British Documentary Film Movement

Movement No 6 (7 All)

British Documentary Film Movement and British Documentary Film List

Article 9min to read List 18 Films

Origin United Kingdom
Most Active Years 1929 – 1945

Introduction to British Documentary Film

Between the two World Wars, the need for new and impressive propaganda methods emerged in order for the British people, who were struggling with the economic crisis, to hold on in unity. With the approach that emerged after long studies with the support of the British government, documentaries would not only be documenting, but also propaganda and commercial responsibilities would begin to be undertaken.
British Documentary

What is British Documentary Film

A small team led by Scot John Grierson played an important role in the emergence of the British documentary film movement. In the 1930s and 1940s, Grierson and his team produced propaganda documentaries, first in the service of the British government and then independently and commercially. These avant-garde documentary films were categorized as British Documentary films. Working class, low-income groups, working methods of government-affiliated organizations were explained in the documentaries. The subject was directly the British people themselves. The British government has focused on the British people with nearly a thousand documentaries. The government managed to keep the people united against the economic depression and the coming World War II.

Origin of the Term Documentary

The word documentary refers to the collection, storage and display of data related to an event or situation in various media such as cinema, radio and television for the purposes of documentation, research, education, as evidence. This definition of ideal documentary does not mean that documentaries do not contain elements such as story, fiction, subjective opinion, propaganda.

The word documentary for the classification of films was first used by John Grierson in 1926 in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana (1926).

Brief History of British Documentary Film


Polish writer and producer Bolesław Matuszewski made his first remarks on the documentary qualities of films in his articles Une nouvelle source de l’histoire (A New Source of History) and La photographie animée (Animated photography) (1898).

In the 19th century, different types of films were shot that would be classified within the definition of documentary. “Actuality” films portrayed real events in a single shot or a single scene: Leaving the Factory (1895) Louis Lumière, The Arrival of a Train (1896) Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière.

In the films called Science films, biological or medical studies and the health problems of the patients were documented: Walking Troubles of Organic Hemiplegy (1898) Gheorghe Marinescu, A Case of Hysteric Hemiplegy Healed Through Hypnosis (1899) Gheorghe Marinescu.

At the beginning of the 20th century, films were made documenting travels, called Scenics or Travelogue films. Scenics or Travelogue makers, especially Pathe, made innovative films, presenting viewers with footage from areas that were difficult for them to experience: Moscow Clad in Snow (1909) Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, With Our King and Queen Through India (1912).

By the 1920s, Romanticisim found its place in documentary filmmaking: Nanook of the North (1922) Robert J. Flatherty, Chang (1927) Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack.

Documentary films called City-Symphony featured the usual action in the city. Inspired by Cubism, Constructivisim and Impressionism, many City-Symphony were shot in the metropolises of the time: Manhatta (1921) Paul Strand, Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov.

The newsreels that Pathe prioritized were also other documentary productions.

Grierson coined the term “documentary” in a review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana in The New York Sun in 1926.
Grierson believed documentary could borrow formal techniques from the great Russian filmmakers (Eisenstein, Vertov, and Pudovkin) to dramatize scenes and practices from everyday life.


As the 1930s approached, Britain had not yet overcome the negative effects of World War I. Exports were very low, but imports were quite high. The economic crisis resulted in hundreds of factory closures and unemployment rising to record levels. Economic interventions did not yield positive results (1926). The British government began to seek effective propaganda methods to ensure the unity of England and the empire. In this pursuit, the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) was established in 1926.

Reaching Sir Stephen Tallents at the EMB in 1927, John Grierson’s idea of using “film” for propaganda purposes and his complementary suggestions were accepted by the EMB. Having reached an agreement with the EMB, John Grierson achieved significant success with his first movie, Drifters (1929). The film became the starting point of the British documentary movement.


Britain, which could not get over the economic recession caused by the First World War, became one of the European countries that experienced the effects of the great depression that started in America in 1929 in the most devastating way. Another major problem in the 1930s was World War II, which was strongly predicted to happen. One of the most important elements that ensured the unity of the Empire and the British people in this troubled period was the British documentary film movement led by John Grierson.

Grierson’s film Drifters (1929) was a documentary on fishing, one of England’s major sources of income. In the 80-minute documentary, the difficult struggle of the fishermen in the sea was told. The fact that the struggle in the background of an important income item for the British economy was filmed so closely for the first time made the fishermen heroes in the eyes of the audience. This situation caught the attention of official institutions. Following the success of Drifters, a department called Number 45 (EMB Film Unit) was established within EMB, to be led by John Grierson. John Grierson assembled a team of 22 resourceful people with social awareness without seeking cinematic experience. The inexperienced but resourceful team he founded gave Grierson the opportunity to develop the documentary film movement as agreed with the EMB.

Following the establishment of the EMB Film Unit, the team produced their first work in 1931: Industrial Britain.

Main Period

Industrial Britain (1931) was one of the propaganda orders of the EMB for the EMB Film Unit. The Great Depression, which started in the United States in 1929, also showed its effects in England. EMB conducted a successful PR work with Industrial Britain in order to minimize these effects. In the film, the work of the working class, who worked in the industrial regions of the country by making sacrifices under difficult conditions and ensuring the survival of the economy, was explained. Again, as in Drifters and other documentary examples, normal people and the working class were heroized. Between 1931 and 1933, EMB Film Unit made over one hundred documentaries on the subjects he was assigned to. But the crisis was very deep. Many official units, including the EMB Film Unit, were closed in 1933 in England due to budget cuts.

After much success, Grierson and his team were soon reassembled under the General Post Office (GPO). Many documentaries about railway networks, products and technologies were shot for the GPO. The most important of these was Night Mail (1936). Night Mail was quite challenging in terms of shooting long periods of time in a train traveling at full speed. After the movie, Grierson increased his influence on the documentary film even more.

Grierson and his team produced Housing Problems (1935), the movement’s best-known film. Grierson’s sister Ruby Grierson, who worked as an assistant in the documentary, made the first known interview in history in this film. The fact that the slum dwellers narrate the difficulties they face directly to the camera without a narrator brought the documentary to the next level in terms of realism.

In 1937, GPO terminated Grierson’s job as it also provided services to private companies.

Some of the Film Unit employees from the GPO left the GPO with Grierson and enrolled in the private sector, while some continued to work within the GPO.

End of British Documentary Film

In September 1939, World War II began. The GPO Film Unit was among the first units whose budget was cut by the state during the war period when propaganda films would be needed most. Despite this, the GPO Film Unit, with all its equipment and know-how, awaited the government’s request for a new documentary for propaganda purposes. The request did not come. Thereupon, GPO employees went down to the field with their equipment without any official funding or support behind them. The documentary First Days (1939) was created by fictionalizing the preparations of the British people for the war, the internal migration, the unity of the people, and the continuation of normal life despite the war. First Days was embraced by the government, with the view that it could be useful in the course of the war.

GPO Film Unit yeni kurulan ve propogandan sorumlu Ministiry of Information Departmant altına taşındı. Birimin yeni ismi Crown Film Unit oldu. Crown Film Unit, içerisinde savaşın getirdiği değişimi, hava saldırılarını, yıkımı ve İngiltere’nin yaptığı karşı saldırıları anlatan belgesellerin çekiminde görev aldı: London Can Take it (1940), Target for Tonight (1941)…

With the end of the war, the documentary named Diary of Timothy (1945) directed by Humphrey Jennings, which will provide hope for the future, was given the last clear example of the British Documentary Film movement. After this film, the most prominent figures of the British Documentary film movement broke away from the movement. Humphrey Jennings 5 years after the war, Ruby Grierson died in the war. Grierson continued his documentary work in Canada and Australia. Harry Watt and some documentarians moved to the advertising industry, while others continued to work without being able to perform very effective works depending on the state.

Characteristics of British Documentary Film

Developed under the leadership of John Grierson, the documentary film contained critical innovations in order to make propaganda effectively.
Real people in daily life were featured in the documentaries. These people were photographed living the conditions of that environment in real life or working environments. With the arrival of sound technology in the cinema, these images were fed with on-site interviews, real ambient sounds and dramatic music. Contrary to the view that the main protagonist of a work of art should be played by an artist or a known person, the heroes of documentary films were ordinary people chosen from the public or working class.

Although the 1930s were early times for cinema, there were many experiences with documentary, especially in Europe, such as Actuality, Science films, Travelogue films, Romanticisim Documentary, City-Symphony, Newsreels, Soviet Montage Cinema. The British documentary film movement benefited from the teachings of these experiences and was inspired by innovations such as camera angles, framing and camera movements that emerged with Soviet montage cinema.

Propaganda cinema before World War II was not an exceptional situation for England. Many countries, especially Germany and Russia, provided social cohesion and consolidation with propaganda cinema.

The Influences of British Documentary Film

The British Documentary Film movement emerged with elements taken from many experimental and avant-garde movements in Europe before it. Similar to its formation, it significantly affected many movements and films.

Documentary film began to be defined as a film genre after the British Documentary Film movement.

The use of real environment and ambient sound recorded on-site in the film has become an unwritten rule in many movements.

Interviews with the real heroes of the event turned into an important element of documentary filmmaking.

British Documentary films paved the way for the heroicization of people from the public in many movements and films inspired by these movements, especially French Poetic Realism and Italian Neorealism.

Propaganda and advertising elements in British Documentary films were filmed with real people and environments. With the developed realistic shooting method, the audience was effectively guided. With this method, documentarianism emerged in a manipulative way from the very beginning, the authoritarian approach of propaganda cinema to the masses was broken, and the credibility of commercials was taken to a higher level.

British Documentary Film List

*Films sorted by release year, from newest to oldest.

  1. Fires Were Started (1943) Humphrey Jennings
  2. Fires Were Started 1943 poster

    A new man joins the civilian firefighters at a London unit during the Second World War. He meets his fellow firemen and firewomen, manages to enjoy some leisure time with them, and then goes on his first mission with the crew as it attempts to save an explosives warehouse on…➝

    Trailer, info

  3. Target for Tonight (1941) Harry Watt
  4. Target for Tonight 1941 poster

    a documentary made by the Royal Air Force put audiences in the cockpit of a bomber called “F for Freddie” as it set off on a bombing raid over Germany. Made in Britain by the Crown Film Unit with a cast comprised entirely of R.A.F personnel.

    Trailer, info

  5. Spare Time (1939) Humphrey Jennings
  6. A look at how industry workers spend their time when they are not at work.

    Trailer, info

  7. The First Days (1939) Pat Jackson, Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt
  8. Londoners prepare for war.

    Trailer, info

  9. North Sea (1938) Harry Watt
  10. The story of real fishermen going about their hazardous tasks in the North Sea fishing-grounds off the British Coast. The fishing boat departs from a Scottish town, and the crew is seen going through their routine tasks. On arriving at the fishing grounds they encounter a storm that disables their…➝

    Trailer, info

  11. The Tocher (1937) Lotte Reiniger
  12. Silhouette fairy tale film about a man who wins his true love with the help of the “wee folk”.

    5min | Trailer, info

  13. Children at School (1937) Basil Wright
  14. A documentary looking at the education system in 1930’s Britain.

    Trailer, info

  15. The Smoke Menace (1937) John Taylor
  16. A 1937 film on the dangers of pollution from burning coal

    Trailer, info

  17. Night Mail (1936) Harry Watt, Basil Wright
  18. Shows the special train on which mail is sorted, dropped and collected on the run, and delivered in Scotland overnight.

    Trailer, info

  19. Enough to Eat? (1936) Edgar Anstey
  20. A British documentary short about nutrition

    22min | Trailer, info

  21. Rainbow Dance (1936) Len Lye
  22. The film was made by colorful printing of footage combined with drawing directly on film. The bouncy music drives home the message heard at the end of the film, promoting the GPO (General Post Office): “The Post Office Savings Bank puts a pot of gold at the end of the…➝

    4min | Trailer, info

  23. Housing Problems (1935) Edgar Anstey, Arthur Elton
  24. Slum conditions, slum clearance, bright new public housing.

    Trailer, info

  25. Shipyard (1935) Paul Rotha
  26. The building and launch of an ocean liner.

    24min | Trailer, info

  27. Coal Face (1935) Alberto Cavalcanti
  28. Documentary showing the dangerous working conditions of coal mining across England, Scotland and Wales.

    Trailer, info

  29. Weather Forecast (1934) Evelyn Cherry
  30. Short documentary about weather forecasting, emphasising the importance of the GPO’s telecommunications systems.

    Trailer, info

  31. The Song of Ceylon (1934) Basil Wright
  32. A short film which documents the lives of the Sinhalese people.

    38min | Trailer, info

  33. Industrial Britain (1931) Robert J. Flaherty
  34. A quick look at the different industries of Britain circa 1931.

    21min | Trailer, info

  35. Drifters (1929) John Grierson
  36. Drifters 1929 poster

    A silent documentary film by John Grierson telling the story of Britain’s North Sea herring fishery.

    49min | Trailer, info

Best British Documentary Directors

  • John Grierson
  • Humphrey Jennings
  • Harry Watt
  • Robert J. Flaherty
  • Pat Jackson

Best British Documentary Films

  • Drifters (1929)
  • Industrial Britain (1931)
  • Housing Problems (1935)
  • Night Mail (1936)
  • First Days (1939)

References and Further Reading