Paul Rotha was born in London on the 3 June 1907. At 17 he entered the Slade School of Fine Art to study design and graphics and a year later won an award for costume design at the Paris International Theatre Exhibition. Told by his professor that he would never succeed with his birth name, Paul Thompson, he changed his name to Paul Rotha.
In 1928, Rotha, keen to get into the film business, took his portfolio of set designs to British International Pictures at Elstree Studios. He was offered work in the props department and rose to become assistant art director on one film before he was fired for writing an article bemoaning the lack of creative set design in British films. Within a few months of leaving BIP he was commissioned to write a book. The Film Till Now, published in 1930, was the first English-language history of silent and sound cinema and established Rotha's reputation as a film intellectual.
The following year he met John Grierson and Basil Wright and began making promotional films for the Empire Marketing Board documentary unit. However, Rotha's independent, maverick nature, which was to characterise his role in the documentary movement, led to conflicts with Grierson and he was again dismissed.
Rotha returned briefly to the feature industry to work as an art director, and co-wrote several scripts, including Maurice Elvey's remake of The Lodger (1932). He returned to documentary in 1932 when Jack Beddington, head of publicity at Shell-Mex and BP, secured him a commission for his first major film, Contact (1933). Made for Imperial Airways, the film shows the construction of an aeroplane and how air travel was opening up the world. Regarded as a pioneering sponsored film by many in the fledgling documentary movement, Contact was praised for its clarity of exposition and lyrical editing. Rotha continued to make sponsored films, but his next significant project was Shipyard (1935), about the building of a liner at Barrow-in-Furness. One of the first documentaries with a strong social conscience, Shipyard illustrates the social impact of shipbuilding on the depressed local economy. It also demonstrated the difference between Grierson's realist documentary tradition and Rotha's more socio-political filmmaking, as did his next film, The Face of Britain (1935) which dealt with the appalling living and working conditions of the working class.
In 1935 Rotha became Director of Productions at the independent documentary unit Strand Films. His socialism is reflected in many of the films he produced there, including Today We Live (d. Ralph Bond/Ruby Grierson, 1937) and Here is the Land (d. Stanley Hawes, 1937). He also edited Peace of Britain (1936), a three-minute short consisting of library footage, stills and interviews advocating international peace and opposing public expenditure on rearmament which was distributed by the filmmakers for free after the British Board of Film Censors continually delayed making a decision on granting it a certificate. In 1938, Rotha returned to directing, winning a commission through Grierson's Film Centre, a liaison body between the documentary units and potential sponsors. New Worlds for Old (1938), made for the British Gas Council, was a light-hearted comedy about the pros and cons of gas and electricity.
When the Second World War broke out he advised the Ministry of Information on the use of propaganda films and in 1941 formed Paul Rotha Productions, producing the cinemagazine Worker and War Front as well as numerous films for the civilian war effort and Britain's post-war reconstruction.
Two of his most famous films were made in this period: World of Plenty (1943) and Land of Promise (1945). World of Plenty discussed the problem of world hunger, contrasting the situation before and during the war and advocating the need for a postwar World Food Plan to alleviate world hunger. Land of Promise, made by Rotha's production company Films of Fact, looked at pre-war slum housing and how post-war reconstruction under a planned economy would improve the lives of the poor. His compilation film, The World is Rich (1947) was another plea for a global solution to the problem of world hunger and World Without End (1953) highlighted the work of the United Nations in underdeveloped nations. Both films won British Film Academy Awards.
Between 1953 and 1955, Rotha was Head of the BBC Documentary Department, where he commissioned a series on world problems, The World is Ours (1954-56). He also ventured into feature film production, directing three films: No Resting Place (1951) and The Silent Raid (1963) drew on his documentary background but Cat and Mouse (1958) was a commercial suspense thriller. In the 1970s he returned to writing, revising several of his earlier publications.
Through his films and his writing, Rotha, a lifelong socialist, exercised a crucial influence on the British documentary movement and on British film culture generally. He died in Wallingford, Oxfordshire on 7 March 1984.
Aitken, Ian (ed), The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998)
Haggith, Toby, Castles in the Air: British Films and the Reconstruction of the Built Environment 1939- 1951 (London: I B Tauris, forthcoming 2003)
Low, Rachael, Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979)
Marris, Paul (ed), BFI Dossier Number 16: Paul Rotha (London: British Film Institute, 1982)
Petrie, Duncan and Robert Kruger (eds), A Paul Rotha Reader (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999)
Rotha, Paul, Documentary Diary, an Informal History of the British Documentary Film 1928-1939 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1973)
Rotha, Paul, Documentary Film (3rd edition), (London: Faber and Faber, 1952)
Rotha, Paul, The Film Till Now (Revised edition), (London: Spring Books, 1967)
Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary (Los Angeles, Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 1975)
Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement 1926-1946 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
Sarah Easen, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors