John Grierson may be a figurehead of the documentary movement - indeed, he invented the term - and a key player in British cinema as a whole, yet in order to find any of his works on DVD in this country we must turn to minor distribution outfit Panamint. They generally specialise in compilations of Scottish documentaries that were put together by the Central Office of Information during the first half of last century or have such titles as Tartan : Cloth of a Nation and Celebrating Glasgow Steam. Of limited interest, of course, to the average punter, but look through their catalogue and we discover the classic Night Mail (which Grierson produced) and, more interesting perhaps as it’s lesser seen, Grierson’s debut, 1929’s Drifters.
Having been made at such a time, Drifters of course precedes Grierson’s tenure as head of the G.P.O. Film Unit (later the Crown Film Unit), his work under various capacities on the likes of Coal Face, Industrial Britain and Song of Ceylon, and his associations with such talents as Basil Wright, Len Lye, Alberto Cavalcanti and Norman McLaren, not to mention Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden whom he often employed to provide his films’ soundtracks. Without the input of any of these figures it is perhaps unsurprising that Drifters is a less poetic exercise than any of the above examples, yet it remains an intriguing beast. An hour in length, the film follows the daily rituals of a group of fishermen, from their early morning setting out to sea to the eventual selling of their catch at market. However, this is no simple case of conventional documentary practises (if such existed at the time), rather at its centre lies a tension that makes for fascinating viewing.
On the one hand Drifters does work as a straightforward documentary insofar as it follows a linear narrative thread and gets up close to the fishermen in order to record their activities. Yet the impression given is that Grierson is making the film for those he is documenting rather than a wider audience. There is no attempt to educate or inform, or indeed to provide any great sense of drama; the intertitles are pithy and matter-of-fact, and only employed when truly necessary. At one point they inform of an incoming storm, but with no context or description we are unable to ascertain whether this a hindrance or a normality for the workers. Instead, Grierson focuses on the monotony and repetition of their daily excursions, which in itself proves enticingly hypnotic.
The other side of the coin, and herein lies the rub, is that Drifters also represents the documentary as art film. Had it been made in the past ten years then surely its natural home would have been as part of the BBC’s Modern Times strand. The opening moments, for example, sweep across a rural landscape and end up on a flock of seagulls purely for aesthetic reasons and its a ploy which Grierson attempts to continue for the rest of the duration. Admittedly, its a practise which is hardly to maintain on the deck of the ship, but still he is able to contrast these moments with natural history footage and some studio-shot representations of the below deck activities (filmed with the fishermen themselves with a rigid formality which off-sets the unpredictability of the other footage). Indeed, it is in his secondary capacity as editor that Grierson is truly able to give Drifters its shape. Particular attention has been paid to the pacing of the piece, its rhythms matching the gentle rocking of the waves, an effect enhanced by the superb, but never over-emphatic, use of superimpositions plus Mike Nolan’s delicate piano score. Interestingly the use of such techniques in combination with the sense of repetition and the focus, as the opening title puts it, on “steel and steam” make Drifters at times come across as a distant relative to Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, albeit a curiously British one.
Despite being only a comparatively small-scale operation, Panamint have still made the effort of obtaining a worthy print for this release. The one in question comes from BFI Collections and as such represents the best quality we are likely to see. Of course, having been made in 1929 Drifters is going to show signs of age, but never to an extent that is greater than expected, whilst the transfer itself is technically fine. Equally impressive is the soundtrack, with Nolan’s score rendered in crisp condition. Certainly, there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the DD2.0 mix, but then it doesn’t need to be.
Panamint should also be applauded for including a worthy extra in the form of Caller Herrin’. Made in 1947 by the Central Office of Information, the short is not so much a companion piece to Drifters as it is a remake, following as it does a similar fleet of fishermen throughout their working day (although a greater emphasis is placed on the selling of their wares). What proves interesting, however, is the differences between the two pieces, the most notable being its more conventional, educational nature. As such it makes for an unfavourable comparison point, but does at least enhance the qualities of Grierson’s work. This may not have Panamint’s intent, though either way Caller Herrin’ proves an intriguing addition.