Was the Work of John Grierson Propaganda?


There are reasons to believe that the work of the British documentary filmmaker John Grierson was in fact propaganda designed to spread his political views on the industrial society of his time. Grierson has been quoted many times defining documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality” (Plantinga, 2005) but the extent to which actuality can be treated creatively must have some confinement, if not, there is a risk of distorting and appropriating actuality. It is important to understand the intention behind Grierson’s work because he is one of the pioneers of the British documentary film genre. If his work was indeed merely propagandistic, then it could be argued that any documentary filmmaking intrinsically has a degree of propagandistic intention. The key points that I will address to evaluate Grierson’s work are: a definition of documentary and a definition of propaganda, Grierson’s ideas about documentary will be explained, the influences on Grierson’s work will be taken into consideration, and some of his work for the British government will be presented and discussed. Bearing in mind all these points, I will demonstrate that there was a very strong propagandistic nature to Grierson’s work.

A definition of documentary and a definition of propaganda

‘What is a documentary?’ is a widely discussed question that does not stop to fascinate and bemuse film theorists and philosophers, particularly when trying to differentiate it from fictional film. The use of photographic material and sound has made it especially difficult to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction (Plantinga, 2005). There have been many attempts to define and classify the documentary genre. For example, film scholar Bill Nichols (2001) in his book Introduction to Documentary classifies documentary into six subgenres: expository, observational, poetic, participatory, reflexive, and performative. Plantinga (2005) states that these subgenres can fall into two categories of documentary: they are what he calls Documentary as Indexical Record (DIR) and the Documentary as Assertion (DA). DIR is a mere “re-presentation of reality” or a simple record. This is in part because the photographic material which documentary film relies on is seen as hard evidence of the reality that it represents, opposed to painting for example where the author projects his/her vision of the world. DA is seen as a creative interpretation of its subjects. A DA is a film in which the creator adopts an assertive attitude (instead of a fictive view) toward the world projected by the film. By doing so, s/he asserts that the situation or set of circumstances described in the film occur in the actual world (Plantinga, 2005). With any of the two categories previously described, Trevor Ponech (1999) states that a film that is accepted as documentary, will promote beliefs on the audience. This is because it is understood that the filmmaker is exercising a mere descriptive re-presentation of the actual world, or that this description is being carried out in an asserted manner. Either way it is assumed that the state of affairs projected in the film is “factual.”

After examining these two categories of nonfictional film, I agree with Plantinga’s (2005) definition of documentary film: A documentary film can be cataloged as an asserted veridical representation. In other words, it can be defined as a comprehensive representation of a topic through film. It is imperative that the creator openly expresses his/her expectations about the audience:

(a) That they adopt an attitude of belief with respect to the dialogue narrative.

(b) That they acknowledge the images and sounds as trustful foundations for the formation of beliefs about the documentary’s topic.

(c) That they understand that any dramatic reenactments are contextualized in the sense or feel of the topic being portrayed (Plantinga, 2005).

Put simply, propaganda is the dissemination of ideas intended to convince people to think and act in a particular way and for a particular purpose. It is important to understand that it is the instigator’s purpose that defines or distinguishes propaganda from other similar forms of activity such as advertising or education (Welch & Fox, 2012). According to Jacques Ellul (1965) propaganda has three main characteristics:

(a) Propaganda is made consciously, by a propagandist, with the intention to direct the public into assuming certain ideas and behaviors.

(b) Propaganda never offers a concept in a clear and unbiased manner; on the contrary, it gives one interpretation of an issue as if it were the complete truth.

(c) Propaganda manipulates individuals to convince them that the idea or action they have adopted was the one they chose because of their own personal will.

An aspect of propaganda that is important to appreciate is that it is arguable that it is value neutral, in the sense that it is not right or wrong to create propaganda. Morality will be taken into account when one evaluates the purpose for which propaganda has been applied (Welch & Fox, 2012). Propaganda has been used as a means of persuasion since the origin of human kind. It was in the early 20th Century when the concept of modern propaganda emerged. The birth of modern propaganda was influenced by the invention of radio and television – the new mass media.

Walter Lippmann studied the workings of modern propaganda and established a relation between stereotyping and propaganda. According to Lippmann the world we live in is far too politically complex and the only thing a person can observe from it is “fictions” or representations of this environment (Plantinga, 2005). But even if the environment cannot be comprehended, it is still necessary to create an opinion about something. Actions happen inside this environment, so a person has to reconstruct it in the best simple way s/he can, so that s/he can interact with it. This simple model is what Lippmann calls stereotype (Plantinga, 2005). Those limited messages (stereotypes) that the individual interprets, influenced by his/hers preconceptions and prejudices, conglomerate in a “pattern of stereotypes.” When all those opinions are put together they set into, what Lippmann calls, “public opinion,” and this in turn relates directly to a “national will” (Plantinga, 2005).

It is this public educational deficit where propaganda takes advantage and creates those fictions or stereotypes for the public. Harold Lasswell (1971) explained that a restricted channel of information is presented to the public by the government: The public may be hesitant in believing it, but even so, this information will affect their decisions within the democratic system. The propagandist studies the public’s psychology and detects elements of dissatisfaction and hope. Through stereotyping the propagandist will present a motive for this dissatisfaction and will capture the hopes of the population in harmony with the objectives of the propagandist’s agenda (Lasswell, 1971).

Difference between documentary and propaganda

If documentary film is an assertive representation of its subject, this implies that the documentary filmmaker can have a subjective stand on the matter. The difference between a subjective stand and biased stand is up for debate. It appears that there is not a clear way to distinguish documentary from propaganda. For example, Triumph of the Will is a documentary on Nazi Germany made by Leni Riefenstahl. The images in this documentary are accurate. Riefenstahl (1995) insists that she was directing an honest documentary and that she had no political affinity with Hitler. Nevertheless, the documentary favors the figure of Hitler. For example, it uses cinematographic techniques like camera angles to make Hitler appear taller than he was and to give him an aura of power.

Grierson’s interpretation of documentary

Grierson was the first to use the term “documentary” and had a straightforward definition for it: “It is the creative treatment of actuality” (Eitzen, 1995). Grierson was a socialist activist and his attitude to life reflected the way he understood documentary and its function.  In an interview with Elizabeth Sussex, Grierson (1972) expressed his thoughts on documentary that it should be artistic and it should center on the social problems and prospects of the modern industrial society. Grierson (1972) was interested in the way film and other media could be used to “serve the people.”

Grierson had a vision. He believed that the movement “The Documentary Film Movement” that he had begun had the power to change the country with films about real life (Durlacher, 2011). People who worked with Grierson have said that he had a defined view about the films they were creating. He told his film directors not to regard the film unit as a factory for churning out documentaries about the empire, nor to waste taxpayers’ money experimenting in a new cinematic style of aesthetics (Durlacher, 2011). Stuart Legg, one of Grierson’s trainees, recalls being asked by him “ Legg, do you like film?” “Yes,” Legg replied, and Grierson said, “Well, forget about that, because that is not the point” (Durlacher, 2011). He told his recruits that they had been chosen to develop a form of documentary that would change the world. Edgar Anstey, who was another member of Grierson’s film unit, explains that Grierson saw the documentary film as an instrument for the analysis and further development of society (Durlacher, 2011).

 Influences on Grierson’s work

After receiving an M.A. in 1922 from Glasgow University with distinction in English and moral philosophy, Grierson was awarded a research fellowship in social science to study in the United States. His main interest appears to have been centered around the effect that mass communication had on influencing public opinion. He had observed that the traditional institutions like the church and school had lost their power to get the public to spring into action. Instead, this role had been taken over by different forms of popular media, for example, radio, television, and the different forms of advertising and propaganda (Forsyth, 1966). After enrolling at Chicago University, Grierson proposed his research topic as “the dramatic and emotional techniques by which the media had been able to command the sentiments and loyalties of the people where many of the instruments of education and religion had failed.”

It was in the same period that Walter Lippmann published his book Public Opinion (1922), where he expresses deep concern about the practicability of democracy. This book was instrumental in Grierson’s career. Lippmann reflected that in an ever-changing society that had become far too complex to be understood by the electorate, it was very difficult for the public to take a reasonable decision when exercising the democratic right (Ellis, 1968). Lippmann proposed that the public should be democratically educated. Grierson reflected on this idea and developed a tool to make up for the educational gap that Lippmann had pointed out. Grierson would call this tool “documentary” (Ellis, 1968).

Grierson’s time as a civil servant

After spending time in the United Stated, Grierson returned to Britain. He intended to improve society through documentary film. In February 1927, Grierson approached the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) seeking funds for one of his films. The civil servant in charge told Grierson that the government had asked him to bring the British Empire alive and Grierson replied that a documentary about the every day life in the empire would do precisely that. After that meeting Grierson was working for the British Government (Durlacher, 2011). In 1928, the government commissioned Grierson to do his first documentary film. The choice of topic was by no means sheer chance. Grierson had been told that the financial secretary of the treasury was a herring fanatic and was writing a book about the role of herring in the British economy. So Grierson proposed to make a documentary about the herring fishing industry.

A year later Grierson delivered Drifters, a silent documentary showing footage of ordinary people living their every day life. Contrary to the films of the day, there is no Greta Garbo or handsome hero, no love story and no exciting plot. Grierson took his camera out on the deck and filmed real fishermen on their fishing boats. In a time when cinema only showed fiction, this film was a sensation. The success of Drifters was so big that the EBM created a new department called the EBM Film Unit (Durlacher, 2011). Its role was to create more documentaries about the industries of the empire and its director was no one else than John Grierson.

Another Grierson’s documentary commissioned by the EBM was Industrial Britain (1931). The economic depression of the 1930s was deeply affecting the British industry and Grierson was instructed to create a documentary celebrating the glory of the British industry. Voice-over is used for the first time in film documentary. It shows images of coal mining, shipbuilding, glass making and other industries. Through this film the public is made aware of how much they relied on the hard labor of the working class (Durlacher, 2011).

In the next years the economic recession deepened. Industries started to close down and people were loosing jobs. The EBM commissioned more documentaries celebrating the glory of the British industry. This time the briefing had a concise instruction: no reference to the economic crisis should be included in the documentary films. Between 1931 and 1933 the EBM Film Unit produced more than one hundred documentary films. In 1933 the EBM closed due to government cuts (Durlacher, 2011).

Grierson and his team were then hired by Sir Kingsley Wood who stood as Post Master General and wanted Grierson’s team to make films promoting the activities of his government department: The General Post Office (GPO). Probably the most well known documentary from this period was Night Mail, a film that celebrates the postal special train service that delivered mail between London and Glasgow. In this film, Grierson’s team portrayed the “Posty” as the pillar of the high-tech postal service (Durlacher, 2011). An interesting production technique was used in this documentary, which is worth mentioning. Impressive realism is achieved in this film and this was in part because in many situations the documentary was filmed inside a studio in south London. The actors used were actual workers from the GPO. Many months before the studio shoot, Basil Wright, a member of the Film Unit, had been traveling up and down the country with the rail service. His task was to take note of the conversations between the workers so he could at a later stage write an accurate script. Using this technique implied that the footage being shown was not any more reality but a representation of such, blurring the line between fictional and nonfictional film (Durlacher, 2011).

What was Grierson really doing?

Grierson definitely had an intention behind his work. Before becoming a documentary filmmaker, he was a socialist activist and a street preacher. His main interest was social science and the reason he got into film was not because of the love for the art but, instead, he saw that cinema could be used to overcome the democratic educational deficit postulated by Lippmann which he agreed with (Ellis, 1968).

Grierson used the public relations machinery of the government to subliminally transmit the message of the documentary film movement. This was a message of unity, he wanted to bring the country together by acknowledging its people, especially the working class which was always marginalized and unvalued (Durlacher, 2011). Maybe Grierson understood his work as documentary film but a reflection on Industrial Britain may show another dimension to it. The key fact here is that the government’s instructions to Grierson clearly stated that he should not include any reference to the economic crisis. One of the characteristics of propaganda by Ellul (1965) explains that propaganda always shows an idea in a biased way. If this is true, then this documentary may be a perfect example of propaganda. Grierson was not interested in showing the negative side of things anyway. He instructed his team not to emphasize the negative (Durlacher, 2011). The type of documentaries the government wanted him to make were just the type of material he was eager to produce. There is a common denominator to all of the work produced by Grierson during his time as a civil servant. The heroes he created in his films were all working class people.

Summing up—Was the work of Grierson propaganda?

After all the research carried out for this essay I do not believe a clear difference between documentary and propaganda has been established. The fact that documentary accepts reality being creatively treated can be confusing. The subjectivity inherent to any intellectual work, in this case documentary film, the asserted representation of reality can also lead to ambiguity. The idea that propaganda is designed to create certain attitude in people can also be observed in documentary.

One of the influences that would have presumably affected Grierson’s work was his academic background. It appears that his interest in political science and his socialist views were a motivating factor in the work he carried out for the Documentary Film Movement he had created. It has also been noted that it was during his stay in the United States that he developed his ideas on documentary, influenced by the work of one of the most influential theorists that shaped modern propaganda, Walter Lippmann (Ellis, 1968). A brief description of some of Grierson’s most influential documentaries created for the British government has been provided to show that while the government was satisfied with its public relations machinery working successfully, it can be seen how the message of the “British Documentary Movement” was also being transmitted.

Grierson was a man with a vision who wanted to transform society. He believed British society was strongly interdependent but the effort of the working class was being undermined and that was breaking society apart. He wanted to bring society together and believed that documentary could do precisely that. Propaganda intends to shape public opinion in order to create an attitude in the population, and Grierson thought his documentaries were doing precisely that. It is up to each individual to judge the moral weight of Grierson’s work. As I argued earlier, the term “propaganda” is morally neutral. After looking at all the evidence presented, it can be postulated that Grierson’s work was documentary film with a propagandistic goal, and this goal was to transform society.



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