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Industrial Britain (1931)


Main image of Industrial Britain (1931)
35mm, black and white, 22 mins
DirectorRobert Flaherty
Production CompanyEmpire Marketing Board Film Unit
Produced byJohn Grierson
 Robert Flaherty
PhotographyRobert Flaherty

Commentary spoken by: Donald Calthrop

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A survey of industry in Britain, emphasising the importance of craftsmanship.

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Industrial Britain represents a watershed in the development of the British documentary movement, the moment when artistic achievement was first blended meaningfully with social intent.

The film developed from John Grierson's opportunistic recruitment of Robert Flaherty. Flaherty was an anthropologist-cum-filmmaker who shot to worldwide prominence with Nanook of the North (1920), a documentary that detailed the hardships of Eskimo life.

Anxious to secure a prestige director for the project (Anthony Asquith had already turned them down) The Empire Marketing Board turned hopefully to a near-destitute Flaherty. Soured by failure in Hollywood and inspired by the high-seriousness of early Soviet cinema, Flaherty exchanged the exoticism of his previous work for an appreciation of Britain's industrial workers. Many of his sequences - like the English potter - were considered successful enough to merit a subsequent release as shorts.

However, Flaherty's intuitive way of working (he refused to write a script and instead filled reels of film with things that interested him, from static shots of Saltash Bridge to electricity pylons) proved unacceptably extravagant for a government agency. Flaherty was fired and it was left to Edgar Anstey to edit Flaherty's fragmentary impressions into a coherent whole. Hence the grandeur of Flaherty's imagery was accompanied by an assertive, sociologically-minded editorialising that was temperamentally at odds with its Canadian mentor. Almost by accident, the basic mode of documentary cinema in Britain had been created.

Industrial Britain provides a dramatic illustration of how the young British documentary movement grappled with the influence of the genre's founding father. Flaherty's ethos was essentially that of a 19th Century conservative individualist; he was attracted to the elemental extremes of nature and was suspicious of the mechanisation of the modern world. In films like Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/Edgar Anstey, 1935), on the other hand, the young progressives of the British documentary movement would propound scientific solutions to the social and economic problems of the interwar period.

EMB filmmakers learnt from Flaherty's aesthetic approach, but would eventually dismiss his deeper artistic instincts as escapist. Thus as the depression deepened, the amiably ragged Industrial Britain would become the pointedly professional Coal Face (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935).

Scott Anthony

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950'.

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Video Clips
1. Mining (1:02)
2. Glass industry (3:34)
3. Steel for aeroplane (4:20)
Complete film (20:22)
Face of Britain, The (1935)
Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)
Calthrop, Donald (1888-1940)
Elton, Sir Arthur (1906-1973)
Flaherty, Robert (1884-1951)
Grierson, John (1898-1972)
Wright, Basil (1907-1987)
Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (1926-1933)