Reel Life Stories: Documentary Film and Video Collections
in the UC Berkeley Library's Media Resources Center

Origins of Documentary film:
The British Documentary Movement: 1929-1945

Founded by Scottish social theorist and filmmaker John Grierson (who coined the term "documentary"), the British Documentary Movement constituted a groundbreaking move toward the realistic portrayal of the everyday lives and heroism of individuals at work and play. Many of the films associated with this movement were sponsored by British Governmental agencies, such as the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office, as a way of publicizing the work of these agencies and promoting national pride and unity. Grierson gathered around him a coterie of film-makers who became distinguished in their own right: Edgar Anstey, Sir Arthur Elton, Stuart Legg, Basil Wright, Harry Watt, Alberto Cavalcanti and others.


Drifters (1935)

John Grierson launched the British Documentary movement in 1929 with his film Drifters, in which he filmed the work of the herring fishing fleets. MRC call number Video/C 5022

Night Mail (1935)

Perhaps the best know and critically acclaimed of all British Documentary Movement works, Night Mail was a thoroughly collaborative work sponsored by the British General Post Office: directed by Harry Watt, with a script written by Basil Wright; edited by Basil Wright and Alberto Cavalcanti; produced by John Grierson, Stuart Legg, and Basil Wright; score arranged by Benjamin Britten and Alberto Cavalcanti. The rhyming verse used in the film, which was spoken by Grierson, was written by W.H. Auden. The film is a stirring, poetic account of the operation over the course of a single day and night of the Royal Mail train delivery service, and shows the various stages and procedures of that operation, and interactions between workers and management. MRC call number Video/C 5024

Coal Face (1935)

This impressive short film by Alberto Cavalcanti, sponsored by the British General Post Office, portrays dramatic images of heroic coal miners set against a narrative written by poet W.H. Auden and a score by Benjamin Britten. The film describes the brutality of conditions experienced by the coal mining community in Wales. MRC call number Video/C 5024

Fires Were Started (1943)

Humphrey Jennings’ documentary on the World War II German bombing raids on London is a dramatized tribute to the men and women of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Produced for the Crown Film Unit, Jennings’ film records the everyday lives and acts of courage of seven fire fighters and their new recruit over a fictional 24-hour period. MRC call number Video/C 5024


  • Books/articles about John Grierson
  • Books/articles about the British Documentary Movement
  • Copyright (C) 1996-2003 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
    Media Resources Center
    Last updated 4/30/03.