In order to explain what a documentary is, Grierson used the quote “…the use of natural material has been regarded as a vital distinction…”. Natural material is metaphoric to the raw, unedited video in my opinion and it is this that separates it from other media. Thus, a documentary is a medium that is intended to capture reality as it is.

Paraphrasing, according to the essay, Grierson established three principles in which he feels documentaries should adhere to. The first principle is: Documentaries should photograph the real world, hence not artificial. The second principle is: Original actors(normal people) and original scenes gives a better understanding of modern world realization. And the third principle is: Materials and stories in real life are finer than acted stories, indicating that they have better taste and are of better quality. And the reason for this is because cinema exaggerates these stories. He appears to be obsessed with the style of a documentarian named Flaherty and is impressed that he severed his ties with the film studios. Flaherty’s principles of documentaries are mastering its material on the spot and distinguishing between description and drama. Surprisingly, Flaherty embeds himself into his documentaries, by living the life of the people whom he is filming; like an anthropological take on research. Indirectly, Grierson’s principles mirror Flaherty’s or vice versa. Flaherty’s “material on the spot” seems identical to Grierson’s “photograph of the real world”- both unchanged, raw and unedited. Flaherty implanting himself into the lives of different societies for one to two years seems identical to Grierson’s approach of using original actors to get a better understanding of the real world. Thus, Flaherty gets a better understanding of the real world by living it.

Grierson expresses profound distaste of the studio system, evident by the phrases “lily-fingered interpretations of the metropolitan actor” and “shimsham mechanics of the studios”.  As the article progresses, you learn that the studios tried incorporating the method that earned them success into documentaries, in hope that they will be lucrative as well. Grierson is totally against this because it changes the concept of what a documentary really is. He also indicates to the studios that there are opportunities to make creative documentaries.

Grierson’s view towards documentaries is very similar to Eisenstein’s views on cinematography as montage. The following are reasons which may support the claim. Grierson mentioned the following terms “surface values” and “explosive revelations” in his essay, which seems directly synonymous to Eisenstein’s “denotative” and “depictive” respectively. Surface value is what something appears to be on the outside (denotative) and revelations indicate a hidden meaning(depictive). And this is also similar to Barthes’ “signifier” and “signified” concept as well.  Just like Eisenstein’s Montage of Attraction article, a side by side comparison of surface values with revelations will result in our own interpretation of the material- juxtaposition. Grierson also referenced a lot of poetry to justify his idea, just like how Eisenstein referenced the haikus and tonkas. And I could be wrong, but I feel that Eisenstein’s “collision of shots to form montage” is equivalent to Ruttmann’s “movement of images to form symphony”. So symphony is montage…???

The above reflects my direct analysis of Grierson’s essay but these are my personal views. Why all the babble about adding creativity to a documentary? Wouldn’t that change his intended perception of what a documentary is? Wouldn’t he be contradicting himself and actually be supporting the studios, whose success is based majorly on creativity rather than reality? Wouldn’t Flaherty’s “…till the story is told out of himself….and follows him in his distinction between…” be a precursor to prejudice and propaganda?

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2 Responses to “Grierson: First Principles of Documentary.”

  1.   Kevin L. Ferguson Says:

    I think you’re right on with comparing Eisenstein and Ruttmann; they are both coming from a radical point of view that has been more or less scrubbed out of our modern approach to film. In fact, calling Ruttmann’s film a “documentary” might confuse viewers today who have a more narrow definition of what documentary is.

    I think maybe Grierson is using a different definition of creativity than you are? Perhaps not creative in the sense of “inventive” (fancy costumes, clever sets, CGI effects) but creative in the montage sense (how to assemble the “real” components, order them, or film them)?

  2.   Björn Says:

    Your misundestanding of creativity and what Grierson said is a normal reaction. That’s the way everyone reacts who has only read his essay but not his other works. Flaherty staged big parts of his documentarys, the only thing real were the people and the places, everything else was planed, scripted and desequencialised. And that’s the same point from which Grierson comes. It’s about making things public. It’s not important what you see, it’s how you see it.

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