Shadows of Progress: NS media partnership with the BFI

We speak to Patrick Russell about British documentary-making.

The New Statesman is delighted to announce that it is media partner for Shadows of Progress: British Postwar Documentary Film, a season running at BFI Southbank from 8 November to 30 December. The NS spoke to Patrick Russell, the curator of the season, about the history of British documentary-making and its future prospects.

In the preface to your book Shadows of Progress, which accompanies the season, you refer to "Britain's lost postwar generation of documentary film-makers". Could you briefly tell us about the documentary film-making tradition these film-makers came from?

Obviously factual film-making has existed as long as there's been film-making, since the late nineteenth century; but in the history of British cinema the period that's justifiably had the greatest attention is the period from roughly 1929 until 1945: the so-called British Documentary Movement, associated particularly with John Grierson who is seen as its presiding figure. The 1930s is when very well-known films such as Night Mail and Coal Face, films that have the status of classics in the canon of documentary, were made. The great battle of documentary is the battle for funding. During the Second World War, suddenly very large quantities of documentary propaganda films were required by the state for use abroad and at home. And here was a tradition of film-makers that had spent the 1930s learning how to do this and how to do it very creatively.

The received wisdom is that the British documentary film went into a steady decline after the war and your book sets out to challenge that view. What are the reasons why these films became unfashionable?

First of all, politics has something to do with it. More so than other varieties of film appreciation, documentary studies tend to be written from the left, politically, which is no problem; but I think it has caused for documentaries to be judged entirely on how progressive they seem to be in relation to the prevailing ethos.

What about the constraints that patronage and sponsorship put on film-makers in the period? Would you say these curtailed their creative freedom?

This, of course, is another reason why the films became unfashionable. Although, if you take the long view, all forms of cultural expression and communication, art and craft, were historically predominantly the products of patronage, of sponsorship, whether from the church, from the state, or from the nobility. So from a historical point of view the idea that creative work is incompatible with sponsorship is a very recent one. To answer your question against that historical backdrop, clearly the fact that these film-makers, in order to make films at all for the large screen, were dependent on sponsors meant that there was inevitably some limitation on what subject they could address and what they could say about those subjects. However, it doesn't follow that, within those limitations, there aren't all sorts of very interesting sets of relationships between the sponsor and the film-maker. Sometimes you have a film-maker who is commissioned to make a subject with which he has total sympathy and is able to do a brilliant job for his sponsor; sometimes you have a situation when the sponsor and the film-maker are absolutely at loggerheads.

Could you give an example of such tensions?

Well, the classic example is John Krish's The Elephant Will Never Forget. John Krish was working at the time for British Transport Films which was part of the British Transport Commission, nationalised transport. And Edgar Anstey, the head of British Transport Films at the time, asked John to take a few shots to document the ceremony marking the closing of the London trams. John argued that they should make a proper film about it. Anstey refused, so John and a small group of renegades went out and made the film anyway. The film was a beautiful, poetic, small classic of a film. In fact, it was a huge success. But it cost John his job at British Transport Films because he had broken the rules.

Can you say more about the key figures in postwar films?

John Krish produced some wonderful, eloquent, humane social documentaries in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Paul Dickson made a marvellous drama-documentary called David in 1951, which was the Welsh contribution to the Festival of Britain. Later on, film-makers such as Derrick Knight managed to merge the techniques of "direct cinema", which were coming in at the time from France and the US, with industrially funded documentary films; a fascinating hybrid. A different example again was somebody like Derek Williams: he worked for oil companies, particularly for BP, and didn't think of himself as a political person -- or certainly not as left-wing -- but he made some very thoughtful films, especially on environmentalism, as paradoxical as that will seem today. He made a film in 1970 called The Shadow of Progress, under the sponsorship of BP.

Hence the title of your book. Most of these figures are male. Can you think of any female documentary film-makers in the period?

The documentary movement had always been male-dominated but there was one unique case in the British film industry -- a woman film-maker who worked steadily in the postwar period. Her name was Sarah Erulkar. In fact, she was even more unusual. She was born in India, moved to London at a very young age, when it was extremely rare to see people of Indian origin living in the UK. She worked at the Shell Film Unit in the late 1940s; there was an editor working there named Peter de Normanville and the two of them met and fell in love, and married. Shell Film Unit had a policy of not employing married couples, and Sarah was told to leave. She went freelance and made dozens of documentaries over the next three decades. Some lovely films, such as Picture to Post, made for the GPO, which got very wide theatrical distribution in the late 1960s. It's a wonderfully creative, skilled piece of film-making.

You keep referring to these films as "creative" and "imaginative". And yet one of the reasons why they have suffered neglect is that they are sometimes perceived as mere documentary records. What scope, if any, is there for experimentation in those films?

One way of answering that question is to think about the differences between documentary television, as it gradually develops in this period, and these films, which are made for the large screen. They are shot on 35mm, with its wider range of lenses, with its better image quality. There is good use of photographic composition in many of them; there's a lot of interesting use of drama; and there are also essay films. And there is music. Composers such as Edward Williams, better known nowadays for scoring Life on Earth, the David Attenborough series, or Elizabeth Lutyens, a composer who had a reputation in the purely musical field as well as for her film scores. So, yes: colour, sound, composition, performance, a sense of form, all are strong in these films. That makes them rich, textured, poised, easy to rediscover and enjoy even now.

You've made an eloquent case for this tradition of documentary film-making and why it is worth rediscovering. One final question: what's the state of British documentary film-making today? Is it undergoing something of a revival?

That's a fascinating question. What it reflects is the crisis that television is in. For a long time, apart from some fringe examples, the terms documentary and television documentary became almost synonymous. Anyone who wanted to make documentaries for a living would join the BBC or another television institution. I think there is a re-emergence under way: as the spaces are being renegotiated between the large screen, the small screen and the computer screen, everything is suddenly up for grabs again. The other side is that digital production technology is becoming so much more accessible, so much cheaper, and it's being democratised. So I wouldn't say that we're in a golden age now but we're in a period of change, where something is going to come out at the other end. We don't know quite what it's going to be but it may have some of the best features of the documentaries of the past. I think there's a lot of inspiration to draw on for documentary film-makers today.

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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder