Documentary Film Movement

The Documentary Film Movement is the group of British filmmakers, led by John Grierson, who were influential in British film culture in the 1930s and 1940s.


The founding principles of the movement were based on Grierson's views of documentary film. He wished to use film to educate citizens in an understanding of democratic society.


The movement began at the Film Unit of the Empire Marketing Board in 1930. The unit was headed by John Grierson, who appointed apprentices such as Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha and Harry Watt. These filmmakers were mostly young, middle-class, educated males with liberal political views. In 1933, the film unit was transferred to the General Post Office.

From 1936, the movement began to disperse and divisions emerged. Whereas previously the documentary film movement had been located in a single public sector organisation, it separated in the late 1930s into different branches, as filmmakers explored other possibilities for developing documentary film. By 1937, the movement was spread across four different production units: GPO, Shell (headed by Anstey), Strand (headed by Rotha) and Realist (led by Wright).

In 1939, Grierson left Britain to work with the National Film Board of Canada, where he remained until 1945. In 1940, the GPO Film Unit was transferred to the Ministry of Information and renamed the Crown Film Unit.

See also

Further reading

  • Aitken, Ian (ed.), The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology (Edinburgh, 1998)
  • Aitken, Ian, Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement
  • Fox, Jo, 'John Grierson, his "documentary boys" and the British Ministry of Information', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 25 (2005), pp. 345–369
  • Hood, Stuart, 'John Grierson and the documentary film movement', in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds.), British Cinema History
  • Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary: The Story of the Film Movement Founded by John Grierson
  • Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926-1946

External links

BFI Southbank

BFI Southbank (from 1951 to 2007 known as the National Film Theatre) is the leading repertory cinema in the UK, specialising in seasons of classic, independent and non-English language films. It is operated by the British Film Institute.

British Instructional Films

British Instructional Films was a British film production company which operated between 1919 and 1932. The company's name is often abbreviated to BIF.

The company released a number of feature films during the late silent and early sound eras, developing a reputation for making First World War films and documentary shorts. In 1928, the company constructed Welwyn Studios. The company was later merged into the larger British International Pictures, who took over the running of the facility in Welwyn Garden City.

British New Wave

The British New Wave is a style of films released in Great Britain between 1959 and 1963. The label is a translation of Nouvelle Vague, the French term first applied to the films of François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard among others.

Clan Grierson

Clan Grierson is a Scottish clan.

Clarendon Film Company

The Clarendon Film Company was a British film studio founded by Percy Stow and Henry Vassal Lawley.The studio was founded in 1904 in Croydon, primarily as a movie camera equipment company, and began to make short films as a side-line. It was named for its original location off Clarendon Road, and later moved to Limes Road.In 1909 it took part in the Paris Film Congress, a failed attempt by leading European producers to form a cartel similar to that of the MPPC in the United States.

Documentary News Letter

Documentary News Letter was a magazine about documentary film founded by filmmaker John Grierson. The publication was developed as the wartime successor to World Film News, which ceased publication in 1938, and sought to promote a "documentary approach to everyday living." It published its first edition in January 1940, with an editorial board that consisted of Grierson, Paul Rotha, Basil Wright, Arthur Elton and Thomas Baird.Documentary News Letter featured editorials and film reviews written by members of the Documentary Film Movement. Wright has stated that the magazine was influential during the Second World War, influencing the Ministry of Information's approach to film propaganda. In its reviews, Documentary News Letter was particularly critical of films which it considered "inauthentic", notably films directed by Humphrey Jennings.

Drifters (1929 film)

Drifters (1929) is silent documentary film by John Grierson, his first and only personal film.

It tells the story of Britain's North Sea herring fishery. The film's style has been described as being a "response to avant-garde, Modernist films, adopting formal techniques such as montage – constructive editing emphasising the rhythmic juxtaposition of images – but also aimed to make a socially directed commentary on its subject" (Tate Gallery: Liverpool 2006). The film was successful both critically and commercially and helped kick off Grierson's documentary film movement. This film also showed that Grierson was not afraid to alter reality slightly in order to have his vision shown. For example when the boat he was on returned without a catch he bought another boats catch and tried to fake it. He ended up scrapping that film as it was not authentic enough.

Evelyn Spice Cherry

Evelyn Spice Cherry (née Evelyn Spice) was a Canadian documentary filmmaker, director, and producer. She is best known for her work as the head of the Agricultural Films Unit at the National Film Board of Canada and as a member of the British Documentary Film Movement.

Film Producers Guild

The Film Producers Guild was a collective of documentary film companies in England. It was formed in August 1944 and had offices and screening facilities on Upper St. Martin's Lane, in London. They owned Merton Park Studios in south London.Guild producers, directors, writers, cameramen and film editors were part of the British post-war Documentary Film Movement. Peter Morley got his first job in the industry working as a projectionist at the Guild's screening room and met people like Humphrey Jennings, John Grierson, Jill Craigie and Paul Rotha.

Free Cinema

Free Cinema was a documentary film movement that emerged in the United Kingdom in the mid-1950s. The term referred to an absence of propagandised intent or deliberate box office appeal. Co-founded by Lindsay Anderson, (though he later disdained the 'movement' tag), with Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti, the movement began with a programme of three short films at the National Film Theatre, London, on 5 February 1956. The programme was such a success that five more programmes appeared under the ‘Free Cinema’ banner before the founders decided to end the series. The last event was held in March 1959. Three of the screenings consisted of work from overseas film makers.

List of British films of 1926

A list of British films released in 1926.

Lists of British films

This is chronological list of films produced in the United Kingdom split by decade. There may be an overlap, particularly between British and American films which are sometimes co-produced; the list should attempt to document films which are either British produced or strongly associated with British culture. Please see the detailed A-Z of films currently covered on Wikipedia at Category:British films.

Night Mail

Night Mail is a 1936 English documentary film directed and produced by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and produced by the General Post Office (GPO) film unit. The 24-minute film documents the nightly postal train operated by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) from London to Glasgow and the staff who operate it. Narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg, the film ends with a "verse commentary" written by W. H. Auden to score by composer Benjamin Britten. The locomotive featured in the film is Royal Scot Class No. 6115 Scots Guardsman.Night Mail premiered on 4 February 1936 at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in Cambridge, England in a launch programme for the venue. Its general release gained critical praise and became a classic of its own kind, much imitated by adverts and modern film shorts. Night Mail is widely considered a masterpiece of the British Documentary Film Movement. A sequel was released in 1987 entitled Night Mail 2.

North Sea (1938 film)

North Sea is a 1938 documentary film produced by Alberto Cavalcanti under the auspices of the GPO Film Unit and directed by Harry Watt.

The film makers challenged the conventions of documentary, casting non-professionals, as they had in their previous film The Saving of Bill Blewitt. In the same style, North Sea employed minimal narration and relies on action, dialogue and characterisation to tell its story.

Opera film

An opera film is a recording of an opera on film.

Southall Studios

Southall Studios was a film studio located in Southall, Middlesex (now west London) which operated between 1924 and 1958.

The studio was constructed on the site of a former aircraft hangar by the silent film director and producer G.B. Samuelson. The original buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1936, but the studio was subsequently rebuilt. Following the First World War, a number of feature films were made at Southall, which was under the overall control of John Grierson, as well as television programmes such as Colonel March of Scotland Yard.

Tempean Films produced several films such as Kill Me Tomorrow at Southall during the 1950s, with the feature film The Crawling Eye, based on The Trollenberg Terror TV series, being the last film released with the Southall name.

Stoll Pictures

Stoll Pictures was a British film production and distribution company of the silent era, founded in April 1918.

Tempean Films

Tempean Films was a British film production company formed in 1948 by Robert Baker and Monty Berman. Tempean's output of B movies were distributed by Eros Films. The company later moved into television, adapting Leslie Charteris' series of The Saint novels, starring Roger Moore.

The company produced several of its features at Southall Studios in Middlesex including both The Trollenberg Terror television series in 1956 and the film version in 1958, which was Southall Studio's final production.

John Gilling directed many of Tempean's features.

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