The previous reviewers obviously did not care for "Drifters." Far be it from me to prescribe what they should or shouldn't like, but I wonder if they were viewing a heavily edited and/or sped-up VHS print. (One of them referred to a 45-minute cut.) In fact, "Drifters" should run just over an hour, and while an extra 15 minutes might not sound appealing, those extra minutes are essential to the rhythm of this film. For "Drifters" attempts to create a gently rolling rhythm, much like the sea itself. I personally find the images hypnotic. This is an art film, after all -- not a "documentary" in the traditional sense. Yes, the film is "about" herring fishermen, their work, and their life at sea. But the film is really an experiment, and it only makes sense in conjunction with other "documentaries" of the 1920s: "Nanook of the North," "Grass," and "Man with a Movie Camera." Perhaps a better classification than "documentary" would be "non-fiction narrative film." At any rate, "Drifters" is historically significant because it was the first and only feature film personally directed by John Grierson. Grierson was, of course, the man the who coined the term "documentary" in a review of Robert Flaherty's second film "Moana," and he went on to head the GPO film unit, where he nourished better filmmakers than himself, including Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, and Alberto Cavalcanti. Thus "Drifters" should possess inherent interest for fans or students of British documentary cinema; it's the only time Grierson had the opportunity to put his own personal stamp on a feature film. Stylistically, "Drifters" was heavily influenced both by Flaherty's more poetical approach (with soft focus and lots of man-against-nature imagery) and Soviet montage (with quick-cut editing and lots of juxtaposition). The result is interesting, but not entirely satisfying. Following Flaherty's example, Grierson chooses to focus on one fishing crew. Unlike Flaherty, however, he never names or attempts to individuate the crew members, despite featuring two very strong and natural personalities (a bearded captain who lies awake at night and a cabin boy who's learning how to cook for the crew). Flaherty definitely would have personalized these people even more. On the other hand, Grierson manages to illustrate how these fishermen are related to the other elements of the fishing industry -- something that Dziga Vertov would have approved of. And Grierson shares Vertov's fascination with the relationship between men and their tools. (There's a lovely scene of a stoker lighting a cigarette with some burning coals he's just shoveled into the engine.) On the whole, I recommend this movie to those who are interested in the history of documentary film-making, especially in Britain. But I also suggest that, if you're new to early documentaries, you watch some others first: Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" and "Man of Aran," Cooper & Schoedsack's "Grass," Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera," and especially Jennings' "Fires Were Started" (a.k.a. "I Was a Fireman") and "A Diary for Timothy." These films rank among not just the most influential early documentaries but also the most beautiful films ever made. (By the way, Panamint, a small Scottish home video company, has released a complete print of "Drifters" on DVD. It looks quite good for a relatively minor 1929 production. Just be aware that it's a PAL release and only available in the UK.)
A silent documentary film by John Grierson telling the story of Britain's North Sea herring fishery.
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August 13, 2019