Robert Fulford's column about John Grierson and the documentary

(The National Post, October 3, 2000)

Pioneers often suffer cruelly at the hands of posterity, and John Grierson (1898-1972), the dour but brilliant Scotsman who created the National Film Board of Canada, can stand as the perfect example. Few give him the credit, but he was the first filmmaker to escape the tyranny of the box office by persuading governments and corporations to sponsor films, a system so obvious that we now assume it's been with us forever. That means he's the grandfather of much that we see today, from the PBS network shows in the United States to the work of state production agencies around the world. Even the most passionate admirers of free markets will acknowledge that thousands of good films (and of course many bad ones) have been made under this system -- films that would not otherwise have been made at all.

I've read half a dozen books about Grierson, but I don't think I understood that particular accomplishment until last week, when I read Jack C. Ellis's fine new biography, John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence (Southern Illinois University Press). Grierson was drawn toward non-fiction films in the mid-1920s, when he was studying in the United States and writing movie reviews. He even named this category of movie, becoming the first writer on film to use the word "documentary," in a review for the New York Sun in 1926 of Moana, Robert Flaherty's film about Polynesia.

Then he went home to Britain and learned how to gather the money to make more such films possible. His first patron was the Empire Marketing Board, which promoted British products and British workers. In 1928 he sold the EMB on making Drifters, about the herring fishery. He edited it in the London basement where he lived, and as he finished, a clear theme emerged: in his words, "the ardour and bravery of common labour." Let Hollywood glorify the exceptional, he decided; Grierson would spend much of his life revealing the beauty of the ordinary. The debut of Drifters in 1929 made a stir because Grierson, with typical shrewdness, had it shown on the same bill with the London premiere of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, a Soviet feature already considered a classic.

With Drifters, the British documentary movement came alive. For the next 10 years Grierson dominated it. At the EMB and later the General Post Office Film Unit, he showed a genius for choosing talented filmmakers, focusing their energies and organizing the money to support them.

What drove him? Ellis's answer is particularly good. While Grierson was learning about documentary in America, he was also discovering the purpose of his life. When he went to the University of Chicago in the 1920s, he carried serious baggage: Calvinist theology from his childhood and German idealist philosophy from university. He was an intense young fellow, eager to do good.

In America he read Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann's most famous book, and found his future in its pages. Lippmann argued that democracy was deteriorating because the citizens could no longer understand public issues. Subjects such as international trade had grown so complicated that no one but specialists could grasp them. The citizens, aware that they could neither understand nor control events, were growing apathetic. Grierson decided there was much that the citizens could learn, with help.

He wanted to uncover and explain the patterns and meanings of democratic life. He studied the dramatic approach of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers -- and rather admired it. He and his fellow scholars in Chicago thought they saw behind Hearst-type journalism a deeper principle: the power of narrative and drama. "We thought that even so complex a world as ours could be patterned for all to appreciate if we only got away from the servile accumulation of fact and struck for the story which held the facts in living organic relationship together." In that one rather awkward sentence (from a speech in Winnipeg in 1943), he articulated the central ambition of serious journalists everywhere. It's still the main principle followed in all media.

He always saw himself as more educator than artist. As leader of the NFB, he was often more bureaucrat than journalist. He stopped short of describing reality when it became politically uncomfortable. Within Canada, during the Second World War, the chief political issue was conscription in Quebec, or the lack of it. Yet the NFB avoided that subject entirely. To have exposed tension in Confederation would have been, in the Griersonian view, irresponsible. Better to fill the movie screens of the nation with legions of happy war workers, doing their bit for democracy, and leave Quebec's grievances for later.

He embraced the idea of a planned society and wanted to help citizens understand the benign activities of the state. This worked best in England during the Depression and in Canada during the war, two periods when central planning was inevitable and widely approved. Later, as governments grew less popular, Grierson's stature diminished. When he left the NFB in 1945, his significant work was over. From then till his death in 1972, he performed a series of dispiriting and inconsequential (by his standards) jobs. In those years it seemed to many that he was drinking himself to death.

As a bureaucrat, Grierson built well. It didn't always seem that way, and there were times, particularly the five years or so after his departure, when the NFB seemed to be falling apart. But for six decades, against all the odds, it has survived the slings and arrows of its outraged enemies in the private sector, and often done superb work. Meanwhile, as Ellis points out, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and India have used it as the model for their national film organizations.

Grierson's legacy to Canada remains questionable. He was a propagandist with the awareness of an artist and the instincts of a politician. And he left behind a film culture that was simultaneously focused on "realism" and terrified of being so realistic that it might disturb someone. It was wonderful that he chose to work in Canada from 1939 to 1945, and in certain ways not so wonderful. No doubt about it: He was the best thing that ever happened to Canadian film, and also the worst.

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