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Grierson: A Documentary About the Filmmaker Who Coined “Documentary”

Why reality is a better storytelling tool than fiction and how film can be a conduit of democracy.

Pioneering Scottish filmmaker John Grierson (1898-1972) is often considered the father of documentary film and credited with coining the very term “documentary” in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana in the February 8, 1926, issue of the New York Sun. His 1932 essay “First Principles of Documentary” argued that cinema’s capacity for observing life could be a new art form, wherein the materials “taken from the raw” can be more real than acted fiction and the “original” actor and “original” scene are better lens for interpreting the modern world than their fiction counterparts. Above all, Grierson believed in the social responsibility of the filmmaker and the potential of film in helping society achieve its democratic ideals.

Grierson is a 1973 documentary about the father of documentary by Canadian filmmaker Roger Blais, now free online in its entirety courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada. Through archival footage, interviews with people who knew him, and footage of Grierson himself, Blais paints a lively and fascinating portrait of a man who was concerned not only with documentary film as an art form but also as a powerful tool of democracy. (Cue in The Power of Photojournalism.)

The film is also available on DVD from the NFB. For more on Grierson’s vision and legacy, dig around for a used copy of the excellent out-of-print book Grierson on the Movies.

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Published December 28, 2011

https://www.brainpickings.org/2011/12/28/grierson-documetary-roger-blais/

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