BRITISH DOCUMENTARY FILMS: 1930-1940
A review of ten years of the British documentary film
by the author of Documentary FilmMovie Paradeand
other books, and director of many documentaries.
Paul Rotha deals here with the technical and social background
which have made the documentary film
Britain's main contribution to the Cinema.
documentary is the label for what John Grierson
calls the art of giving film sequence to natural
material." Breaking into the cinemas in 1929
with the unpretentious Drifters, which dramatised
without sentimentality the job of the fisherman,
the British documentary film has developed
throughout this decade like a plant in the sun.
Sometimes it has aimed at catching the votes of
the cinema-goer, sometimes it has been intent on
developing the more profound and perhaps more
far-reaching educational field, but always it has
preserved inviolate that simple first principle
the job of presenting on the screen the drama of
what actually happens day in and day out to
ordinary people, and of relating this drama to the
audience which is witnessing it.
It is inevitable, therefore, that inherent in the
physical development of the documentary him
movement should be a development of technique,
striving towards better ways of enabling ordinary
people to express themselves in terms of cinema.
The documentary him has, in fact, faced up to
one of the fundamental problems of the cinema
how to present human beings in relation to the
social and economic environment in which they
live. This physical development falls easily into
four periods. First the Empire Marketing Board
Film Unit, for which Drifters was made, and to
which Grierson attracted a nucleus of young men
who were to become directors working with him
Then in 1934 the Government began to
economise. One of the hrst things to go was the
Empire Marketing Board. Fortunately the Post
Office saw the value of taking over the Film Unit,
complete with its library of films, as a running
concern. The new G.P.O. Film Unit started to
explore sound in the same way as the E.M.B.
Unit had explored the world of visuals, and in this
new development they were greatly assisted by
Cavalcanti, who some years before had made his
name in France.
Before and during this second period, when the
documentary film was still normally a collection
of visuals compèred by a commentator, with the
addition of music and some natural noises, other
fields of sponsorship for documentary were being
developed. Shell-Mex and Imperial Airways had
in 1932 sponsored Contact. Other public bodies,
Gas, Oil and Shipping Lines, soon followed. The