Friday, June 23, 2006

John Grierson in South Africa

It is a little know fact that John Grierson, father of British documentary, came to South Africa to advise the then Nationalist government on the establishmnet of a national film board.

In the US Grierson had met pioneering documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. Grierson respected Flaherty immensely for his contributions to documentary form and his attempts to use the camera to bring alive the lives of everyday people and everyday events. Less commendable in Grierson's view was Flaherty's focus on exotic and faraway cultures. ("In the profounder kind of way," wrote Grierson of Flaherty, "we live and prosper each of us by denouncing the other"). In Grierson's view, the focus of film should be on the everyday drama of ordinary people. As Grierson wrote in his diaries: "Beware the ends of the earth and the exotic: the drama is on your doorstep wherever the slums; are, wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty." "'You keep your savages in the far place Bob; we are going after the savages of Birmingham,' I think I said to him pretty early on. And we did.")

In 1938, Grierson was invited by the Canadian government to study the country's film production. He proposed the government create a national coordinating body for the production of films. In 1939, Canada created the National Film Commission, which would later become the National Film Board of Canada. Grierson was the first Commissioner of the Board. When Canada entered World War II in 1939, the NFB focused on the production of propaganda films, many of which Grierson directed. After the war, it focused on producing documentaries that reflected the lives of Canadians.

In this articleby Keyan G Tomaselli & Edwin Hees, Grierson's journeys to South Africa is evaluated. Kwailawai* has posted some interesting excepts below.

The affinity for South Africa... by John Grierson is perhaps not surprising. Though his and the apartheid government's political philosophies were very different, Grierson was impressed by the level of development he observed in the country, especially in comparison to other African states. He shared with Afrikaners a sense of historical national loss at the hands of the English. In the Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church he found familiar Calvinist doctrines and democratic church governance taught by the Church of Scotland.

Highly critical of British expatriates, Grierson referred to them as "pampered Whites". These "lost and conceited children" of the Empire embodied, he concluded, "a sort of decadent evaluation of the imperial idea in which privilege is accepted without any appropriate sense of leadership and guidance". Afrikaners, he saw, had wrested the nettle of political leadership from their English-speaking compatriots. Where Afrikaner means "of Africa", Grierson wrote that English speakers' "only basic bond with Africa is in the escape it seems to offer from British taxation and the cutting down of their class privileges". Most crucially, Grierson realised that liberalism had little or no role to play in South Africa. This realisation notwithstanding, as we shall argue, Grierson's proposal on the establishment of a national film board for South Africa was nevertheless predicated upon liberal ideals - as well as his enthusiasm for film as a means of conveying public information as a requirement for democracy.(3)

The Cilliers Film Committee, which reported to the government in 1943, aimed to stimulate the growth of a purely South African, but more specifically white Afrikaans cinema, by forcing exhibitors to screen Afrikaans-language shorts at every performance.(8) English-speaking critics reacted vociferously. The Union review described Committee Chairman Professor A.C. Cilliers as "a lifelong nationalist" educated in Germany, whose aim was to succour Afrikaner nationalist cultural enterprises.(9)

The Cilliers Committee recommended the establishment of a national film board to produce documentaries aimed: presenting essential industries, ways of living and environment of normal people in such a way that the appeal is no less dramatic than that of the fiction film, in which life is often reconstructed in an exaggerated way.

This could well have been Grierson speaking! The board was thus intended to provide an ideological portrayal of life in terms of the reciprocal relationship between "national culture" and the economy, since white documentary filmmakers were seen as "trustees of the native and other non-European races," who needed "to make the public aware of the world it lives in, to show up the romance and dramatic quality of reality, and thus make the real experience of one the imaginary experience of all".(11)

Objecting to the proposed government dictatorship of the film industry, the Union review stated:

There are two languages in this country for official purposes, but that white bilingualism is, therefore, correctly enforceable in the public service, the schools (government schools, that is), Parliament and the courts ... it is not enforceable in private life - i.e. in the home, the club, the office and the cinema "But," say the mugwumps, "it will enable the English-speaking section to improve their knowledge of Afrikaans." What is cinema - a place of entertainment or a night school?

Professor Cilliers puts it more elegantly - having had a lot of practice in political persuasiveness - thus: "The theatre-going public will have the additional pleasure of seeing the various aspects of our rich national life portrayed on the screen through the medium of one or both of our two national languages." But many of us do not want to see our "rich national life" portrayed in our leisure-time and at our expense. We want to see Rita Hayworth. Anyway, this is a dangerous argument. If accepted, we should be shown District Six and Johannesburg's "Shanty Town" and the ruined reserves and the Indian slums of Durban.(13)

Realising that the Cilliers recommendations created more problems than answers, the government sought to ameliorate the problem by appointing yet another committee. The Smith Committee responded in December 1944.(14) Its proposals differed markedly, suggesting a consolidation of the various government film units into a national film board concerned with the "production, distribution and exhibition of educational, instructional, informative and publicity films which were not normally intended for exhibition in commercial cinemas." Films of a commercial character were to remain the province of the industry. The composition of the board was to be far wider than that suggested by Cilliers.

The recommendations of this second Committee were clearly of a less sectional nature than the Cilliers Report and served the needs of the national economy rather than merely the Afrikaner cultural constituency. The British-supporting United Party government, however, failed to enact Smith's recommendations.

(13) August 1944, p. 34.

(14) Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee appointed to consider the reports of the Committee on State Publicity and the Film Committee and other relevant matters (Union of South Africa: Government Printer,14 December 1944), 3pp.

The Grierson Report

In May 1949, less than a year after the NP had won Parliament from the United Party, the new Cabinet accepted a proposal to invite John Grierson to South Africa. His brief was to conduct an enquiry into the scope and adequacy of the State's film services and to make some recommendations in this respect. Grierson was at that time Controller of Films of the British Central Office of Information and had been previously instrumental in setting up and running for a time the successful National Film Board of Canada (he left when his term of office expired there in 1945). He visited the Union in October 1949. A National Film Advisory Committee was appointed to frame the terms of reference for Grierson's enquiry and to comment on his final report. He was to report to Dr Otto du Plessis, State Information Officer.

Grierson was directed in a fairly general way "to examine the scope and part the Informational and Educational, Scientific and Research Film is playing in South Africa" in informing South Africans and their well disposed allies about the country; he was also to make recommendations about how state departments and "all commercial film interests concerned in the production and distribution of such films" could be drawn into a common scheme to promote the national interest most effectively.(15) In the process, Grierson met at the suggestion of the Advisory Committee senior newspaper editors, both English and Afrikaans, film industry executives, officials of parastatal companies and private companies, independent producers, captains of industry such as Harry Oppenheimer, members of the Natal Indian Congress, and both black and white academics.(16)

Afrikaans-speaking filmmakers and cultural theorists had finetuned their techniques through a technicist reading of Sergei Eisenstein's theories of film, which they mistakenly assumed were similar to those of Grierson.


Finally, Grierson had little impact on South Africa. He himself briefly remarked on the lack of discussion over aesthetics. The absence of university film courses until the early 1970s contributed to this neglect. When Grierson was discussed, usually by the odd cinephile, and usually in the context of European film theory, his visit to South Africa was never mentioned. Only one film we know of draws on Grierson's influence. This was People of the Great Sandface (1985), playing with the earlier film, Coalface. The director of Sandface, John Myburgh, had gleaned something of Grierson and Flaherty from his studies as communication student. He had not seen any films by either director. These anecdotes reveal something about the isolation of South Africa from international influences during the apartheid years.
To read the whole article, click here.


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