The other day I was watching De hombre a hombre (1949) an early film by Hugo Fregonese, a nomadic filmmaker originally from Argentina. It got me thinking of another South American-born filmmaker who had a nomadic career, the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti. He came to Britain in the 1930s and began working at the GPO Film Unit. GPO stands for General Post Office and the films produce by this remarkable unit were more often than not extraordinary (I still remember how dazzled I was when I first saw Night Mail (1936) in my late teens) so today's blog post will be a celebration of the GPO Film Unit.
GPO, which began its operations in England in 1660, was a government run agency responsible for the mail, and later also telephone and telegrams, in Britain and across the British Empire. The Film Unit was established in 1933, with the initial aim of explaining to the public what the GPO was all about. John Grierson was put in charge of it, which was a very apt choice. Grierson was a film theorist, a filmmaker, a critic and a progressive intellectual who was concerned about the fate of democracy. He felt that films should be grounded in real life, "the creative treatment of actuality" and that they could and should be used to educate the citizens about the world, and to install a democratic sensibility in them. In the GPO Film Unit his ideas would be realised.
The Film Unit was not an original invention, it was an offspring of the EMB Film Unit (Empire Marketing Board), but it brought something new to British cinema. Grierson had hired an impressive selection of filmmakers, writers and artists (including Norman McLaren, who had always had a special bond with Grierson). Among the more prominent filmmakers on the Unit were Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, Basil Wright, Len Lye and the above mentioned Cavalcanti. In addition, the poet W.H. Auden wrote commentary and Benjamin Britten wrote music for several of the films. The writer J.B. Priestley was also involved, writing commentary and also performing in front of the camera.
The films made promoted modernity, community and communication. Although they wanted to create a sense of Britain, many of the films can be said to be engaged in some kind of nation-building, there was also a message of internationalism. Sometimes this was made explicit as in We Live in Two Worlds (1937), celebrating a borderless world where trains, planes, letters and telephones would united all the countries and there people. While many of the films were part of integrating the empire into Britain, there was also a Marxist bent to the films, the internationalism is part of that, and some of the practitioners on the Unit were socialists. The films are celebrations of the workers and the farmers, the coal miners and the clerks. There were also many stylistic influences from the Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s, such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. But also from the US, especially the films of Robert Flaherty, who would also make films for the Film Unit.
But the films made at the GPO Film Unit were much more than educational films and conventional documentaries. The filmmakers were experimenting with sound, images and editing to create something more artistic, in some cases pure avant-garde films, with the GPO logo more as an after-thought. Norman McLaren and Len Lye in particular perhaps, but the German animation artist Lotte Reiniger was also making films for the Unit that were decidedly not traditional or documentary. The reason for this breath and the combination of realism and avant-garde was probably due to the two figureheads, Grierson and Cavalcanti. Whereas Grierson was about social truths, politics and progress, Cavalcanti was interested in art and experimentations, and had even a fourteen point program of how best to make films, which emphasised the combination of "the social, the poetic and the technical" and said that "without experimentation, the documentary ceases to exist".
The GPO Film Unit was active until the war but in 1940 it was abolished and replaced by the Crown Film Unit. The creativity and imagination that was let loose during those six years is pretty astonishing. I wonder if there has ever been anything like it.
Some day I will write more about Humphrey Jennings, one of the giants in British cinema, but now it is time for some film clips:
First comes a film about coalminers, called Coal Face (1935), made by Cavalcanti. It makes for a natural companion piece to feature films such as The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed 1940) and How Green Was My Valley (John Ford 1941). Pay particular attention to the sound and the sound design:
Next comes the surreal N or NW (1938), by Len Lye:
Here is another one by Len Lye, in colour, which he hand-painted directly on the film strip. It is call A Colour Box (1935/1937):
Night Mail (1936) is perhaps the greatest film that was made, and Watt, Wright, Auden, Britten and Cavalcanti were all involved in the making of it. It is both beautiful and expressionistic, and the second half in particular is amazing.
Song of Ceylon (1934) is a very different film. It is an impressionistic account of life on Ceylon (Sri Lanka), co-produced by the Ceylon Tea Board. But the artists kept a critical distance from the imperial project and in subtle ways might be said to critic the politics while celebrating the people and nature of Ceylon. It can perhaps be said to be a Buddhist film.
Those were just a handful of the many films made, but they show the range and scope. Those who want to watch the rest, or the above films in better prints, then BFI have released three DVD-boxes called Addressing the Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1, We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2 and If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3. (They can be found on play, amazon or BFI Filmstore.)
For more on films and the British Empire, both critic and contextualisations, have a look at the website for the excellent Colonial Film project: http://colonialfilm.org.uk/
For those interested in John Grierson, here is the link to the Grierson archives at University of Stirling: http://www.is.stir.ac.uk/libraries/collections/spcoll/media/grierson/index.php