Review of “Drifters” (1929)

Moving picture, 49 minutes

Seen in 2017.

British North Sea herring fishery.

A deliberate effort to combine the directness and relevance of Flaherty’s Nanook (1922) with the stylistic innovations of Eisenstein et al. Director John Grierson also wanted to point the camera at ordinary people—working-class heroes—near the heart of an empire, for the sake of representing them.

A 2017 documentary about fishery could have been shot in a very similar way, albeit with sound and colour, and with workers using their own words. The impersonal, fairly unsentimental actuality still feels modern. That said, the subject is not particularly well chosen; Grierson wanted funding for film production at the Empire Marketing Board and had to get it from the Financial Secretary of the Treasury, who happened to be an authority on the herring industry. Grierson proposed the subject he thought would be funded, knowing it to be adequate for his ideology. As described by Erik Barnouw in Documentary (1974/1983):

He sensed that film and other popular media had acquired leverage over ideas and actions once exercised by church and school. These thoughts became the mainspring of his life.

A Rockefeller Foundation grant took him to the United States in 1924 for research in social sciences. While studying at the University of Chicago he crisscrossed the land interviewing film makers, scholars, politicians, journalists. Above all, he observed the American melting pot in action. And he began to feel—with Walter Lippmann—that expectations once held for democracy were proving illusory. Problems facing society had grown beyond the comprehension of most citizens; their participation had become perfunctory, apathetic, meaningless, often nonexistent.

For Lippmann’s reaction, see The Century of the Self (2002). Grierson’s reaction was superficially more optimistic. He decided to dramatize “issues and their implications in a meaningful way”: to inspire good democratic citizenship from a position of (elected) leadership.

To the left-leaning colleagues beneath him at the EMB, Grierson would be selling the idea of due representation, celebrating the working class because it was as worthy as any other, despite having been shunned by the media. Meanwhile, to his sponsors, Grierson would be selling the idea of “beauty in industry”. That is, of the industrialized economy: noisy, smelly and numbing as it was. The British Tory government wanted Grierson to prevent the revolt of the workers against their lot. The EMB’s films, including Drifters, served both purposes. It shows reasons to be proud, not angry.

References here: “Night Mail” (1936), “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936), The Quatermass Experiment (1953).

moving picture non-fiction