‘Shadows of Progress’ Is a Testament to the Best in Documentary Filmmaking

In recent years, the British Film Institute has released several excellent sets of documentaries on DVD. The latest, a companion to 2008’s Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950, is Shadows of Progress, a 14-hour collection of 32 of the UK’s finest non-fiction films from the post-war period.

This lively era of British documentary-making has long been unfairly overlooked, and Shadows of Progress is an obvious and admirable attempt to redress this. It’s so substantial, and so thorough, that it becomes not so much a DVD collection as a small, single-subject library of film.

The films included are inspired in choice and generous in number. All are short, ranging in length from five- to 45-minutes, and all were funded by some organisation or other (a government department, a charity, an oil company). This means all the films carry a sense that they are in the public interest; though they may not meet the specific criteria that would see them categorised as public information films, that is essentially what they are.

These documentaries are characterised not only by a commitment to their subject, but also by an equal commitment to their style. The daftly titled Shellarama is, in a sense, the least artistically ambitious work in the collection: it is simply an advertisement for Shell Oil. But director Richard Cawston and his team choose to deliver as artful an advertisement as has ever been filmed: a wordless work that is an exhilarating, and successful, experiment in the marriage of image and sound. Such invention recurs throughout Shadows of Progress

Some of the films here have dated terribly and exist now as charming curios. Others seem timeless. Some we hope will have dated terribly, and are dismayed to discover they remain relevant. To reflect upon the arguments raised by To Be A Woman, Jill Craigie’s 1951 appeal for equal pay for women, and realise that, 60 years later, most of them still need to be made, provides a shocking contrast with the bygone, Brief Encounter feel of the film.

As many fine documentaries do, several of the films here cause us to question what a documentary is — and is not. One of the most affecting films included is John Krish’s impassioned appeal to end neglect of the elderly, I Think They Call Him John. Its subject, John Ronson, is filmed in his flat, tackling his mundane daily routine. The reason the film has little diegetic sound is that Krish was loudly directing Ronson’s actions, organizing his smallest movements. Is this, then, a documentary as we now understand the term?

Forced to select one favourite film from Shadows of Progress, I would most likely choose the earliest, Paul Dickson’s amusing, moving and awkwardly acted David. It relates the life of Welsh poet, school caretaker and former miner, David Griffiths. It’s based on the life of David Rees — who plays Griffiths. As this summary makes clear, this is less a documentary than a drama. In fact, even the now popular mixture of those two terms, ‘docu-drama’, seems an inaccurate label. David is best described as a biopic. Yet to designate it as such is to diminish it, and separate it from its filmic heritage.

So, while some of the films here cause us to question what a documentary is, they ultimately remind us we should not obsess over the answers. Whatever definition of a documentary we could give, something in this set would explode, and expose as short-sighted.

Many of the great documentarians exert clear influence on the films here. Several of these shorts have obvious debts to Jean Vigo and Dziga Vertov, and Anthony Simmons’s marvellous Sunday by the Sea is practically a combined tribute to the former’s À propos de Nice and the latter’s Man with a Movie Camera. That more of this influence is not discussed in the documentary included as a special feature is one of only two criticisms that need to be made of the extras.

The 100-page booklet has a light and informative essay on each film by one of a range of expert contributors, and the aforementioned documentary, a new 43-minute film called Perspectives on Documentary Filmmaking, provides an invaluable overview of the collection. Many of the filmmakers whose work appears in the set contribute to the special features, either in print or onscreen, and this leads to the only other real criticism to be made here.

With so many of these filmmakers participating in the project, and analysing their work for it, the addition of director’s commentaries, where possible, would have made Shadows of Progress pretty much perfect. Still, that a collection with such extensive extras leaves one wishing there were more is ultimately only a testament to its success.

Still from To Be A Woman

The greatest testament to this collection’s success, however, is surely the anger and sadness it engenders that films like these are not being made in Britain now. Intelligent — or at least culturally minded — corporate sponsorship no longer funds films of this kind; charities use other (more affordable) media to deliver their messages; and the feature film directors of tomorrow, who would once have developed their styles and skills in shorts such as these, now do so directing brash television commercials and even brasher music videos.

The immediate aim of this release is to ensure these films are remembered and re-watched, but a more ambitious aim must be to stimulate some young filmmaking talent to make, or some organisation to commission, more documentaries like those that made the post-war period of British non-fiction filmmaking so worthy of celebration. Shadows of Progress is one of the DVD releases of the year, and something very close to an essential purchase.

RATING 9 / 10