Canadian and British filmmaker John Grierson (1898-1972) used documentaries to build the National Film Board of Canada into one of the world's largest studios.
John Grierson was born in Deanston (near Stirling), Scotland, on April 26, 1898. His ancestors were lighthouse keepers and his father was a school teacher. He was one of eight children in a family that valued curiosity and delighted in argument. Grierson served as a seaman in World War I and completed a brilliant academic career after the war, graduating with distinction in moral philosophy.
On a Rockefeller scholarship to the University of Chicago, Grierson began his lifelong study of the influence of media on public opinion. He worked with editorial writers on several newspapers and went to Hollywood to study film. There he befriended the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, whose haunting film Nanook of the North celebrated the daily survival of an Inuit hunter. Grierson was one of the first intellectuals to take film seriously, and in a 1926 review of one of Flaherty's films he coined the term "documentary" to describe the dramatization of the everyday life of ordinary people.
Grierson returned to England in 1927, intrigued with the idea of applying Flaherty's technique to the common people of Scotland. He first sold his idea of documentary film to the Empire Marketing Board, playing on a bureaucrat's love of the sea to pry money for his first film, Drifters, in 1929. This silent depiction of the harsh life and dangerous work of herring fishermen in the North Sea revolutionized the portrayal of working people in the cinema. The film had a profound impact on all who saw it, but Grierson directed only one more film. He decided to devote his energies to building a movement dedicated to using film to see into ordinary things with such perception as to make them as dramatic as the pasteboard excitements of Hollywood.
In 1938 the Canadian government invited Grierson to come to Canada to counsel on the use of film. The Canadian prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, a "fellow Scot" to Grierson, was concerned with the pervasive influence of American magazines, radio, and movies in Canada. Grierson prepared a report, and on his recommendation King created the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in May 1939 and appointed Grierson its first commissioner in October 1939.
With the outbreak of World War II, Grierson would use film to instill confidence and pride in Canadians. He was general manager of Canada's Wartime Information Board at the same time and thus had extraordinary control over how Canadians perceived the war. Grierson created the NFB from almost nothing. He imported talented filmmakers such as Norman McLaren. In film series such as Canada Carries On and The World in Action he reached an audience of millions in Canadian and American cinemas. By 1945 the NFB had grown into one of the world's largest film studios and was a model for similar institutions around the world.
Grierson's emphasis on realism—he was intolerant of artistic pretension—had a profound long-term influence on Canadian film. "Art is not a mirror," he said, "but a hammer. It is a weapon in our hands to see and say what is good and right and beautiful." Nevertheless, Grierson did not believe that documentary film is a mere public report of the activities of daily life. "For me," he said, "it is something more magical. It is a visual art which can convey a sense of beauty about the ordinary world."
As the war came to a close, Grierson grew weary of Canadian bureaucrats and resigned. In the panic of suspicion surrounding the infamous Gouzenko spy case in Canada, Grierson was brought before a secret tribunal and questioned about his one-time secretary, who was connected to the spy ring. The investigators then threw doubt on Grierson himself for his alleged "communist" sympathies. The shadow of mistrust followed him to the United States where the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ensured that the State Department lifted his work permit. He moved to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris where Europe's documentary filmmakers flocked to his door and rising directors such as Roberto Rosellini paid him homage. He was soon almost forgotten in Canada. He returned to his native Scotland in the mid-1950s. He persuaded Roy Thomson, the Canadian millionaire who owned the independent television network in Scotland, to create a public affairs program, This Wonderful World, which Grierson hosted for ten years. But Grierson had great misgivings about television. Referring to Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, he described television as "a massage that puts you to sleep … an instrument of domestic ease," the very antithesis of documentary film.
Grierson was nearly broke when McGill University in Montreal invited him to lecture in 1968. He began as a curiosity but soon was attracting up to 800 students to his lectures. Indira Gandhi called him to India to find ways to spread the principles of birth control to the villages. Sick with cancer, he returned home to England where he died at Bath on February 19, 1972.
Grierson was a firebrand whose single-minded devotion to the principle that "all things are beautiful, as long as you have them in the right order" had a profound influence on the history of film, and on the cultural life of Canada in particular.
Further Reading on John Grierson
Grierson's friend H. Forsyth Harding wrote the official biography, John Grierson: A Documentary Biography (1979). There are several books on Grierson's career at the National Film Board of Canada, for example, Gary Evans, John Grierson and the National Film Board (1984), and many others on Grierson's British career, for example, Ian Aitken, Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement (1990). Grierson's own thoughts can be read in H. Forsyth Hardy, ed., Grierson on Documentary (1946). The NFB produced an appreciative film on its founder, John Grierson, which is now available on video cassette.
Additional Biography Sources
John Grierson, film master, New York: Macmillan, 1978.