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Britain's greatest contribution to cinema?

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Between 1896 and 1910, most British non-fiction or 'actuality' films (the term 'documentary' came later) employed trick effects within a context of re-staged events, as in How It Feels to be Run Over (1900) and A Derby Day Incident (1903); recorded events such as royal occasions; reconstructed events, as in Attack on a China Mission Station (1900); and drew on traditions of literature, theatre and popular culture, as in The Life of Charles Peace (1904). Other films had more explicit publicity objectives, as with the corporate public relations films which appeared from 1904 onwards, including The Story of a Piece of Slate (1904) and The Manchester Ship Canal (1912).

One of the most important producers of the period was Charles Urban, whose companies made films such as Through the Microscope (1907) and Rodents and Their Habits (1908) with an educational aspect designed to put 'Nature on the Screen'. During World War I, Britain embarked upon a major programme of propaganda film production. Short films such as The Wonderful Organization of the Royal Army Medical Corps (1916) were followed by longer films such as the important The Battle of the Somme (1916). During the inter-war period a considerable number of documentary films were also made dealing with social and political issues. Some of these were made by local councils promoting public awareness of social and health hazards. Others were made by political organisations such as the Communist Party of Great Britain, and by politically committed filmmaking groups like the Workers Film and Photo League and the Progressive Film Institute. The latter organisation also made a number of films about the Spanish Civil War, including Spanish ABC (1938). In addition to the Spanish Civil War films, important 1930s documentaries such as Peace and Plenty (1939) opposed government policy on the appeasement of Hitler and fascism.

Alongside these radical filmmaking organisations, another film movement emerged during the 1930s which was to have a significant influence on the development of British film culture. In 1929 John Grierson made Drifters. Following its success, Grierson went on to establish the 'British documentary film movement' at the Empire Marketing Board: a government organisation. In 1934 the documentary film movement was transferred to the Post Office, and the GPO Film Unit was established. It produced documentary films until the onset of World War II, when it became part of the Ministry of Information, and changed its name to the Crown Film Unit.

Grierson's first approach to documentary film, in Drifters, could be described as modernist. However, he eventually adopted a more journalistic approach. In the mid-30s he and some of his associates left the GPO Film Unit to found independent production units, making reportage films such as Children at School (1937). Under the leadership of Alberto Cavalcanti the GPO Film Unit developed differently between 1937 and 1940, making impressionistic observational documentaries such as Humphrey Jennings' Spare Time (1939), and dramatised documentaries such as North Sea (1938). During WW2, the documentary film movement at Crown also produced a series of feature-length dramatised documentaries, including Target For Tonight (1941). One of Grierson's achievements was to provide women such as Evelyn Spice, and his two sisters, Marion and Ruby Grierson, with the opportunity to direct and produce documentaries. Similar opportunities also existed for women outside the documentary film movement during the 1930s and 1940s (in contrast to the relative lack of such prospects within feature filmmaking), as the work of Mary Field, Jill Cragie, Kay Mander and others attests.

The documentary film movement receded in the late 1940s, and the next important documentary group to appear was Free Cinema in the mid 1950s. However, there was little continuity between the documentary film movement and Free Cinema, whose proponents, led by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, rejected the model of journalistic documentary advocated by Grierson. Free Cinema did, however, distinguish between Grierson and Humphrey Jennings, and regarded Spare Time and the symbolic Listen to Britain (1941) as the model for a revitalised documentary film practice. Free Cinema films such as Anderson's O Dreamland (1953) emphasised the poetic qualities of documentary, while Reisz and Richardson's Momma Don't Allow (1956) and Reisz's We Are The Lambeth Boys (1959) adopted Jennings' portrayal of popular and working-class culture.

No over-arching movement in documentary has emerged between 1960 and the present. Instead, a variety of films have appeared. These range from ciné vérité films such as Roger Graef's Decision series (ITV, 1975-76); political modernist films such as Song of the Shirt (1981); reflexive or performative documentaries such as Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995) and Geri (1999); postmodernist documentaries such as Handsworth Songs (1986); and social realist films such as Hidden Voices (1995). The drama documentary has also emerged as a major genre, in films such as Peter Watkins' The War Game (1965), although many later examples of this genre have appeared in the television work of Nick Broomfield, Jimmy McGovern and others.

The documentary film has played an important role both in influencing British film culture, and in allowing critical, often oppositional voices to find expression within the public sphere. A documentary realist approach has, for example, influenced movements such as the British New Wave of the 1960s, and feature film directors such as Bill Douglas, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh; while the documentary film movement has had an impact on television current affairs film-making and policy. Similarly, the documentary film has been used as a means of disseminating alternative political ideas from the 1930s to the present. During the 1930s filmmakers such as Ivor Montagu, Ralph Bond and Norman McLaren, and organisations such as Kino and the Progressive Film Institute, spoke out against the appeasement of Hitler, and in favour of socialism. In the 1970s and 1980s filmmaking collectives such as the Berwick Street Collective, Cinema Action, Amber Films, Liberation Films, the London Women's Film Group, Black Audio Film Collective and Four Corners Films promoted socialist, feminist and anti-racist ideas. Today, many critical or oppositional documentary films appear on television, in series such as Storyville and Cutting Edge, and also continue to to be made by made by individual filmmakers such as Mike Grigsby, Clive Gordon and John Pilger.

Ian Aitken

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An impressionistic portrait of what was then a radio-only broadcaster

Thumbnail image of Birth of a Flower, The (1910)Birth of a Flower, The (1910)

Beautiful and groundbreaking stop-motion film

Thumbnail image of Drifters (1929)Drifters (1929)

Pioneering documentary about Scottish fishermen

Thumbnail image of Elephant Will Never Forget, The (1953)Elephant Will Never Forget, The (1953)

Classic documentary marking the end of London's tram system

Thumbnail image of Fires Were Started (1943)Fires Were Started (1943)

Classic wartime documentary directed by Humphrey Jennings

Thumbnail image of Gallivant (1996)Gallivant (1996)

Typically idiosyncratic voyage round Britain with Andrew Kötting and family

Thumbnail image of Housing Problems (1935)Housing Problems (1935)

Classic documentary about the problems of Britain's slums

Thumbnail image of Man of Aran (1934)Man of Aran (1934)

Romantic and poetic portrait of the harsh lives of the Aran islanders

Thumbnail image of Momma Don't Allow (1956)Momma Don't Allow (1956)

Free Cinema short following teenagers at a jazz club.

Thumbnail image of Song of Ceylon (1934)Song of Ceylon (1934)

Beautiful documentary about what is now Sri Lanka

Thumbnail image of South - Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (1919)South - Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (1919)

Stunning record of Shackleton's ill-fated but heroic expedition

Thumbnail image of T Dan Smith (1987)T Dan Smith (1987)

Innovative semi-documentary about the notorious ex-Newcastle councillor

Thumbnail image of Target for Tonight (1941)Target for Tonight (1941)

Classic war documentary following a bomber crew's mission over Germany

Thumbnail image of Terminus (1961)Terminus (1961)

Celebrated study of 24 hours in the life of Waterloo Station

Thumbnail image of Today We Live (1937)Today We Live (1937)

Inspiring social documentary showing one way to aid poor communities

Thumbnail image of Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works, A (1906)Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works, A (1906)

Unusually sophisticated early marketing film.

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