Issue 7 Editorial

“Grierson” is a name to conjure with – no need, for any reader with pretensions to knowing anything about film, to even add a first name. The outlines of his life-story are equally well-known: born in Scotland in 1898, visited USA 1924-27 where his interest in the educational potential of film was aroused, returned to England to become Films Officer with the Empire Marketing Board in 1927 and to lead their film production unit 1930-33, presiding over the transfer of the whole unit to the GPO in 1933. Over 1938-41, he travelled the world on behalf of the Imperial Relations Trust, advising governments in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand about the use of documentary film in the service of the state, but only Canada invited him to put his recommendations into effect. In 1939 he became the first Film Commissioner, in charge of the National Film Board of Canada, where he remained till he resigned in 1945. He joined UNESCO in 1946, and returned to England in 1948, first at the Central Office of Information, then producing for television. He later taught film at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada.

Even during his lifetime he was surrounded by controversy – on one hand respected, even idolised, as a man with radically democratic ideals, on the other reviled as a closet communist or at least suspected of having ‘pink’ tendencies. After his death the revisionist historians gleefully exposed the feet of clay – the authoritarian attitudes both professionally and politically, the association with anti-democratic governments and ideas. He remains an enigmatic figure – simultaneously progressive and conservative, radical and reactionary.

This issue of Screening the Past sidesteps most of this debate. Though John Grierson is always implicated in the articles here, he is not usually their primary or sole subject. For, whatever history’s final verdict about the man and his politics, there can be no doubt of his influence. He was the pebble that dropped into the film pond, causing ripples that are still shifting and circling today. It is those ripples that we are concerned with here.

John Gray worked in documentary film in Britain at the time of Grierson. His article reminds us of the kind of lively debates that the movement generated, and that are still vital today. He also reminds us that, even in Britain, Grierson did not work alone. He may have been the figurehead – the person referred to by governments, the one who negotiated with the powers that be. But we should not forget Paul Rotha and Alberto Cavalcanti and Basil Wright and Humphrey Jennings and other less well-known names. When the “Call for papers” for this issue went out, we were hoping to receive submissions on some of these people: have they really been so utterly wiped from history that no-one is interested any more? Not completely. Marcus Nornes explains how Rotha’s TheFilm Till Now circulated in manuscript translation in Japan, providing a focus for debates throughout the Japanese film community over the purpose and form of documentary. There, Rotha became the guru that Grierson was for the English-speaking world.

But in that English-speaking world, Grierson became the spokesperson for the whole documentary movement, proselytizing unashamedly on behalf of film as an educational tool, in the days when “propaganda” and “exploitation” were descriptive, rather than pejorative, terms. He toured on behalf of the Imperial Relations Trust, distributing small amounts of money to organisations which would take responsibility for promoting the Empire through film. At the same time, he conferred with representatives of governments, several times being invited to report on how film might be put to the service of the state. In our ‘Classics’ section, we present two of the reports which Grierson made, one in 1940 to the Australian government and one a few years later to the South African government. These reports are reproduced in the form in which they have survived: the Australian report obviously a complete document, the South African an unsigned draft. They demonstrate how scrupulously Grierson researched in the countries which he visited – but also how easily he could misinterpret what he saw.

Keyan Tomaselli and Edwin Hees discuss how, in South Africa, Grierson seems to have been unaware of the political implications of his visit, of how it could be used in the service of the government, to uphold the principles of apartheid. Deane Williams explains how Grierson’s efforts in Australia were frustrated by a government suspicious of his apparently “left-wing” politics (ironic in the light of later judgments of his political position), so, though his report was sometimes quoted, it was other influences and people who finally realised the dream of a government documentary film production unit.

Indirectly, however, Grierson’s influence in Australia was quite critical. He trained and mentored Stanley Hawes, whom I discuss as a “Grierson man” in Australia: not only did Hawes maintain correspondence with Grierson throughout his life, but Hawes’ films demonstrate the Grierson influence very clearly. Hawes also spent two years in Morocco, advising the government there on documentary film, and paid shorter but still extended visits to Singapore and Malaysia as well: part of tracing Grierson’s worldwide influence would be to follow up what happened in these countries after Hawes left – another intriguing project for some researcher in the future.

Meanwhile, the documentary movement continued worldwide from the thirties to the fifties. Even in countries which Grierson did not officially visit, similar films were being made, with similar rhetoric being offered in their promotion and criticism. Rasmus Dahl here describes the documentary movement in Denmark, and invites a comparison of this with the output of those countries where Grierson’s influence was explicit and obvious. He also opens up the issue of the relationship between the documentary film and its successors on television.

But Grierson’s concern with the educational/propaganda/exploitation value of film also leads to his influence being felt in circles where the emphasis was on the field of education rather than on the form of film. So, as Jacqui L’Etang describes, Grierson was influential in constructing the emerging field of “public relations”, at a time when that field saw its function as social education rather than commercial exploitation.

Terence Dobson, in an article held over to issue 8, traces the links between John Grierson and the animation work of Norman McLaren in Canada.

The scope and variety of the articles offered here indicate some of the riches to be found by exploring those widening circles of Griersonian influence. They only begin to open the field, and we invite further contributions for a later follow-up issue – contributions on the people who worked with or for Grierson, on those who have been (perhaps unjustly) overshadowed by his aura, on the ideas that circulated around the organisations in which he was involved, on the relation of the documentary idea in other parts of the world to the Griersonian model, or any other of the ripples circling around the man and his ideas.

Ina Bertrand
July 1999

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →