“Advocate” is the chapter title in Erik Barnouw’s book Documentary discussing the era between the 1920’s and 1940’s in documentary filmmaking. John Grierson pioneered a completely different use for documentary film making, turning from observational to propaganda. (The distinction between documentary and fictional films was first made by Grierson. ) From most angles of modern scholarship, the term “propaganda” has negative connotations associated with Naziism or the Soviets’ Communism. But Grierson, a Briton who studied moral philosophy and then spent a great amount of time understanding American mindset, also used film for propaganda’s sake. By so doing, he found commercial success in the production of documentary film as propaganda.
I must confess that I am drawn to Grierson’s work. Like many of the labor intensive film production houses of the day, Grierson’s operations were no different. Inspiration and training often came from extended stays at the local pubs. And family life was notably not a part of the work environment. As a model to follow in these regards, I’m afraid that mostly this does not work. Extended hours perhaps, but even that can be taxing and difficult as it doesn’t contribute to a stable, well-rounded character.
The challenges and considerations for a successful LDS cinema are manifold more complex than any other film movement that has been set into play. Almost every film movement that has come into being has consisted of individuals devoid of stable family life. The two just don’t seem to harmonize nicely. What does this have to do with Grierson? My considerations of John Grierson are primarily to learn from him what did work as he sought to establish a production house for the type of films that fulfilled his objectives as he saw them for the Empire Marketing Board for the British empire. Yet there are aspects and approaches that clearly do not harmonize with the doctrines of Christ, such as extended training sessions at pubs or completely separating family life from work. (This last point is of particular significance.) So as I go slicing away the bad parts of his approach, I’m realizing that I’m pulling out the core of their production model. It become me to then find something to replace it.
Perhaps the training sessions were key, but the environment must be different. Grierson shortly into his successful run established a film making unit which was comprised of mostly inexperienced youth who had a great deal of enthusiasm. It was Grierson who polished the stones that were given him so that they began to see film as he saw it, a sounding board for social reform.
There is more to be said about Greirson’s views and contributions, but at another time. There is also need to discuss the importance of the critical balance between family life and film making. For so it seems that the two rarely cross paths.
There is more to be learned about John Grierson.