The Wonderful World of John Grierson

On 8 February 1926 a young Scottish film critic wrote a review of Moana, a film about the lives of Pacific islanders, in the New York Sun newspaper. Summing up the films merits he noted that “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” In this article John Grierson used the term documentary to describe factual film for the first time in the English language. Grierson’s subsequent career as a filmmaker led to him being known as ‘the father of documentary’ with his work in the 1920s and 1930s setting the template for documentary film.

The University of Stirling Archives holds Grierson’s extensive archive of personal and working papers and to coincide with the 2023 Central Scotland Documentary Festival we are delighted to present an exhibition in the Macrobert Arthouse celebrating his enormous and long-lasting contribution to film culture (Monday 2 October – Sunday 12 November 2023).

Featuring an extensive selection of images and documents from the archive the exhibition focuses on two of Grierson’s key films, Drifters (1929) and Nightmail (1936) which will both be screened at #CSDF23. Grierson’s writings document the development of documentary through the decades and his views on some of the key developments in the genre will also be presented. In 1957 Grierson moved from the world of film to television, presenting the programme This Wonderful World. From his desk in the STV studios in Glasgow Grierson presented a window through which he showed a selection of documentaries from around the world. The programme ran for ten years and provided a weekly celebration of the documentary. The scripts for the programme record Grierson’s thoughts and opinions on the genre which he played a major part in creating and examples are included in the exhibition.

Grierson’s archive captures the energy and commitment of his use and development of the new medium of film. Writing in Sight and Sound magazine in 1933 he set out his approach to filmmaking, claiming “I look on cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist.” The archive presents many images of Grierson at work, pushing the restless progress of the documentary movement from behind an imposing desk. The exhibition provides an opportunity to reflect on the foundations of documentary which will be celebrated in all its forms in November at #CSDF23.

Karl Magee, University Archivist

View our full programme here.