Sunday, June 5, 2011

Land of Promise

Finally finished watching Land of Promise: the British Documentary Movement 1930-1950. It's taken a month: 4 DVDs, over 40 films, ranging from 5-40 mins each, plus a book, all beautifully put together by the BFI.

The movement was led by John Grierson, an advocate of social reform and national renewal, but he was joined by many others: his sister Ruby, Paul Rotha, Humphrey Jennings, Basil Wright, Paul Dickson etc. Together they believed in putting the working man (and woman) on the screen and giving them a voice. There were no film schools then so they all learned on the job. 

The films they made were almost entirely State-funded, produced through departments and agencies like the Empire Marketing Board (eg Industrial Britain [1931], actually directed by the American Robert Flaherty - see Nanouk post), Shell, GPO (the famous Night Mail [1936], curiously ommitted from this collection), Crown Film Unit, various Ministries, the COI, etc. 

Many of the films made in the '30s were about social reform (eg Housing Problems [1935]), which turned to morale-building and civil defence instruction during the war (Britain at Bay [1940]), and building a new Britain out of the ruins in the immediate postwar years. This was pre-TV of course, so they were shown in cinemas, schools, village halls, factory canteens and the like. 

Some are boring (one about an Employment Exchange springs to mind), others are somewhat patronising ("Behind the smoke, beautiful things are being made", spoken in crisp RP), some are really quite depressing (eg A Diary for Timothy [1946] and The Dim Little Island [1948] in which you can sense the weariness of the past and pessimism for the future), some are great, well-plotted little films with good acting (Cotton Comes Back [1946]), one is in colour, and two are just plain weird (Chasing the Blues [1947] which attempts to combine film and graphics, and What a LIfe! [1948] about two men attempting suicide amidst the relentless gloom of post-war rationing.

So, a 20 year snapshot (if one can call 14 hours a snapshot) of Britain before, during and after the war... Fascinating stuff, and hard to think it's the same country as now. Most men wore suits and ties, even on the factory floor, and looked a lot older than their age. Women looked (I have to say) plain, wore aprons in the house and floral dresses outside. Everyone smoked. There is constant reference to coal, shipyards and railways, and to "England" when speaking of the United Kingdom. In one film about Britain's railways, there is heavy use of a map covered with railway lines to everywhere - except Northern Ireland which is blank.

And there's plenty more where this came from. Next up is Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977...

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