The British Documentary Film Movement (1926–1946) By Davis, Thomas S.
The British Documentary Film Movement refers to the film units pioneered by John Grierson. With the benefit of state sponsorship, Grierson and the filmmakers that gathered around him experimented with avant-garde film techniques to develop a socially conscious cinema. Grierson’s film units and the documentary culture they created were also an important part of the debates around aesthetic innovation and political commitment that circulated throughout Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Grierson’s group disseminated their ideas and theories in publications such as Sight and Sound, Cinema Quarterly, World Film News, and Documentary News Letter.
Grierson coined the term “documentary” in a review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana in The New York Sun in 1926. In this first use, documentary was nearly synonymous with the French documentaire, which typically refers to expedition films. In the coming years, Grierson would theorize documentary in more specific terms. His most famous and most lasting definition comes from an essay in a 1933 edition of Cinema Quarterly. Documentary, he claimed, was “the creative treatment of actuality.” Grierson believed documentary could borrow formal techniques from the great Russian filmmakers (Eisenstein, Vertov, and Pudovkin) to dramatize scenes and practices from everyday life.