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John Grierson

Director, Producer, Screenwriter
(b. December 31, 1969 Deanston, Scotland - d. February 19, 1972 Bath, England)

John Grierson is perhaps the single most important figure in the development of the modern Canadian information film, although he himself was not Canadian. He designed and founded the National Film Board of Canada and was its first com­missioner (1939–1945). Born in Scotland and considered the “father of British documentary,” Grierson was a witty, determined theorist and visionary. He had the practical skills and idealism necessary to imagine a form of non-fiction film documentary that would create a movement worldwide.

Grierson was first to use the term “documentary,” which he defined as “the creative treatment of actuality.” His theory of documentary film was developed in the United Kingdom against the backdrop of WWI and the economic and political instability of the period leading up to WWII, which culminated with the election of a Labour government in 1945. Grierson viewed the documentary as a tool for communication and information exchange between government and the people.

While no single quotation adequately expresses the power of his writings, the following from a 1933 article in Grierson onDocumentary (1946) summarizes his approach to film: “I have no great interest in films as such. Now and again, shapes, masses, and movements so disport themselves that I have a brief hope that something of the virtue of great painting may one day come into cinema.... I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a pro­pagandist.... Cinema is to be conceived as a medium, like writing, capable of many forms and many functions. A professional propagandist may well be interested in it. It gives generous access to the public. It is capable of direct description, simple analysis, and commanding conclusion, and may, by its tempo’d and imagistic powers, be made easily persuasive.” Although some people have criticized his views of “ac­tuality” as naive, there is no doubt he shaped a whole generation of filmmakers in Canada and elsewhere.

In 1929, Grierson made Drifters, an “imagist” film about the North Sea herring fishers, which is the only film he directed. His use of striking camera and editing techniques (influenced by Soviet films of the 1920s) achieved a richness of content and expression so assured that it transformed otherwise prosaic subject matter into a first-rate cinematic work. Following the success of Drifters, the British government agreed to form a documentary unit. During the period from 1931 to 1937, Grier­son produced classics such as Len Lye’s abstract, animated Rainbow Dance (1936), Alberto Cavalcanti’s marvelous Pett and Pott (1934), Basil Wright’s The Song of Ceylon (1934) and Wright’s well-known Night Mail (1936) as well as productions by Paul Rotha and Norman McLaren.

In 1938, the Cana­dian government asked Grierson to report on government film activities. He produced his report June 23, 1938, recommending the establishment of a national film board operating under an appointed film commissioner to advise the government. In December 1938, he drafted the National Film Act (revised in 1950), which passed its final reading in Parliament on March 16, 1939. In October 1939, Grierson accepted the position of film commissioner and the existing Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau was merged with the newly established National Film Board of Canada in June 1941.

In 1941, the NFB won its first of many Academy Awards® for Churchill’s Island. Under Grierson’s aegis during the war, the NFB became a powerful tool of government information, exemplified in the two major series The World in Action (1942–1945) and Canada Carries On (1940–1945), which were re­leased monthly to theatres in Canada and abroad. Further demonstrating his knack for propaganda, Grierson arranged for NFB films to be screened as shorts before commercial length features, so Canadians could witness their own images on screen, week after week. In five years, the NFB produced over 500 films, established non-theatrical circuits that became international models and grew into one of the world's largest film studios, with a staff of 787.

Not the least of Grierson's achieve­ments was the creation of a cadre of trained filmmakers, some of whom would continue his approach to documentary after his resignation in 1945. He had consciously nurtured the talent of future film producers and directors such as James Beveridge, Sydney Newman, Guy Glover, Tom Daly, Raymond Spottis­woode, Stuart Legg and Norman McLaren.

Grierson's influence was less direct in his later career. After leaving the NFB in 1945, and having been “grey-listed” as subversive and hounded out of the United States by the FBI (Kirwan Cox, Cinema Canada, vol. 56), he worked for UNESCO from 1946 to 1948 in Paris. Grierson went back to England in 1948 where he became film controller for the government’s Central Office of Information; then, in 1951, executive producer for the production company Group Three. In 1957, he returned to his native Scotland to produce and host his own weekly television program, This Wonderful World.

At the end of his career, Grierson returned to Canada to teach film at McGill University from 1969 to 1971, making many new converts to the cause of social documentary. He remained true to his credo that “the ordinary affairs of people’s lives are more dramatic and vital than all the false excitement [fiction filmmakers] can muster.”

As a public servant, broadcaster, critic, producer, director, writer and teacher, Grierson himself was nothing if not vital and charismatic. He was also controversial. Since the mid-1980s, critics and historians have debated whether or not Grierson’s influence on Canadian film culture was entirely constructive. Among the writings that analyze the question are Joyce Nelson’s The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend and a number of articles by Peter Morris, including “Re-thinking Grierson: The Ideology of John Grierson.”

In addition to the many publications on Grierson’s life and work, his own writings include Grierson on Documentary (Praeger, revised 1971) and Grierson on the Movies (Faber, 1981) edited by Forsyth Hardy. In 1973, the NFB produced Grierson, a film on his work.

Film and video work includes

Drifters, 1929 (director; cinematographer; editor; producer)
Conquest, 1930 (producer)
Aero-engine, 1933 (producer)
B.B.C. - Droitwich, 1933 (producer)
Cable Ship, 1933 (producer)
Cargo from Jamaica, 1933 (producer)
The Coming of the Dial, 1933 (producer)
The Country Comes to Town, 1933 (producer)
Eskimo Village, 1933 (producer)
Industrial Britain, 1933 (co-director with Robert Flaherty; co-editor with Edgar Anstey; producer)
King Log, 1933 (producer)
Liner Cruising South, 1933 (producer)
The New Operator, 1933 (producer)
O'er Hill and Dale, 1933 (producer)
Shadow on the Mountain, 1933 (producer)
Spring on the Farm, 1933 (producer)
Upstream, 1933 (producer)
The Voice of the World, 1933 (producer)
Windmill in Barbados, 1933 (producer)
Granton Trawler, 1934 (cinematographer; producer)
The Fishing Banks of Skye, 1934 (director; producer)
Introducing the Dial, 1934 (producer)
Pett and Pott, 1934 (producer)
Post Haste, 1934 (producer)
Six-Thirty Collection, 1934 (producer)
So This Is London, 1934 (producer)
Song of Ceylon, 1934 (producer)
Spring Comes to England, 1934 (producer)
Telephone Workers, 1934 (producer)
Weather Forecast, 1934 (producer)
Coal Face, 1935 (producer)
On the Fishing Banks of Skye, 1935 (producer)
Night Mail, 1936 (producer, narrator)
Rainbow Dance, 1936 (producer)
Children at School, 1937 (producer)
Four Barriers, 1937 (producer)
A Job in a Million, 1937 (producer)
Line to Tschierva Hut, 1937 (producer)
The Saving of Bill Blewitt, 1937 (producer)
The Smoke Menace, 1937 (producer)
Trade Tattoo, 1937 (producer)
We Live in Two Worlds, 1937 (producer)
The Face of Scotland, 1938 (producer)
The Londoners, 1939 (producer)
McLaren: The Young Professional, 1939 (producer)
The Obedient Flame, 1939 (producer)
Brandy for the Parson, 1952 (producer)
The Brave Don't Cry, 1952 (producer)
Miss Robin Hood, 1952 (producer)
Scotch on the Rocks, 1952 (producer)
Time, Gentlemen please!, 1952 (producer)
You're Only Young Twice, 1952 (producer)
Man of Africa, 1953 (producer)
The Oracle, 1953 (producer)
Devil on Horseback, 1954 (producer)
This Wonderful World series, 1957 (presenter; TV)
Seawards the Great Ships, 1960 (writer)
The Heart of Scotland, 1961 (writer)