Internationally, the documentary movement is frequently identified as Britain’s major contribution to world cinema, while domestically its influence on both the aesthetics and the institutions of cinema is regarded as decisive. As a movement, its home base lay in a sequence of state-sponsored bodies in the 1930s and 1940s: the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) Film Unit (1927-33) established by John Grierson and Stephen Tallents; the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit (1933-39), which operated from the disbandment of the EMB until it became the Crown Film Unit (1939-52) under the Ministry of Information, with responsibilities for wartime and postwar propaganda. The movement, however, had loose boundaries, and incorporated at various points the Shell Film Unit, the British Transport Film Unit, the Realist Film Unit, the Strand Film Unit, and Films of Scotland. Grierson was the driving force throughout, recruiting to the various units such personnel as Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey, Arthur Elton, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha, Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Pat Jackson, and his two sisters, Ruby and Marion Grierson.
Institutionally, the continuing significance of Grierson’s achievement in the establishment of a government-sponsored sector was in blurring the lines between state and independence, where independence came to mean dependence on the state as a way of ensuring independence from commerce. It was the same achievement, with the same contradictions, which another Scot, John Reith, was simultaneously negotiating with the incorporation of the BBC. In both, there were ideological and moral values at stake as well as institutional ones: institutionally, non-commercial cinema and broadcasting were established within the framework of public service in opposition to commerce; ideologically, cinema and broadcasting with a serious purpose were regarded as morally superior to the Hollywood dream factory. In this way, the documentary movement gave institutional form to a bias against ‘mere’ entertainment which came to define what was meant by ‘quality’ cinema.
Aesthetically, the ‘documentary attitude’ is credited with (or blamed for) the dominance of social realism and an ambivalence towards ‘artiness’ in British cinema. Certainly, a reading of Grierson might confirm such a view: the origins, he declares, ‘lay in sociological rather than aesthetic ideas’. Michael Balcon extended the influence of social realism when he claimed the patrimony of the documentarists for Ealing: ‘More and more,’ he said, the feature film ‘makes use of characters and action arising out of contemporary problems, such as were handled by the documentarists: labour problems, class problems, problems of psychology. More and more it is prepared to break away from the studio and its hothouse plots, to use real places and real people.’ All this, however, is to create a myth of the documentary movement, unifying a set of diverse practices and aesthetic strategies under a homogenised ‘realism’, collapsing together the reportage of Housing Problems (1935) with the lyricism of Song of Ceylon (1934) and the modernism of Night Mail (1936), Pett and Pott (1934), or Len Lye’s experiments in animation. While Grierson himself undoubtedly had little time for aesthetic debate, it is reasonable to conjecture that had it not been for the pressures of wartime propaganda, he might not have been able to keep the lid on experimentation and debate forever. It is the mythology of the documentary movement, a mythology which Grierson promoted, which has formed the decisive critical discourse in British film culture rather than an attentiveness to the films themselves.