John Grierson – Drifters (1929)

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The story of the North Sea herring fisheries, filmed at Lerwick, in the Shetlands, Lowestoft and Yarmouth and in the North Sea.
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— Henry K Miller, From Battleship Potemkin to Drifters, BFI booklet wrote:

The London Film Society’s screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and John Grierson’s Drifters (1929) on Sunday 10 November 1929, at the Tivoli cinema in the Strand, is the most celebrated double-bill in British film history. Potemkin, making its British debut more than three years after it shook the film world, had a formidable reputation to live up to. Drifters, on the other hand, was the first film of a director whose only prior filmmaking experience was the preparation of the American release print of Potemkin.

Eisenstein’s film was subject to a ban from which the Film Society, as a private club composed — proverbially at least — of intellectuals, socialites, and bohemians, was exempt. Though 16mm copies circulated from 1934, it would not be seen again in a London cinema until 1936, and the national ban was lifted only in 1954. Drifters, meanwhile, announced the birth of a movement that dominated British film culture for decades — in part by assuming the mantle of the Soviet directors who had inspired it, above all their theory of montage.

The belief of Grierson’s proteges that ‘England’, as Paul Rotha put it, ‘is the most fertile country imaginable for pure filmic material’ was fortified by the presence in the country at the end of the 1920s of Eisenstein himself, and his ‘astonishment at the almost complete neglect by British film directors of the wonderful material that lay untouched’. Basil Wright, similarly, paid tribute ‘to that first clear formulation of film theory put forward by Eisenstein during those lectures in an upper room in Great Newport Street in the winter of 1929’.

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Publicity advertisement for Drifters, Stoll Herald, 1929

— Jamie Sexton, for the BFI wrote:

 

John Grierson was extremely interested in modernist art, which he thought expressed the energies of a new age. He was attracted to ‘city symphony’ films – such as Manhatta (USA, d. Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921) and Berlin: Symphony of a City (Germany, d. Walther Ruttman, 1926) – because of the way they portrayed the modern city in a poetic manner. He was most interested in Soviet films, however, particularly those of Sergei Eisenstein.

Drifters premiered at the Film Society on November 10, 1929, on the same bill as The Battleship Potemkin (USSR, d. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), which was receiving its British premiere. Grierson had previously helped to title Eisenstein’s film for an American showing and its influence is clearly revealed in Drifters. Like Potemkin, Drifters employs montage in an expressive manner, creating dramatic tension in the absence of any psychological characterisation. Both films also use ‘types’ (non-professional actors) instead of actors in order to create a more ‘authentic’ reality, and both films make use of extensive location shooting. Grierson, nevertheless, always stressed that he was keen to make a film with distinctively ‘British’ characteristics, which he saw as moderation and a sense of human importance. Drifters is, therefore, slower paced than Potemkin, and focuses on more mundane, less inherently dramatic events.

The focus on a modern, industrialised Britain is also a feature of Drifters and, in the absence of a strong cause-and-effect narrative, one of the central themes is the tension between tradition and modernity. Thus, at the beginning of the film, titles read: ‘The Herring fishing industry has changed. Its story was once an idyll of brown sails and village harbours – its story now is an epic of steel and steam. Fishermen still have their homes in the old time village – But they go down for each season to the labour of a modern industry’. This link is also implied at the end of the film, as the catch is delivered to a modern, international market.

Grierson clearly sides with modernity, hence his constant focus on the machine parts of the trawler’s engine. However, the focus on natural elements (sea, birds, fish), and the rather perfunctory attention given to the marketing of the fish at the end of the film, imply that his feelings about modernity are ambivalent. While the film celebrates industrialism as an evolutionary stage in history, it also respects the links between man and nature.

Patrick Russell, Senior Curator (Non-Fiction), BPI National Archive, BFI booklet wrote:

Review of Drifters in The Film Weekly (November 1929)

Sir Stephen Tallents, head of the Empire Marketing Board, was an imaginative civil servant dedicated, in his phrase, to ‘the projection of England’. The first lasting product of this project is Drifters, a very particular projection of Britain. Its unpromising premise, a herring drifter followed down the East Coast from departure in Scotland to market in East Anglia, yielded a potent intervention into national culture.

The EMB sought to promote Empire trade and ‘bring the Empire alive’. The choice of the modern herring fishing industry as its second film’s theme was pragmatic politics. Director John Grierson felt an affinity for the subject, but also undertook extensive research prior to shooting. Not to be forgotten is the contribution of cinematographer Basil Emmott, with the experience his director entirely lacked. But Drifters’ impact was largely due to Grierson’s opportunism. He seized the chance to put theories into action then promoted the result to the right people. The month before Drifters’ West End premiere, its first audience was the cineaste community attending the London Film Society meeting at which Battleship Potemkin also had its first British screening. Grierson undoubtedly made a smart move by showing Drifters first, giving its viewers the subliminal impression (even if factual grasp of the chronology proved otherwise) that, rather than he cribbing Eisenstein, Eisenstein had cribbed him.

Critical applause was widespread, spanning the journalistic spectrum. The left-liberal Manchester Guardian and conservative Daily Mail were both positive. For the Sunday Worker, Drifters was ‘a work of art […] that has some social purpose’. For the Daily Telegraph it was ’emphatically a very worthy British film’. Drifters’ equivocation set a pattern for mainstream documentary. It projected national identity, but not through flag and crown. It celebrated the worker, but as a symbol more than as a person in his own right. It balanced its enthusiasm for progress with a hint of nostalgia for fading pasts. It was open to fortuitously recorded events: the appearance of a whale in the film was a matter of luck. But it incorporated them into a construction assembled to represent the intended reality. Below-deck scenes were necessarily recreated onshore. More to the point is Grierson’s recollection of waiting for weeks to get ‘a real storm, an intimate storm, and if possible a rather noble storm’.

Crashing waves had been in the cinematic toolbox since 1895. Commercial fishing as source material was almost as ancient. Industrial processes had been documented on film since Edward VII was on the throne. Journeys between places had been supplying a narrative framework for decades. But Grierson fused these into something more complex and exciting. The waves took on metaphorical as well as visual force, the processes a national as well as technical significance. Montage made connections — though it feels too gentle by comparison with Potemkin’s much more authentically jolting cuts, between much more striking individual shots. It’s creaky now. The lack of interest in the fishermen’s psychology is beside Grierson’s point but leaves the film with a gaping absence, which would matter less in a short than in a feature. And the underwater fish sequences are interminable! Drifters was a public relations tool which ultimately did its best PR on its own behalf. Grierson later commented, tongue slightly in cheek, that it was ‘more important to make a myth than a film. And Drifters was one such. It even got to the point that people wrote about it without ever having seen it, and that always tickled my propagandist fancy’. It would be easy to advance revisionism by claiming that today’s audiences inevitably emerge from screenings scratching their heads wondering what the fuss is about. But that would be another oversimplification. Viewers still spot Drifters’ vigour and ambition as quickly as its defects. Drifters the film doesn’t stand up too badly for its age. Drifters the myth is still working magic on many who haven’t seen it, and even on those who have.

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Jason Singh, Beatboxer, vocal sculptor and sound artist wrote:

When I first saw Drifters I was overwhelmed by Grierson’s ability to capture different moods, attention to detail, the beautiful colour techniques and the incredible sensitivity towards committing the lives of those above and below water to film. It was a real challenge to create a sound and music score to a silent film that already felt complete in every way. After much thought (and fear) I decided to watch and absorb the narrative and respond creatively when it felt right to do so. What transpired was the feeling to mimic and draw out the natural and abstract melodies and rhythms of the everyday routine and also create sounds that would enhance the emotion, fear and struggle for survival underwater. In all cases I was mindful not to take away from the magnificence of the original silent film, but to complement it using innovation and sensitivity.

I hope that I have done justice to a film that was not only relevant to the era in which it was made, but which also speaks directly of the current economic and social issues facing fishing communities around the world and, indirectly, of the irreversible impact mass fishing has upon nature and the Earth.

— Jason Singh (All the sounds and textures in the score have been created vocally by Singh and manipulated using effects, hardware samplers and software.)

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This is from the BFI release, The Soviet Influence: Battleship Potemkin + Drifters. The film is presented tinted and toned, as originally intended, with a new score by Jason Singh.


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