Les États généraux du film documentaire 2008 Doc History: Great Britain

Doc History: Great Britain


Although documentary cinema was not born in Great Britain, it was undoubtedly on this island that it received its consecration as an art and a form. John Grierson, whose theoretical reflection was based on different currents of the time, developed and nourished documentary as a cinematic genre. Doc History will try to retrace the history of British documentary over five screenings.
In the 1920's three aesthetic trends formed the foundation on which this type of cinema was to evolve: the newsreel used to transmit political and social information; secondly and to a certain degree to the same ends (provide spectators with information and a sense of discovery), travelogues allowed spectators to explore far-off and exotic lands; finally avant-garde or experimental films attempted to affirm cinema as an art in its own right. These three trends had some important points in common, notably the desire and the necessity to free the camera from the studio as well as from the production and financial mechanisms of the fiction film industry. Similarly, Robert Flaherty with his Nanook of the North (1922), Dziga Vertov and his Kino Pravda series (1922-24) and the avant-garde European cineasts all offered another approach to film-making: for these creators, it was necessary to refuse the hold of major studios, break with a “play-acted” cinema based on dramatic or literary traditions and show that cinema was at once an art in itself as well as an important and effective tool of popular information and education.
In 1926, John Grierson proposed the term “documentary” for this kind of film which was both informative and artistic: the documentary was defined as the “creative treatment of actuality”. A few years later, he led a production team within the Empire Marketing Board where the role of documentary film was to serve as a tool for popular education. In 1929, Drifters, the first film directed by Grierson and produced by the EMB, became a model. Within the EMB and later the GPO (General Post Office) Grierson brought together more or less well known talent from different horizons such as Robert Flaherty (Man of Aran, Industrial Britain) or Albert Cavalcanti (Coal Face) who had previously made the experimental Nothing But Time (1926). With others such as Basil Wright and Harry Watt (Night Mail), Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey (Housing Problems) and Paul Rotha — the other theorist of the group — (Contact, The Face of Britain, Shipyard), Grierson created a decisively important movement for the reflection and practice of documentary cinema: the British Documentary Film Movement with as a mission, to quote the sub-heading of Paul Rotha's 1936 book Documentary Film: “the use of the film medium to interpret creatively and in social terms the life of the people as it exists in reality”.
After the break up of the GPO film team (following restrictions imposed by the GPO itself and the departure of several members, including Grierson himself in 1937), an inflection became visible, well illustrated by North Sea (Harry Watt, 1938): the use of a dramatic narrative to recount a true story. Watt and Cavalcanti continued to produce films for the GPO, bringing a lot of force to British documentaries of the time, notably via the work of Cavalcanti. Humphrey Jennings in particular (Listen to Britain, Spare Time, A Diary for Timothy) moved away from Grierson's social approach and methods to develop the method of reconstructing narrative and dramatising action, tending to erase the borders between fiction and documentary. Under the auspices of the Crown Film Unit, which took over the production role of the GPO, and drawing on the events of the World War Two, Jennings refined —and with more extensive means of production— a “commercial” style of documentary, relying on heavy dramatisation, while not forgetting the poetic and realistic dimensions at work among his predecessors.
According to Lindsay Anderson, Jennings was the “only real poet that British cinema has yet produced”. It is not therefore surprising that the same spirit of poetic research was shared by a good number of the proponents of Free Cinema. This young cinema of the fifties is often considered as a rupture, but if Jennings' poetry and Grierson's realism and social concerns are taken into account, we can see in Free Cinema an often underestimated continuity with the British tradition, even if the films are quite different in subject and often adopt a style close to direct cinema. To start with, Free Cinema was more a programme of films at the National Film Theatre (between 1956 and 1959) —elaborated by Lindsay Anderson (O Dreamland), Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson (Momma Don't Allow)— than an established set of aesthetic codes. The chosen films shared a common mode of production (outside commercial documentary and television) but also a freedom of tone and a shared approach to contemporary society. Free Cinema was not strictly speaking a movement but it heavily influenced both British documentary and fiction over the following decades.
Another name linked to Free Cinema is that of Michael Grigsby. He was already working for Granada Television but to break with the constraints of television production, he created the Unit Five Seven to produce films during his free time. His film Enginemen was part of the last programme of Free Cinema. Later, with Unit Five Seven, he made Tomorrow's Saturday.
The wealth of documentary production by British television deserves a programme in itself. Within the framework of this Doc History, we have selected films by some noteworthy filmmakers, either because they are emblematic of this television production or because they distance themselves from it. Taking into account the domination by direct cinema and cinéma vérité over the period which were modifying the aesthetics of documentary in general, British documentary followed three major trends: dramatised documentary (or the docu-fiction film which has become the trademark of British TV), news and magazines. In this first group, we can find for example Peter Watkins with his astonishing film Culloden adopting the aesthetics of cinéma vérité to reconstruct the Battle of Culloden as if it were covered by a TV news crew. This choice of re-enactment had already been made by his predecessors, but Watkins added his own style and the use of modern technology to create a greater sense of realism. In the field of news coverage, John Akomfrah distinguished himself from his contemporaries by using an essay style to recount the 1985 riots in his Handsworth Songs. Akomfrah cuts together images of the television crew at work (a news crew in the field, a TV studio) with archive material to go well beyond simple news reporting. The last two films of our programme also testify to this period bearing the heavy imprint of Thatcherism: Living on the Edge by Michael Grigsby, perhaps the most emblematic film by this cineast, follows four families affected by the changes in the country's social policies. The film comes across as a poetic essay born by a social conscience. Margaret Thatcher's political heritage is the very subject of the film Tracking Down Maggie. Nick Broomfield adopts the style which made him famous, staging himself in front of the camera. While not his best film, it is certainly representative of his cinema.
This programme proposes to introduce the audience to directors who, in connection with the cinematic trends of their time, permitted documentary to become a genre in its own right.
Such a selection would not have been possible without the active partnership of the BFI.

Kees Bakker


Guests : Débats en présence de Michael Grigsby.
Remerciements à M. Christophe Dupin et à l'équipe du BFI National Archive, ainsi qu'à Marie Bonnel Institut français