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Life Apart, A (1973)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Life Apart, A (1973)
Granada Television for ITV, tx. 13/2/1973
65 minutes, colour
DirectorMichael Grigsby
ProducerMichael Grigsby
PhotographyIvan Strasburg

The hazards faced by Fleetwood trawlermen during a typical trip to Icelandic fishing grounds, and the problems faced by their families ashore.

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Michael Grigsby's television films were frequently described as 'cinematic'. Appropriately enough, many of these actually enjoyed a separate life on the big screen. Prints of A Life Apart continued to be distributed for non-theatrical screenings for some years after its original transmission. Without commercial breaks and on a larger screen, the film is likely to have had at least as great an impact on its viewers.

Given its subject, it is not too fanciful to compare the film with an icon of documentary cinema, John Grierson's Drifters (1929). Grigsby has admitted that the earlier film may have been a subliminal influence. His rejection of voice-over in favour of occasional intertitles suggests a debt to silent cinema and, like Grierson, Grigsby is very attentive to the visual and metaphorical power of the raging sea.

Yet the contrasts are as instructive as the similarities. Drifting and trawling are quite different forms of net-fishing, and Grierson was filming off the East Coast, Grigsby off the West. Moreover, the more advanced technology available to Grigsby - lighter-weight cameras, colour and, particularly, sound - allows him much greater flexibility as a filmmaker than Grierson could have hoped for. Above all, this expanded palette serves his agenda of conveying a very different message from that of his great predecessor. He uses sound not only to add extra visceral impact to the shots of waves hitting the deck, but also to give voice to the trawlermen. Combined with his extensive coverage of the men's lives and families on shore, this results in a much more rounded, realistic picture of the fishing industry as a social phenomenon than is suggested by Grierson's more abstract film.

Related to this, Grigsby has an anti-establishment political edge that Grierson lacks, showing political and economic forces as busily at work as the natural elements. This is brought out by the interviews with representatives of the shipping firm. While they unintentionally condemn themselves with their complacent, patronising comments, Grigsby's bias against them is clear. Whereas the fishermen and families speak at length, over other imagery or direct to camera, the bosses are filmed from an unsympathetic angle, and never seen outside the artificiality of the interview situation. These manipulative techniques distance them from viewers, and lead one to suspect that perhaps the interview has been carefully edited to put them in the worst possible light. Regardless, A Life Apart remains an usually powerful work.

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
1. Rough sea (3:16)
2. Union dues (3:33)
Drifters (1929)
Mining Review 3/7: Trawler (1950)
North Sea (1938)
Grigsby, Michael (1936-)