Projection 35

N or NW- Experimental Lineages Within British Documentary Cinema

6:30pm / Wednesday 25 September 2013  
Irish Film Institute - 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin. Tickets here.

In this programme of short films, curated by Daniel Fitzpatrick, the British Documentary tradition is revealed as an unlikely locus point for experimentation. Focusing on Central figures such as Len Lye, Hans Richter and Humphrey Jennings the films included here can stand alongside the most celebrated and canonised works of the historical avant-garde.

Ever since Truffaut made the claim that the words ‘Britain’ and ‘cinema’ were incompatible it is a national cinema that has struggled to be taken seriously. Looking back through the history of documentary cinema in Britain, particularly that period of heightened activity in the 1930s, the unjustified bias contained in this claim is immediately made evident. For Truffaut, as well as many others, the British cinema was a cinema that was “boring”, lacked “enthusiasm, zeal and impetus”; a cinema that reflected “a submissive way of life”. Britain’s cinema was continuously dismissed for being dull, safe and ‘realistic’, in the pejorative use of the term. This screening of short films taken from various points within Britain’s history of documentary film production quickly puts paid to those claims. What is revealed instead is an evolving tradition of experimentation and innovation, a playfulness and a sensitivity to the qualities of the medium that marks these films as being among the most significant works produced within both the history of avant-garde cinema as well as the histories of documentary.

Locomotion (1953)

The history presented here is a history full of contradictions and often apposite positions. The Free Cinema movement for example, thorugh its figurehead Lindsay Anderson, rejected outright the influence of John Grierson and the formative British documentary film movement, opting instead for a low budget form with no ties to industry or government and little or no editorialising commitment. Their film O Dreamland (1953) is included here. The film was shot on, what was then, newly affordable 16mm stock and it takes us on an almost hallucinatory trip through the Margate funfair, taking in, among other things, a terrifying cackling clown and a ‘Torture Through The Ages’ exhibit.

O Dreamland (1953) 

The Free Cinema movement took their primary inspiration from Humphrey Jennings, often considered the true poet of British documentary cinema. Jennings films stripped away everything that was deemed unnecessary in the documentary form, replacing the narrative voice with a collage of sounds and images that far more effectively captured the specifics of time and place of a Britain that was gearing up toward a second world war. Jennings’ rhythms are the rhythms of everyday life and included in this programme is his film Spare Time. Originally created for the New York World Fair of 1939, the film offers us a picture of Britain at work and at play in the interwar period. This deeply evocative film also reflected Jennings involvement with the Mass Observation movement, removed as it is from the kinds of editorialising and condescension that often dogged documentary cinema and its engagement with the ‘working classes’.

Len Lye Trade Tattoo (1937)

Going back to British documentary’s formative period, and John Grierson’s reign as figurehead head of the movement, we find an equally dazzling embrace of formal experimentation and playful innovation. Within his stated objective of making films that could speak directly to the masses, that would educate and inform, Grierson managed to surround himself with a truly eclectic group of creatives, many of whom were drawn from an emergent European avant-garde. These would include Alberto Cavalcanti, Len Lye (two films by Lye are included in this programme), Norman McLaren (his short Love On The Wing is featured here), Basil Wright and Edgar Antsey. These filmmakers often functioned as a collective with various influences present across a wide number of films. The films themselves, particularly those included here, were full of ideas, highly adventurous, and certainly never dull.

Hans Richter Every Day (1929)

The programme also includes Hans Richter’s Every Day (1929), a scarcely seen film which features a rare screen appearance by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The film depicts a day in the life of an increasingly industrialised and mechanised existence. Geoffrey Jones’ film Locomotion (1975), which also effectively combines human and machinic rhythms, is a masterpiece of creative editing, and it closes out this programme.     

Film titles

TRADE TATTOO: 5 mins, U.K., 1937; 

N OR NW: 7 MINS, U.K., 1938; 



O DREAMLAND: 12 MINS, U.K., 1953, SPARE TIME: 15 MINS, U.K., 1939;