These films are screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in a special event this coming Sunday (March 15th 2015) From Drifters to Night Mail: The British Documentary Movement. The screening will offer 35mm prints from the bfi. The films are all seminal contributions to the British Documentary Movement and its work for, first the Empire Marketing Board, and then for the GPO Film Unit.
Drifters 1929, black and white, silent – originally 56 minutes.
This study of herring fisherman in the North Sea was directed, edited and partly photographed by John Grierson, the filmmaker who led the documentary movement until he moved to the National Film Board of Canada. The main cinematography was by Basil Emmott, who had already contributed some fine location work to the 1927 drama Hindle Wakes. The film commences in a fishing village, follows a fishing vessel out to sea, observes its catches, and then follows it back to harbour where the caught fish enter the national and international markets. Much of the film relies on location shooting, on land and at sea in the fishing vessel. There are also insert shots filmed at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film demonstrates the influence on Grierson and his colleagues of two of the outstanding innovators of the 1920s. One was Robert Flaherty, whose new form of ‘documentary’ (Nanook of the North, 1922) influenced the treatment and the narrative of Drifters. The other influence is Soviet montage and in particular Sergei Eisenstein. The latter’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin. 1925), along with Drifters was, part of a triple bill at the London Film Society in 1929, together with an early work by Walt Disney.
Grierson’s use of montage is more conventional than that of Eisenstein and his film has a linear narrative. But it also offers symbolism and abstract motifs for the viewer.
The film demonstrates not only Grierson’s cinematic talents but also his shrewd manoeuvres within state institutions. The film’s topic played to the interest of a key civil servant in the Treasury regarded as an expert of the British Herring Industry.
Housing Problems 1936, black and white, sound film, 16 minutes.
This study in social reportage was sponsored by the gas industry. However, apart from a final comment, this is not a paean to a capitalist corporation but a hard-headed and powerful piece of social observation and implicit criticism. Directed by Edward Anstey and Arthur Elton the film presented scenes of squalor in slum housing and, fairly uniquely for this period, working class people were seen describing their own world and situation. Other work by the documentary movement did offer such voices, but the situation and voices in this film are the most compelling. The film ventures into the ‘other world’ of ordinary lives paralleled in the work of Mass Observation and the writings of George Orwell. There is a positive message at the end, featuring in part the Leeds Quarry Hill Development of the time: a note of posthumous irony. If John Grierson returned today he would be hard put to produce a film on herring fishing: but Anstey and Elton would have no difficulty in presenting again a world of slum housing and exploitation.
Night Mail, 1936, black and white, sound film, 24 minutes.
This was the most popular of the 1930 British documentary films: it actually enjoyed screenings in commercial cinemas. The directors, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, followed the night mail train from London to Glasgow, ‘carrying letters’ for all and sundry. The film used extensive location work with some striking cinematography. I especially treasure a travelling shot as a Border collie vainly chases after the speeding train. Some of the interiors were filmed in a studio setting, carefully simulating the rocking motion of the train. The first 20 minutes of the film are in fairly conventional documentary style, with an authoritative voice-over. The final four minutes follow a different form, with poetry (W. H. Auden) and music (Benjamin Britton). The credits list Alberto Cavalcanti as sound director. Cavalcanti had worked in the European avant-garde cinema. One version I heard suggested that in fact two films were in preparation by the Unit. And they were finally amalgamated to make this complete film, [there are two earlier sequences that bear the inprint of Cavalcanti and his team]. This certainly makes sense of the final form of the film. Moreover, whilst the last four minutes do have the touch that one finds in Cavalcanti’s work the bulk of the film has the established approach that one can find in other films by Watt and Wright. If this was the case, it was a happy marriage: though as with Drifters we no longer have a rail system to inspire this sort of filmmaking.
There is a posting on Drifters at