The British Documentary Movement on DVD (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Oliver Pattenden

Harry Watt and Basil Wright's poetic paean to British efficiency,  Night Mail ,   featuring a narration, spoken in time to the rhythm of the train written and presented by W. H. Auden

Harry Watt and Basil Wright's poetic paean to British efficiency, Night Mail, featuring a narration, spoken in time to the rhythm of the train written and presented by W. H. Auden

Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950
Produced by the British Film Institute. 40 Films preserved by the BFI National Archive. Four-disc DVD set, B&W and Color, 780 minutes, 1931-1950. A BFI release, distributed by BFI.

Night Mail: Collector’s Edition
Written by Harry Watt, Basil Wright and John Grierson; directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright; cinematography by Jonah Jones and H.E. Fowle; music by Benjamin Britten; verse by W.H. Auden; sound direction by Alberto Cavalcanti; edited by Basil Wright and Richard McNaughton; produced by John Grierson, Harry Watt and Basil Wright. DVD, B&W, 23 minutes, 1936. A BFI release, distributed by BFI.

Addressing the Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1
Produced by the British Film Institute. 15 Films preserved by BFI National Archive, curated in partnership with The British Postal Museum & Archive, Royal Mail and BT Heritage. Two-disc DVD set, B&W and Color, 300 minutes, 1933-1935. A BFI release, distributed by BFI.

We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2
Produced by the British Film Institute. 22 Films preserved by BFI National Archive, curated in partnership with The British Postal Museum & Archive, Royal Mail and BT Heritage. Two-disc DVD set, B&W and Color, 269 minutes, 1936-1938. A BFI release, distributed by BFI.

John Grierson, one of the pioneers of British documentary film, once commented that he considered cinema to be “as a pulpit.” Without doubt, he viewed cinema as a political tool, a compelling venue from which to preach social reform. Though also a director in his own right, Grierson is remembered for having founded a movement of non-fiction filmmakers who brought an uncommon focus on the predicaments and struggles of Britain’s working classes. With their innovative, visually exciting films, Grierson and his followers utilized the magic of the cinema to deliver messages of social significance. His philosophy was to marry socially motivated film with the advancement of the cinematic arts, and this project certainly extends beyond traditional concepts of government film. That the medium and the message were so conjoined is perhaps the hallmark of Grierson’s work and remains a significant part of his lasting influence.

The “British Documentary Movement,” as it has come to be known, grew from the interests of Grierson and his partnership with Stephen Tallents, a government official who recognized the effectiveness of cinema as propagandistic medium and had established an earlier film department with the Empire Marketing Board. The two men shared the belief that cinema held myriad possibilities for public education and social advancement, and capitalizing on this potential they launched a film unit at the General Post Office to test their thesis. The “movement” was thus primarily to serve the state, and was created with the purpose of informing the public and influencing public opinion. Yet through his various government film units, Grierson sought to render the quotidian through cinematic poetics, resulting in the production of energetic, creative, and often highly modernist works that have since inspired documentary and dramatic filmmakers alike. Indeed he is thus attributed with spawning Britain’s perennially socially-conscious national screen culture.

A handful of these films have been canonized as exemplary non-fiction works (Industrial Britain [Robert Flaherty, 1931]; Song of Ceylon [Basil Wright, 1934]; Housing Problems [Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, 1935]; Coal Face [Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935]; Night Mail [Harry Watt, Basil Wright, 1936]; Listen to Britain [Humphrey Jennings, Stewart McAllister, 1942]), and are widely discussed for their influence and unique approach to non-fiction film despite their lack of regular availability. These, along with many others that have long since been unavailable, have finally been allotted space in the British Film Institute’s luminous DVD catalog, and are now seeing their first widespread home release (albeit on region 2 DVDs). 2008 was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the General Post Office Film Unit’s formation, and in conjunction with this landmark, the BFI has been steadily devoting DVD sets to the “movement”, in addition to having touring the films around the UK. This run of releases started over a year ago, with a single disc issue of the seminal film Night Mail, and was soon followed by Land of Promise, a four disc set offering an overview of the twenty years most associated with the movement.

Subsequently, the BFI has dug even deeper, compiling three comprehensive volumes of DVDs covering the films specifically produced by the GPO Film Unit from 1933-1940, two of which, Addressing the Nation and We Live in Two Worlds, have already been released, while a third set, If War Should Come, is due in June of this year. These GPO-focused sets somewhat overlap with Land of Promise (and also include Night Mail), but provide unprecedented depth and access to the public film of the era. The GPO films promoted savings accounts, detailed the postal industry, advertised pricing changes, even eagerly anticipated the advent of new innovations (such as the dial on the telephone), but also pioneered creative techniques for bringing alive such mundane details of everyday working life.

The film that most popularly represents the Grierson model is Night Mail, which has been honored with its own standalone disc, continuing its status as the flagship film for the “movement.” Night Mail follows the overnight postal train from London to Scotland, depicting the variety of labor involved in delivering the mail to the north. Night Mail was an unexpected box-office success, and the film still captures the imagination through its energetic, engrossing pace. Its inventive camerawork and artistic flourishes transmute the routine of the postal train into an exotic adventure. Night Mail is most memorable for its breathtaking final few minutes, during which Auden’s poetry and Britten’s music combine in a kinetic celebration of the train’s service to the Scottish nation. This sequence established the unit’s reputation for modernist gestures that accentuated the more monotonous, detail-oriented portions of their films.

Whereas Night Mail represents the creative and commercial peak for the “movement,” these new releases offer the opportunity to discover some of the films that had previously been underappreciated, many of which are truly majestic pieces of filmmaking. One standout is Shipyard (Paul Rotha, 1935), a film that details the industry of shipbuilding in Barrow-in-Furness and the influence of the shipyard’s presence on the town’s people. As with the finest films of the “movement”, the film avoids pedanticism by relying on the power of the visuals to persuade. The camera captures the shipbuilding process through a carefully constructed aesthetic that imbues viewers with a sense of awe, moving them towards an understanding of why these everyday industries are to be admired and celebrated.

Another industrial portrait, Night Shift (J.D. Chambers, 1942), which focuses on a gun factory during the war, imparts the viewer with voyeuristic access to the lives of the factory’s nighttime workers. In one particularly enjoyable moment, we witness a friendly wink between two workers as the foreman attempts to instruct a new employee, offering us entrée into their world. For a documentary depicting the grittier side of life, Night Shift displays its subject in an unabashedly stylized manner. Night Shift’s pulsating technical skill is characterized by impeccable tracking shots and an almost Vertovian editing design which create a particularly vibrant atmosphere out of a patently ordinary topic.

Light is also shed on the experimental projects of the GPO. Even more modernist than Night Mail are the animations of Len Lye. One such film, A Colour Box (1935), an ecstatic three minutes of darting colors and shapes set to a jazz score, illustrates how the GPO would even put cinematic innovation before their social remit, since the film only justifies its postal commission when an announcement of parcel post rates pops up toward the end, almost as an after thought. Trade Tattoo (1937) is more successful in incorporating its public service. The film focuses on the “rhythm of trade,” stressing that one should post before 2:00 PM to ensure that the everyday rhythms are maintained. Similarly playful is N or NW (1937), which warns of the potential perils of addressing an envelope with the incorrect postcode. While definitely not archetypal films of the documentary movement, these avant-garde efforts demonstrate that the wide enthusiasm for the cinematic arts that governed the film unit’s output as heavily as their social concerns.

The Grierson/Tallents philosophy was almost predestined for rousing public spirits during the WWII years. With the advent of war, the GPO Film Unit dissolved and became the Crown Film Unit, essentially a propaganda outlet for the emergent Ministry of Information. Much of the Land of Promise set is devoted to the war years and in particular the utilization of the ‘story-documentary’ format to recount the lived experience of the war. These films often served the practical purpose of informing the public of emergency procedures or extolling on the productive work being performed on the home front. But their clinical attention to detail and incessant pride in the British national character seems to imply that the filmmakers may not have been documenting life during war solely for propagandistic purposes, but also to preserve the essence of Britain for future record.

Under the Ministry of Information, many of these films, such as Britain at Bay (Harry Watt, 1940), do tend to veer towards the blindly patriotic, even boasting that the British are a people “who have asked for nothing belonging to others, but only fair dealings among nations,” a painfully disingenuous claim now, but presumably an inspiring one during The Blitz. Despite forays into jingoism, the Crown Film Unit often created marvelous portraits of life during the war, such as Ruby Grierson’s They Also Serve (1940), a paean to the wartime contributions of housewives. Transfer of Skill (Geoffrey Bell, 1940) is a particularly compelling short that productively employs the unit’s fascination with industrial methods towards an understanding of the war effort’s far-reaching effects. The film details specific modes of industry through the unique skill of an individual worker, and then demonstrates how that particular skill is being configured for valuable use for the war effort.

One artist strongly associated with capturing life and spirit during the war is Humphrey Jennings. Jennings is best known for co-directing the sublime Listen to Britain, and rightly so: It is an astounding piece of poetic filmmaking that succinctly depicts unity of the nation, without sinking into jingoism. Evoking the strength and community of the nation through the “music of Britain at war,” the film provides a moving depiction of the continuation of life and leisure during the tumultuous events literally tearing the world around Britain to shreds. Jennings’s other works are also seeing more exposure through these sets, and Words for Battle (1941) and A Diary for Timothy (1946) are two that particularly deserve this renewed attention. Both films are similar to Listen to Britain in their mellifluous, near-abstract way of tracing the courage and national character of the British during the war years. Words for Battle, which is built around Laurence Olivier reading national literary texts over images of the country, is a stirring mood piece and a documentary in only the loosest sense. In contrast, A Diary for Timothy is devoted to capturing Britain during the early years of the life of Jennings’ son Timothy, and explicitly places the documentary purpose at the heart of its composition, by cataloging the lived experiences of Britain in the 1940s to provide future generations with an understanding of how Britain coped with wartime hardships.

While helping to establish the standard form for informational documentaries, many of the films also appear to anticipate their own drawbacks. Weary of the expert-led approach to documentary narration, a number of films (Builders [Pat Jackson, 1942] for instance) depict multiple voices within the same film, allowing the workers to interrupt the “guv’nor” behind the camera and correct the narrator with authentic insider knowledge. Night Shift’s narration also comes heavily from the factory workers, stressing the expertise of the working classes over that of the filmmakers. This technique, of course, requires the viewer to buy into its fabrication, but it does demonstrate a keen understanding of how most effectively a film will be received.

Grierson himself never strayed from the word “propaganda,” preferring to openly embrace the “wallop” that cinema could produce to propel his messages. Watching these films today, what is most striking is how self-conscious they were about their function as propaganda. Cotton Come Back (Donald Alexander, 1946) blurs the boundaries of propaganda and story-documentary by staging a town hall meeting for the fictional townspeople to watch a propaganda film from about the cotton industry and then respond verbally to the cotton representative. The film appears to surrender control by allowing the (fictionalized) people of the town to direct the discussion, but of course never strays from the task at hand to reestablish the cotton mills in Lancashire.

While being credited with giving the working classes an unprecedented presence and voice in cinema, many of the films still clearly have different concerns at their core, especially when the viewpoints of the factory owners and the upper-classes are sympathetically presented as well. Similar to CottonA Plan to Work On (Kay Mander, 1948) questions civic redevelopment in Dunfermline from a working perspective, but ultimately gives narrative preference to the upper-class surveyor through his well-informed and rational perspective on progress. Housing Problems has the legacy of being an early example of vox-pop interviews, but while the information presented by the real people on the housing conditions in London is factually based, the readings feel forced and unnatural on film, particularly when compared to the composed, intelligent voice speaking on behalf of the Gas Board. The implication appears to be that while the cinema can offer space to different voices, certain groups had absolute access to the cinematic tools of production, and ultimately maintained control over how the cinema was being used.

The “movement” was especially effective and influential through the extraordinary talent involved in the project. Directors Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, Basil Wright, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Paul Rotha each contributed to the GPO before going on to work elsewhere (e.g., Ealing, BBC). Grierson also brought in emerging artists such as William Coldstream, W.H. Auden, and Benjamin Britten, investing the films with a compelling esthetic power. The quality provided by this collection of young British talent would entice the involvement of established artists, such as Vaughn Williams, E.M. Forster, J.B. Priestley and Michael Redgrave, to collaborate on later films. However it is not merely the individual artistic talent that stands out, but the collective confidence and ambition displayed by the unit. The films are unified by a tangible urgency that reveals a sincere desire to convey a meaningful social message.

The special features are limited on these releases, but the discs are brimming with the original films that provide their own complete context. The BFI has admirably gone to great lengths to flesh out the viewing experience through the introductory books included with each set, which are handy reference tools, featuring short essays on each film, biographies of the key artists involved, and other useful notes that elaborate on the institutional and creative details of the era’s film production. The Night Mail booklet in particular offers illuminating texts, including excerpts from Britten’s diaries and an essay from Blake Morrison, who wrote the verse for Night Mail’s 1987 sequel.

As one would expect, the quality of the transfer on these discs is excellent. The films are crisp, the contrasts rich, and just as important to the legacy of these films, the quality of the sound is immaculate, given its age. While the movement experimented with the possibilities of film as a visual medium, these films are also noteworthy for their creative contributions to early sound film style, a characteristic mainly indebted to the work of Cavalcanti, who was enlisted specifically to add an imaginative sonic dimension to the unit. Not to be overlooked, the innovations of Britten (particularly in replicating the aural world of the pits in Coal Face) are also a revelation when heard in this clear and perfectly punctuated mix.

Too often the films of Grierson’s “movement” have been viewed as curiosities and frequently relegated to supplementary DVD extras, implying that their influence is more important than the actual body of work. The BFI, truly filling its distribution remit, has given viewers the opportunity to explore the full project in acute depth, which continues with the imminent release of the third set of GPO films this June. We can hope that this attention will also soon result in a set devoted to the Crown Film Unit that would delve more deeply into the war years. These films have more to teach us than just the out-dated details of their social moment, and deserve to be studied closely for their stylistic innovations and unique formal devotion to portraying everyday topics in a vibrant manner. The “movement” has provided the creative spark for much of the British film industry over the last seventy-five years, and while greater access will no doubt be followed by further critical reevaluation, the luxury of being able to revisit the full oeuvre opens up the possibility for new artistic inspirations and revisions that could once again offer a fresh, incisive outlook on the quotidian details of life.

To buy the DVDs click here (N.B., Region 2 DVDs).

Oliver Pattenden is a free-lance writer with an M.A. in Film from the University of East Anglia.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3