06th June 2009

Proposal No. 6


John Grierson (26 April 1898 – 19 February 1972) is often considered the father of British documentary film. Grierson believed that film was as a form of social and political communication–a mechanism for social reform, education, and perhaps spiritual uplift. That film could be enlisted to deal with the problems of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and to build national morale and consensus.

 In 1930 Grierson established a film unit within the Empire Marketing Board (EMB). It was within the context of this State funded organization that the “documentary” as we know it today was established. In late 1929 Grierson completed his first film, Drifters, which he wrote, produced and directed. The film, which follows the work of North Sea herring fishermen, was a radical departure from anything being made by the British film industry or Hollywood at the time. A large part of its innovation lies in the fact that the film was shot on location, such as a small boat in the middle of a gale, and left a large aspect of the action untouched.

Grierson enlisted a stable of filmmakers into the film unit which formed the core of what was to become known as the British Documentary Film Movement. Other films made at the EMB include Industrial Britain (1931), Granton Trawler (1934) Song of Ceylon (1934). In 1933 the EMB Film Unit was moved to the General Post Office (GPO) where groundbreaking films were produced, including Night Mail (1936), and Coal Face (1936).

Taking these early British documentaries as a starting point, and the ideas behind the film units as put forward by Grierson, I propose to invite an artist to take part in a residency at the British Film Institute (BFI) where the collection of films is kept. The residency will allow for a period of research and to develop work based on and in reaction to these films and the ethos of the EMB and GPO film units.

Questions that could be asked are is there an equivalent of the EMB or GPO film unit today and how does it manifest itself? Is there a relationship to how contemporary artists work, in terms of social commentary, and this early example of documentary film making? Are artists who make documentary work, contemporary artists or filmmakers as social commentators? Has reality television, online and digital media possibly changed and radicalised the idea of a documentary and the use of real social issues and situations in media?

The work produced would be shown in the BFI exhibition space and toured to venues around the UK. Work produced would not necessarily be lens based but can be of any medium. A presentation of the films, such as Drifter and Coal Face, would be shown to complement the exhibition and a series of talks discussing the possible significance and influence on today’s film makers and of the EMB and GPO film unit. They would also explore how the use of documentary and real situations have possible changed from dealing with and exploring social issues to a form of entertainment, where we the viewer are as complicit and involved in its creation and direction.

Ben Jones


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