Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
People Apart (1957)

Courtesy of Epilepsy Action

Main image of People Apart (1957)
35mm, black and white, 36 mins
Directed byGuy Brenton
Production CompanyMorse Films
SponsorThe British Epilepsy Association
Written byGuy Brenton
CameramanW.D. Williams

Epileptics and their families talk about the problems of the disease.

Show full synopsis

The social problem documentaries of the post-war era were often films funded by charities seeking equality and understanding for those who remained outsiders within the new social consensus. People Apart was made for a relatively new charitable organisation, the British Epilepsy Association. This Association had been formed to alter the public's prejudice against, and mistaken beliefs about, those suffering from epilepsy. It was the first of a few films the charity commissioned, evidently seeing the potential of the medium to present real sufferers of the condition, on which popular cinema had a poor record; while in the recent American feature The Winning Team (1952) its star, Ronald Reagan, had played an epileptic character, the word epilepsy was never used in the film (apparently at the studio's insistence).

This documentary has no such obfuscation; its effectiveness comes from the personal and unscripted accounts of epilepsy sufferers who candidly describe their experiences of the condition, the discrimination they have encountered because of it, and their determination to not be limited by either. The people featured are allowed room to emerge as individuals, a process assisted by the close photography, which celebrates their personhood, especially in the closing shots where they turn to look defiantly into the camera and at the audience.

Sight & Sound once described Guy Brenton's "determination towards a purposeful and humane use of the film" as "one of the most promising signs for the future of our documentary". People Apart reveals that promise and humane purpose, though he seems to have been drawn repeatedly to those ostracised from society, finding in them some affinity with his own marginality.

The film was previewed at the Royal College of Surgeons in April 1957 and widely reviewed in the medical and scientific press. The British Epilepsy Association made prints on 16mm and 35mm available for hire by medical and welfare groups but also hoped it would be shown publicly. However, the BEA are reputed to have commented that it should be given an X certificate because of the epileptic fit depicted. While theatrical exhibition appears to have proved difficult, the film did gain access to a larger audience when it was shown within the BBC's current affairs programme Panorama later in 1957. The following year it was exhibited to influential viewers when it was shown to politicians at the House of Commons as part of the charity's launch of National Epilepsy Week.

James Piers Taylor

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Symptoms (3:56)
2. Nine drugs a day (3:31)
3. Children with epilepsy (4:27)
Brenton, Guy (1927-94)
Postwar Documentary