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JOHN GRIERSON
FIRST PRINCIPLES
O F D O C U M E N TA R Y ( 1 9 3 2 3 4 )

Documentary is a clumsy description, but let in observation, and, of course, very dierent
it stand. The French who first used the term powers and ambitions at the stage of orga-
only meant travelogue. It gave them a solid nizing material. I propose, therefore, after
high-sounding excuse for the shimmying a brief word on the lower categories, to use
(and otherwise discursive) exoticisms of the the documentary description exclusively of
Vieux Colombier. Meanwhile documentary the higher.
has gone on its way. From shimmying exoti- The peacetime newsreel is just a speedy
cisms it has gone on to include dramatic snip-snap of some utterly unimportant cere-
films like Moana, Earth, and Turksib. And mony. Its skill is in the speed with which the
in time it will include other kinds as dier- babblings of a politican (gazing sternly into
ent in form and intention from Moana, as the camera) are transferred to fifty million
Moana was from Voyage auCongo. relatively unwilling ears in a couple of days
So far we have regarded all films made or so. The magazine items (one a week)
from natural material as coming within have adopted the original Tit-Bits manner
the category. The use of natural mate- of observation. The skill they represent is a
rial has been regarded as the vital distinc- purely journalistic skill. They describe nov-
tion. Where the camera shot on the spot elties novelly. With their money-making eye
(whether it shot newsreel items or maga- (their almost only eye) glued like the news-
zine items or discursive interests or dra- reels to vast and speedy audiences, they
matised interests or educational films or avoid on the one hand the consideration of
scientific films proper or Changs or Rangos) solid material, and escape, on the other, the
in that fact was documentary. This array of solid consideration of any material. Within
species is, of course, quite unmanageable these limits they are often brilliantly done.
in criticism, and we shall have to do some- But ten in a row would bore the average
thing about it. They all represent dierent human to death. Their reaching out for the
qualities of observation, dierent intentions flippant or popular touch is so completely
218 modernisms

far-reaching that it dislocates something. This indeed is a particularly important


Possibly taste; possibly common sense. limit to record, for beyond the newsmen
You may take your choice at those little the- and the magazine men and the lecturers
atres where you are invited to gad around (comic or interesting or exciting or only rhe-
the world in fifty minutes. It takes only that torical) one begins to wander into the world
longin these days of great inventionto of documentary proper, into the only world
see almost everything. in which documentary can hope to achieve
Interests proper improve mightily with the ordinary virtues of an art. Here we pass
every week, though heaven knows why. The from the plain (or fancy) descriptions of nat-
market (particularly the British market) is ural material, to arrangements, rearrange-
stacked against them. With two-feature pro- ments, and creative shapingsofit.
grammes the rule, there is neither space for First principles. (1) We believe that the
the short and the Disney and the magazine, cinemas capacity for getting around, for
nor money left to pay for the short. But by observing and selecting from life itself, can
good grace, some of the renters throw in the be exploited in a new and vital art form. The
short with the feature. This considerable studio films largely ignore this possibility
branch of cinematic illumination tends, of opening up the screen on the real world.
therefore, to be the gift that goes with the They photograph acted stories against artifi-
pound of tea; and like all gestures of the gro- cial backgrounds. Documentary would pho-
cery mind it is not very liable to cost much. tograph the living scene and the living story.
Whence my wonder at improving qualities. (2) We believe that the original (or native)
Consider, however, the very frequent beauty actor, and the original (or native) scene, are
and very great skill of exposition in such better guides to a screen interpretation of the
Ufa shorts as Turbulent Timber, in the sports modern world. They give cinema a greater
shorts from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in the fund of material. They give it power over a
Secrets of Nature shorts from Bruce Woolfe, million and one images. They give it power
and the Fitzpatrick travel talks. Together of interpretation over more complex and
they have brought the popular lecture to a astonishing happenings in the real world
pitch undreamed of, and even impossible in than the studio mind can conjure up or the
the days of magic lanterns. In this little we studio mechanician recreate. (3)We believe
progress. that the materials and the stories thus taken
These films, of course, would not like to from the raw can be finer (more real in the
be called lecture films, but this, for all their philosophic sense) than the acted article.
disguises, is what they are. They do not dra- Spontaneous gesture has a special value on
matize, they do not even dramatize an epi- the screen. Cinema has a sensational capac-
sode: they describe, and even expose, but ity for enhancing the movement which tra-
in any aesthetic sense, only rarely reveal. dition has formed or time worn smooth. Its
Herein is their formal limit, and it is unlikely arbitrary rectangle specially reveals move-
that they will make any considerable contri- ment; it gives it maximum pattern in space
bution to the fuller art of documentary. How and time. Add to this that documentary can
indeed can they? Their silent form is cut to achieve an intimacy of knowledge and eect
the commentary, and shots are arranged impossible to the shim-sham mechanics of
arbitrarily to point the gags or conclusions. the studio, and the lily-fingered interpreta-
This is not a matter of complaint, for the tions of the metropolitanactor.
lecture film must have increasing value in I do not mean in this minor manifesto of
entertainment, education and propaganda. beliefs to suggest that the studios cannot in
But it is as well to establish the formal limits their own manner produce works of art to
of the species. astonish the world. There is nothing (except
first principles of documentary 219

the Woolworth intentions of the people philosophy of things. A succeeding docu-


who run them) to prevent the studios going mentary exponent is in no way obliged to
really high in the manner of theatre or the chase o to the ends of the earth in search
manner of fairy tale. My separate claim for of old-time simplicity, and the ancient digni-
documentary is simply that in its use of the ties of man against the sky. Indeed, if Imay
living article, there is also an opportunity for the moment represent the opposition,
to perform creative work. Imean, too, that I hope the Neo-Rousseauism implicit in
the choice of the documentary medium is Flahertys work dies with his own excep-
as gravely distinct a choice as the choice of tional self. Theory of naturals apart, it rep-
poetry instead of fiction. Dealing with dif- resents an escapism, a wan and distant eye,
ferent material, it is, or should be, dealing which tends in lesser hands to sentimen-
with it to dierent aesthetic issues from talism. However it be shot through with
those of the studio. I make this distinc- vigour of Lawrentian poetry, it must always
tion to the point of asserting that the young fail to develop a form adequate to the more
director cannot, in nature, go documentary immediate material of the modern world.
and go studioboth. For it is not only the fool that has his eyes
In an earlier reference to Flaherty, Ihave on the ends of the earth. It is sometimes
indicated how one great exponent walked the poet:sometimes even the great poet, as
away from the studio:how he came to grips Cabell in his Beyond Life will brightly inform
with the essential story of the Eskimos, you. This, however, is the very poet who on
then with the Samoans, then latterly with every classic theory of society from Plato to
the people of the Aran Islands: and at Trotsky should be removed bodily from the
what point the documentary director in Republic. Loving every Time but his own
him diverged from the studio intention of and every Life but his own, he avoids com-
Hollywood. The main point of the story ing to grips with the creative job in so far as
was this. Hollywood wanted to impose a it concerns society. In the business of order-
ready-made dramatic shape on the raw ing most present chaos, he does not use his
material. It wanted Flaherty, in complete powers.
injustice to the living drama on the spot, Question of theory and practice apart,
to build his Samoans into a rubber-stamp Flaherty illustrates better than anyone
drama of sharks and bathing belles. It failed the first principles of documentary. (1) It
in the case of Moana; it succeeded (through must master its material on the spot, and
Van Dyke) in the case of White Shadows of come in intimacy to ordering it. Flaherty
the South Seas, and (through Murnau) in digs himself in for a year, or two maybe.
the case of Tabu. In the last examples it was He lives with his people till the story is
at the expense of Flaherty, who severed his told out of himself. (2) It must follow
association withboth. him in his distinction between descrip-
With Flaherty it became an absolute tion and drama. I think we shall find that
principle that the story must be taken from there are other forms of drama or, more
the location, and that it should be (what he accurately, other forms of film, than the
considers) the essential story of the location. one he chooses; but it is important to
His drama, therefore, is a drama of days and make the primary distinction between a
nights, of the round of the years seasons, method which describes only the surface
of the fundamental fights which give his people values of a subject, and the method which
sustenance, or make their community life more explosively reveals the reality of it.
possible, or build up the dignity of thetribe. You photograph the natural life, but you
Such an interpretation of subject-matter also, by your juxtaposition of detail, create
reflects, of course, Flahertys particular an interpretation of it.
220 modernisms

This final creative intention established, exotic landscape, to recommend them.


several methods are possible. You may, It represented, slimly, the return from
like Flaherty, go for a story form, passing romance to reality.
in the ancient manner from the individual Berlin was variously reported as made by
to the environment, to the environment Ruttmann, or begun by Ruttmann and fin-
transcended or not transcended, to the con- ished by Freund:certainly it was begun by
sequent honours of heroism. Or you may Ruttmann. In smooth and finely tempod
not be so interested in the individual. You visuals, a train swung through suburban
may think that the individual life is no lon- mornings into Berlin. Wheels, rails, details
ger capable of cross-sectioning reality. You of engines, telegraph wires, landscapes
may believe that its particular belly-aches and other simple images flowed along in
are of no consequence in a world which procession, with similar abstracts passing
complex and impersonal forces com- occasionally in and out of the general move-
mand, and conclude that the individual as a ment. There followed a sequence of such
self-sucient dramatic figure is outmoded. movements which, in their total eect, cre-
When Flaherty tells you that it is a devilish ated very imposingly the story of a Berlin
noble thing to fight for food in a wilder- day. The day began with a processional of
ness, you may, with some justice, observe workers, the factories got under way, the
that you are more concerned with the streets filled: the citys forenoon became
problem of people fighting for food in the a hurly-burly of tangled pedestrians and
midst of plenty. When he draws your atten- street cars. There was respite for food:a var-
tion to the fact that Nanooks spear is grave ious respite with contrast of rich and poor.
in its upheld angle, and finely rigid in its The city started work again, and a shower of
down-pointing bravery, you may, with some rain in the afternoon became a considerable
justice, observe that no spear, held how- event. The city stopped work and, in fur-
ever bravely by the individual, will master ther more hectic processional of pubs and
the crazy walrus of international finance. cabarets and dancing legs and illuminated
Indeed you may feel that in individualism sky-signs, finished itsday.
is a yahoo tradition largely responsible In so far as the film was principally
for our present anarchy, and deny at once concerned with movements and the build-
both the hero of decent heroics (Flaherty) ing of separate images into movements,
and the hero of indecent ones (studio). In Ruttmann was justified in calling it a sym-
this case, you will feel that you want your phony. It meant a break away from the
drama in terms of some cross-section of story borrowed from literature, and from
reality which will reveal the essentially the play borrowed from the stage. In Berlin
co-operative or mass nature of society:leav- cinema swung along according to its own
ing the individual to find his honours in more natural powers: creating dramatic
the swoop of creative social forces. In other eect from the tempod accumulation of its
words, you are liable to abandon the story single observations. Cavalcantis Rien que les
form, and seek, like the modern exponent Heures and Lgers Ballet Mcanique came
of poetry and painting and prose, a matter before Berlin, each with a similar attempt
and method more satisfactory to the mind to combine images in an emotionally satis-
and spirit of thetime. factory sequence of movements. They were
Berlin or the Symphony of a City initi- too scrappy and had not mastered the art of
ated the more modern fashion of finding cutting suciently well to create the sense
documentary material on ones doorstep: of march necessary to the genre. The sym-
in events which have no novelty of the phony of Berlin City was both larger in its
unknown, or romance of noble savage on movements and larger in its vision.
first principles of documentary 221

There was one criticism of Berlin which, (beyond space and time) to the slice of life
out of appreciation for a fine film and a he has chosen. For that larger eect there
new and arresting form, the critics failed to must be power of poetry or of prophecy.
make; and time has not justified the omis- Failing either or both in the highest degree,
sion. For all its ado of workmen and fac- there must be at least the sociological sense
tories and swirl and swing of a great city, implicit in poetry and prophecy.
Berlin created nothing. Or rather if it cre- The best of the tyros know this. They
ated something, it was that shower of rain in believe that beauty will come in good time
the afternoon. The people of the city got up to inhabit the statement which is honest
splendidly, they tumbled through their five and lucid and deeply felt and which ful-
million hoops impressively, they turned in; fils the best ends of citizenship. They are
and no other issue of God or man emerged sensible enough to conceive of art as the
than that sudden besmattering spilling of by-product of a job of work done. The oppo-
wet on people and pavements. site eort to capture the by-product first (the
I urge the criticism because Berlin still self-conscious pursuit of beauty, the pursuit
excites the mind of the young, and the sym- of art for arts sake to the exclusion of jobs
phony form is still their most popular per- of work and other pedestrian beginnings),
suasion. In fifty scenarios presented by the was always a reflection of selfish wealth,
tyros, forty-five are symphonies of Edinburgh selfish leisure and aesthetic decadence.
or of Ecclefechan or of Paris or of Prague. This sense of social responsibility,
Day breaksthe people come to workthe makes our realist documentary a troubled
factories startthe street cars rattlelunch and dicult art, and particularly in a time
hour and the streets againsport if it is like ours. The job of romantic documentary
Saturday afternooncertainly evening and is easy in comparison: easy in the sense
the local dance hall. And so, nothing having that the noble savage is already a figure of
happened and nothing positively said about romance and the seasons of the year have
anything, to bed; though Edinburgh is the already been articulated in poetry. Their
capital of a country and Ecclefechan, by essential virtues have been declared and can
some power inside itself, was the birthplace more easily be declared again, and no one
of Carlyle, in some ways one of the greatest will deny them. But realist documentary,
exponents of this documentary idea. with its streets and cities and slums and
The little daily doings, however finely markets and exchanges and factories, has
symphonized, are not enough. One must given itself the job of making poetry where
pile up beyond doing or process to creation no poet has gone before it, and where no
itself, before one hits the higher reaches of ends, sucient for the purposes of art, are
art. In this distinction, creation indicates easily observed. It requires not only taste
not the making of things but the making but also inspiration, which is to say a very
of virtues. laborious, deep-seeing, deep-sympathizing
And theres the rub for tyros. Critical creative eort indeed.
appreciation of movement they can build The symphonists have found a way of
easily from their power to observe, and building such matters of common reality
power to observe they can build from their into very pleasant sequences. By uses of
own good taste, but the real job only begins tempo and rhythm, and by the large-scale
as they apply ends to their observation integration of single eects, they capture
and their movements. The artist need not the eye and impress the mind in the same
posit the endsfor that is the work of the way as a tattoo or a military parade might
criticbut the ends must be there, inform- do. But by their concentration on mass and
ing his description and giving finality movement, they tend to avoid the larger
222 modernisms

creative job. What more attractive (for a and certainly a great deal of the elements
man of visual taste) than to swing wheels of nature to play with. It did, however,
and pistons about in ding-dong descrip- use steam and smoke and did, in a sense,
tion of a machine, when he has little to say marshal the eects of a modern industry.
about the man who tends it, and still less to Looking back on the film now, I would
say about the tin-pan product it spills? And not stress the tempo eects which it built
what more comfortable if, in ones heart, (for both Berlin and Potemkin came before
there is avoidance of the issue of underpaid it), nor even the rhythmic eects (though
labour and meaningless production? For Ibelieve they outdid the technical example
this reason I hold the symphony tradition of Potemkin in that direction). What seemed
of cinema for a danger and Berlin for the possible of development in the film was
most dangerous of all film models to follow. the integration of imagery with the move-
Unfortunately, the fashion is with such ment. The ship at sea, the men casting, the
avoidance as Berlin represents. The high- men hauling, were not only seen as func-
brows bless the symphony for its good looks tionaries doing something. They were seen
and, being sheltered rich little souls for the as functionaries in half a hundred dierent
most part, absolve it gladly from further ways, and each tended to add something to
intention. Other factors combine to obscure the illumination as well as the description
ones judgment regarding it. The post-1918 of them. In other words the shots were
generation, in which all cinema intelligence massed together, not only for description
resides, is apt to veil a particularly violent and tempo but for commentary on it. One
sense of disillusionment, and a very natu- felt impressed by the tough continuing
ral first reaction of impotence, in any smart upstanding labour involved, and the feel-
manner of avoidance which comes to hand. ing shaped the images, determined the
The pursuit of fine form which this genre background and supplied the extra details
certainly represents is the safest of asylums. which gave colour to the whole. I do not
The objection remains, however. The urge the example of Drifters, but in theory
rebellion from the who-gets-who tradition at least the example is there. If the high
of commercial cinema to the tradition of bravery of upstanding labour came through
pure form in cinema is no great shakes as the film, as Ihope it did, it was made not
a rebellion. Dadaism, expressionism, sym- by the story itself, but by the imagery atten-
phonics, are all in the same category. They dant on it. Iput the point, not in praise of
present new beauties and new shapes; they the method but in simple analysis of the
fail to present new persuasions. method.
The imagist or more definitely poetic
approach might have taken our consider- ***
ation of documentary a step further, but no
great imagist film has arrived to give charac- The symphonic form is concerned with
ter to the advance. By imagism I mean the the orchestration of movement. It sees the
telling of story or illumination of theme by screen in terms of flow and does not permit
images, as poetry is story or theme told by the flow to be broken. Episodes and events,
images: I mean the addition of poetic refer- if they are included in the action, are inte-
ence to the mass and march of the sym- grated in the flow. The symphonic form also
phonic form. tends to organize the flow in terms of dier-
Drifters was one simple contribution in ent movements, e.g. movement for dawn,
that direction, but only a simple one. Its movement for men coming to work, move-
subject belonged in part to Flahertys world, ment for factories in full swing, etc., etc.
for it had something of the noble savage This is a first distinction.
first principles of documentary 223

See the symphonic form as something I use Basil Wright as an example of


equivalent to the poetic form of, say, Carl movement in itselfthough movement
Sandburg in Skyscraper, Chicago, The is never in itselfprincipally to distinguish
Windy City and Slabs of the Sunburnt those others who add either tension ele-
West. The object is presented as an integra- ments or poetic elements or atmospheric
tion of many activities. It lives by the many elements. I have held myself in the past
human associations and by the moods of the an exponent of the tension category with
various action sequences which surround it. certain pretension to the others. Here is a
Sandburg says so with variations of tempo simple example of tension from Granton
in his description, variations of the mood in Trawler. The trawler is working its gear in
which each descriptive facet is presented. We a storm. The tension elements are built up
do not ask personal stories of such poetry, for with emphasis on the drag of the water,
the picture is complete and satisfactory. We the heavy lurching of the ship, the fevered
need not ask it of documentary. This is a sec- flashing of the birds, the fevered flashing
ond distinction regarding symphonic form. of faces between waves, lurches and spray.
These distinctions granted, it is possible The trawl is hauled aboard with strain of
for the symphonic form to vary consider- men and tackle and water. It is opened
ably. Basil Wright, for example, is almost in a release which comprises equally the
exclusively interested in movement, and will release of men, birds and fish. There is no
build up movement in a fury of design and pause in the flow of movement, but some-
nuances of design; and for those whose eye is thing of an eort as between two opposing
suciently trained and suciently fine will forces, has been recorded. In a more ambi-
convey emotion in a thousand variations on tious and deeper description the tension
a theme so simple as the portage of bananas might have included elements more inti-
(Cargo from Jamaica). Some have attempted mately and more heavily descriptive of the
to relate this movement to the pyrotechnics clanging weight of the tackle, the strain on
of pure form, but there never was any such the ship, the operation of the gear under
animal. (1)The quality of Wrights sense of water and along the ground, the scutter-
movement and of his pattems is distinctively ing myriads of birds laying o in the gale.
his own and recognizably delicate. As with The fine fury of ship and heavy weather
good painters, there is character in his line could have been brought through to touch
and attitude in his composition. (2) There the vitals of the men and the ship. In the
is an over-tone in his work whichsome- hauling, the simple fact of a wave breaking
times after seeming monotonymakes his over the men, subsiding and leaving them
description uniquely memorable. (3)His pat- hanging on as though nothing had hap-
terns invariably weavenot seeming to do pened, would have brought the sequence
soa positive attitude to the material, which to an appropriate peak. The release could
may conceivably relate to (2). The patterns have attached to itself images of, say, birds
of Cargo from Jamaica were more scathing wheeling high, taking o from the ship,
comment on labour at twopence a hundred and of contemplative, i.e. more intimate,
bunches (or whatever it is) than mere socio- reaction on the faces of the men. The
logical stricture. His movements(a) easily drama would have gone deeper by the
down; (b) horizontal; (c) arduously 45 up; (d) greater insight into the energies and reac-
down againconceal, or perhaps construct, tions involved.
a comment. Flaherty once maintained that Carry this analysis into a consideration
the east-west contour of Canada was itself a of the first part of Deserter, which piles
drama. It was precisely a sequence of down, up from a sequence of deadly quiet to the
horizontal, 45 up, and downagain. strain and furyand aftermathof the
224 modernisms

strike, or of the strike sequence itself, which symbolic figures, as Eisenstein brought
piles up from deadly quiet to the strain into his Thunder Over Mexico material, he
and furyand aftermathof the police would have added the elements of poetic
attack, and you have indication of how image. The distinction is between (a) a
the symphonic shape, still faithful to its musical or non-literary method; (b) a dra-
own peculiar methods, comes to grip with matic method with clashing forces; and
dramaticissue. (c) a poetic, contemplative, and altogether
The poetic approach is best represented literary method. These three methods may
by Romance Sentimentale and the last all appear in one film, but their propor-
sequence of Ekstase. Here there is descrip- tion depends naturally on the character
tion without tension, but the moving of the directorand his private hopes of
description is lit up by attendant images. salvation.
In Ekstase the notion of life renewed is con- I do not suggest that one form is higher
veyed by a rhythmic sequence of labour, than the other. There are pleasures pecu-
but there are also essential images of a liar to the exercise of movement which in
woman and child, a young man standing a sense are toughermore classicalthan
high over the scene, skyscapes and water. the pleasures of poetic description, however
The description of the various moods of attractive and however blessed by tradition
Romance Sentimentale is conveyed entirely these may be. The introduction of tension
by images: in one sequence of domes- gives accent to a film, but only too easily
tic interior, in another sequence of misty gives popular appeal because of its primi-
morning, placid water and dim sunlight. tive engagement with physical issues and
The creation of mood, an essential to the struggles and fights. People like a fight,
symphonic form, may be done in terms of even when it is only a symphonic one, but it
tempo alone, but it is better done if poetic is not clear that a war with the elements is a
images colour it. In a description of night braver subject than the opening of a flower
at sea, there are elements enough aboard or, for that matter, the opening of a cable.
a ship to build up a quiet and eective It refers us back to hunting instincts and
rhythm, but a deeper eect might come by fighting instincts, but these do not neces-
reference to what is happening under water sarily represent the more civilized fields of
or by reference to the strange spectacle appreciation.
of the birds which, sometimes in ghostly It is commonly believed that moral
flocks, move silently in and out of the ships grandeur in art can only be achieved,
lights. Greek or Shakespearian fashion, after a
A sequence in a film by Rotha indicates general laying out of the protagonists,
the distinction between the three dierent and that no head is unbowed which is not
treatments. He describes the loading of a bloody. This notion is a philosophic vul-
steel furnace and builds a superb rhythm garity. Of recent years it has been given
into the shovelling movements of the the further blessing of Kant in his dis-
men. By creating behind them a sense of tinction between the aesthetic of pattern
fire, by playing on the momentary shrink- and the aesthetic of achievement, and
ing from fire which comes into these shov- beauty has been considered somewhat
elling movements, he would have brought inferior to the sublime. The Kantian con-
in the elements of tension. He might have fusion comes from the fact that he per-
proceeded from this to an almost terrify- sonally had an active moral sense, but no
ing picture of what steel work involves. On active aesthetic one. He would not other-
the other hand, by overlaying the rhythm wise have drawn the distinction. So far
with, say, such posturing or contemplative as common taste is concerned, one has
first principles of documentary 225

to see that we do not mix up the fulfil- application of the symphonic form is not,
ment of primitive desires and the vain ipso facto, the deepest or most important.
dignities which attach to that fulfillment, Consideration of forms neither dramatic
with the dignities which attach to man nor symphonic, but dialectic, will reveal
as an imaginative being. The dramatic this more plainly.