CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 21 . . . .June 24, 2005
John Grierson: Trailblazer of Documentary Film is book 24 of "The Quest Library" series of biographies of important figures in Canadian history. John Grierson is an important figure in the history of Canadian cinema. Any student of film history in Canada, Canadian propaganda during the Second World War, or documentary history will find this book provocative and helpful with an excellent time line at the back of the book and a helpful index.
Grierson's early interest in cinema began in the 1920s in England. Following his experience as a soldier in the First World War, he had a desire to make non-fiction films about daily life that were as compelling as films about war. He called his new cinematic form the "documentary." In the early 1940s, he accepted the job as Canada's chief Second World War propagandist, making short newsreel-type films to convince the Canadian public the war was going well and that Canadians should join-up and buy War Bonds. After a long career as a documentary filmmaker and communications scholar, Grierson died in 1972 at home in England.
Author Gary Evans tells Grierson's story as a series of conversations Grierson has with others. Dialogues are easy to read and lend themselves to the dramatic, especially when you are dealing with a character as arrogant as Grierson. He is always fighting with someone, it seems, defending his position or destroying someone else's. Grierson also engages in helpful teaching passages where he is sharing his wisdom with a young staffer (and the reader). This is an excellent method for presenting Grierson-the-thinker.
In one passage, Grierson, the newly installed commissioner of the brand new National Film Board, explains to a young staff member:
Unfortunately, there is a troubling passage in the book. Grierson explains to his assistant, Ross McLean, how he manages to get the 800 commercial screens in Canada, owned by American studios, to pay for and play his film series, "Canada Carries On." The series is his main newsreel-type propaganda series of the Second World War. The explanation carries an unexpected anti-Semitic sting.
This passage seems present only to reveal what Evans considers to be Grierson's cleverness ("wily") and leaves McLean and (more importantly) the high school reader to wonder if it contains any truth. Is the American film industry really "all Jewish"? Is the Second World War really "Hitler's war against the Jews?" Did all those Jewish-American movie executives really behave as a block? If Grierson's beliefs are not accurate (and how could they be?), does that make Grierson anti-Semitic? Does it matter?
Surely these are questions the reader, in particular the intended teenage reader, ought to have answered by Evans. After all, in the same paragraph as the Jewish material is raised, Grierson claims to have a direct telephone line to the Prime Minister. Evans steps in to dismiss Grierson's assertion as "Bravado" and states categorically that Grierson had no such "line to the Prime Minister." Why no categorical dismissals of Grierson's assertions about the American film industry? [A reading of Evans' earlier work, the more scholarly John Grierson and the National Film Board: The Politics of Wartime Propaganda (1984), shows that Evans has actually adapted the paragraph in question from the earlier book. The 1984 version reads:
Where the 1984 version is nuanced, the 2005 version puts the anti-Semitic assertions right into Grierson's mouth. Evans actually changes the facts of the early book to fit the format of the later book. For example, "This fact doubtless had some connection with..." the distribution of films, in the early book, becomes "gives the Jewish movie executives no second thoughts about distributing" in the new book. Evans' adaptation of his own earlier work is an inaccurate failure.]
John Grierson: Trailblazer of Documentary Film tells an important story well. However, by raising the possibility of Grierson's anti-Semitism, Evans implicitly promises to address the issue in full. When he does not, he leaves the reader alone with too many questions about the truth of Grierson's assertions, and his very character.
Recommended with reservations.
Michael Groberman is a former journalist and is currently a student of Library Studies at the University of BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.