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Contact (1933)


Main image of Contact (1933)
35mm, black and white, 28 mins
DirectorPaul Rotha
Production CompaniesBritish Instructional Films
 Imperial Airways
PhotographyGeorge Noble

Documentary film promoting Imperial Airways, focusing on the many stages involved in air travel, with the majority of scenes featuring aerial shots from an aeroplane.

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Paul Rotha had already made a name for himself as a film critic, having written the hugely influential The Film Till Now (1929), before he made his first film Contact in 1933. Whilst Rotha had briefly been a member of Grierson's documentary film movement, Contact was made outside that unit: British Instructional Films and Imperial Airways, who sponsored the film, chiefly financed it. Like many films made within the documentary film movement, Contact is both a creative documentary and a promotional film.

Contact is roughly split into two parts. The first part shows workers engaged in aeroplane construction and leads up to the flight of a plane; the second, more extended, section shows a plane in flight as it travels around the world. The first section is the more experimental, employing some rapid montage shots of different modes of transport. This montage serves as a prelude to the aeroplane, which is seen as the new wonder of transportation. We then see shots of workers involved in the assembly of a plane, in which Rotha experiments with blurring the focus of the camera and alternating between workers and machinery. This technique abstracts the process of construction and highlights the intimate connections between man and machine. There follows shots of airports being built, and people boarding a plane; all these sequences show the segmented activities that are necessary for the actual flight to occur.

A flight of a plane on a trans-Atlantic route is then followed, paced more leisurely than previous scenes. We see a number of shots of the plane in mid-flight, as well as views from the plane of various landmarks around the world, such as Nairobi, Athens and Cairo. These shots were attained by shooting through a small, sliding window in the cockpit. As in many documentary films, the continuity of nature and technology is expressed in these images; technological progress is seen as engendering new and exciting visual processes.

The second part of Contact is reminiscent of early travel films, which used train travel to generate picturesque visual displays. These films used film as a kind of virtual travel apparatus; Contact, likewise, merges the cinema and aerial transport to construct new visual possibilities. It not only promoted aerial travel, but also provided a simulation of aerial vision for the majority of citizens unable to afford air travel.

Jamie Sexton

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The old highways (1:36)
2. Getting airborne (7:56)
3. The freedom of the air (5:10)
4. Towards the East (3:04)
Complete film (27:45)
Rotha, Paul (1907-1984)
20s-30s Avant-Garde
Science in Non-Fiction Film