The great Scots filmmaker John Grierson is the undoubted father of the British documentary movement. (Indeed, it was Grierson who coined the term “documentary”— in a review of Robert Flaherty’s Moana in 1926.) In 1927, he founded a film unit at the government’s Empire Marketing Board, then went off to direct Drifters (1929), his first film, a stunning silent about North Sea herring fishermen, inspired in technique and feeling by the Russians. In the context of the studio-bound cinema of the period, Drifters seemed revolutionary, and became the prototype of the modern British documentary. It’s one of the more than 60 films in MOMA’s comprehensive series on the movement.
Encouraged by the success of Drifters, Grierson expanded his unit: it became a laboratory for experiment, operating as a collective. Grierson was an unreconstructed liberal and the filmmakers who flocked to his banner were nearly without exception socialist activists. Eventually, the group would include such directors as Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Wright, and Harry Watt.
The Brazilian avant-gardist Cavalcanti turned out a number of classic docs for the unit, but the most striking film he directed there, Pett and Pott (1934), is a truculently oddball satire of the English middle class, notable for its highly imaginative use of sound. Under Cavalcanti’s guidance, musical experiment was developed in the collective’s work. He served as sound director for the celebrated Night Mail (codirected by Wright and Watt in 1936), whose subject is the overnight run of a crack express train transporting the mail from London to Scotland. The impeccable integration of image, music, and narration— staccato verse by W.H. Auden set to a sprightly score by Benjamin Britten— turns mundane activity into a flight of lyrical fancy.
Cavalcanti’s set designer on Pett and Pott was a young surrealist painter, Humphrey Jennings, who had joined Grierson’s unit in 1934. Jennings began directing shortly afterward, but only came into his own in the early 1940s. His three finest films— Listen to Britain, I Was a Fireman, and A Diary for Timothy (all made during World War II)— are in the MOMA show, together with five others. This superb filmmaker met an untimely death in 1950 at the age of 43, when he fell from a cliff in Greece while scouting locations. He was an unorthodox documentarian, closer in spirit to the European avant-garde than to any tradition of British realism. His wartime films don’t preach or propagandize; these elegant masterpieces are full of memorable vignettes of dogged human behavior under stress— small, bizarre, or humorous events, often juxtaposed in surreal montage. It’s difficult to disagree with Lindsay Anderson’s view that “Jennings was the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.”