, 38.
[34]  Grierson memorandum.
[35] Tom O’Regan, “Australian film in the 1950s”, Continuum 1, no.1 (1987): 9.
[36] See filmography at the end of this article.
[37]  See filmography at the end of this article.
[38] Winston, 111.
[39] Winston, 109.
[40] Arthur Calder-Marshall, The Innocent Eye: The Life of Robert J. Flaherty (London: W.H. Allen, 1963).
[41] Ina Bertrand & Diane Collins, Government and Film in Australia (Sydney: Currency Press, 1981), 98.
[42] Bertrand and Collins, 98.
[43] Robyn Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism and the Australian Labor Movement 1920-155 (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1975), 146.
[44] Professor Alan Stout quoted in Bertrand and Collins, 9

About the Author

Deane Williams

About the Author

Deane Williams

Deane Williams is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. His books include Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors (2008), Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane, 2009) and the three-volume Australian Film Theory and Criticism (co-edited with Noel King and Constantine Verevis, 2013–2017).View all posts by Deane Williams →