Social Activist Documentaries

Hello Everyone,

Here is a paper I did for an MFA writing class back in 2009:

Documentaries have been known to possess great revolutionary potential. From the provocative films of John Grierson in the 1930s to Michael Moore’s films, documentary has had a rich history of expressing the need for social change. Even today, social activist documentaries are held in high regard and still talk about many of the social situations that face society, some even resembling those in the thirties such as a collapsing economy. During the thirties, Britain became a hot bed of social change and with it came the rise of one of the most famous documentarians named John Grierson. Grierson produced a variety of social activist documentaries such as Industrial Britain and Housing Problems. Another British director by the name of Watts directed a documentary called Night Mail, which raised the issue of the intricacies of mail delivery. In America, however, there was another filmmaker who also created a social activist film. His name was Pare Lorentz and the name of his film was The Plow that Broke the Plains. What are some of the differences and similarities between the films of both these iconic filmmakers?

First of all and most obviously, is the fact that both filmmakers create their films to raise social awareness of certain problems or issues facing their countries during their time. For example, Housing Problems dealt with the plight of the slum tenants who were forced to live under inhumane conditions. In Industrial Britain, Grierson raises the issue that a new age of Britain has arrived and that even though different jobs are becoming more technologically advanced, the workers who used previous methods will not be discarded. Instead, they would be instrumental in helping to bring about this new age of industrialization of Britain. In The Plow That Broke the Plains, Midwestern farmers along with the misleading real estate advertisements of the U.S. government are to blame for turning the Great Plains area into desolate land. Both filmmakers also manage to point out solutions in their films as well. For example, in Housing Problems, Grierson shows a scene where a gentleman from a housing commission is lecturing about remodeling the slums while shots of different models for building proposals are being shown to the audience. In The Plow That Broke the Plains, the film seems to suggest that conservation is the key to preventing another Dust Bowl from acting out. Housing Problems, however, also differs from all the other films, because it is the only one that includes direct interviews with the tenants of these slums. According to Ellis and McLane, “Most notable among these is the direct interview- with slum dwellers in Housing Problems, for example- presaging the much later cinema-verite method” (Ellis and McLane, 68).

There is another striking similarity between Grierson’s films and those of Pare Lorentz. This lies in the fact that they are both financially supported by government programs (Nichols, 145). Groups such as the Empire Marketing Board and the Government Post Office were among Grierson’s financial backers (Nichols, 145). Housing Problems was sponsored by the British Commercial Gas Association (Ellis and McLane, 68).

Night Mail, however, greatly differs from all of the other films mentioned above. Even though Night Mail raises awareness of the amount of work put into over night delivery, it seems to come across more as a process video rather than a social activist film. One example of this is the behind-the-scenes feel of the camera work and the editing. The workers do not look into the camera and carry on their work as usual. The film seems to be more focused on the job that the workers are performing rather than the workers themselves. There also seems to be some scenes that include dialogue between the workers. Why would this be considered important? More importantly, what “issue” is trying to be raised during the workers’ conversations? The answer to these questions lies in the fact that this film is also part of a rising major trend of that time, known as the narrative film (Ellis and McLane, 69). In essence, this film combines aspects of both Grierson (social activism) and elements of drama (Ellis and McLane, 69). According to Ellis and McLane, Night Mail shows the long and complicated process of mail delivery which requires the government’s attention (Ellis and McLane, 69). Secondly, the film tries to convey the message that this mail service is a wonderful thing provided by the government. Finally, this film tries to portray the workers as a decent and hard working group (Ellis and McLane, 69).

Finally, there is one quality that all of these films have in common and that is their editing style. One example of this lies in the rhythmic placements of certain visuals with the voice over. In Housing Problems, as the voice over is informing the audience of the dilapidated conditions of the slums, the camera pans across poorly constructed roof tiles, then cuts to longs shots of alley ways, and then cuts to the poorly constructed and damaged walls of the buildings. At the end of Night Mail, as the voice over reads an Auden poem, the screen shows the wheels of the train rotating as nauseating speeds and cutting to long shots and medium shots of the country landscape whizzing by. In Industrial Britain, as the narrator talks about how the industrial workers are crucial to this new industrial age for Britain, there is an ending montage sequence with close-ups of individual workers’ faces. Finally, in Pare Lorentz’s film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, near the end, there is a sequence where farmers plowing the land are cross cut with footage that have tanks firing and various explosions, expressing the war that is being declared on the land by the farmers and the U.S. government there.

While all of these films had their differences, they also had their similarities as well. They all served a social purpose and used similar editing styles. There may be one other thing they have in common though and that is the fact that they have laid the foundations for today’s social activist documentaries.


Works Cited.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 2001.

Ellis, Jack C. and Betsy A. McLane. A New History of Documentary Film. New York and London: Continuum. 2005.


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