‘Do stand back now, give me a chance’

‘Do stand back now, give me a chance’: Acting the Everyday

in the Griersonian Documentary.

Brian Winston

Much attention has been drawn to the impact of synchronous shooting on the Griersonian project but little of this has focused on the vexed issue of performance by the subject. The import of the normal failure of the Griersonians in the 30s and 40s to achieve, in synchronous shooting, a simulacrum of everyday behaviour (unlike say, that managed by Italian neo-realism a little later) has not been much examined and contemporary discussion of the performative is largely focused elsewhere. In this paper, the ideological import of ‘acting’ in the Grirsonian project will be assessed within the larger question of the nature of ‘realistic’ performance.

Films such a The Savings of Bill Blewitt are rendered unconvincing by the amateurs being required to perform to a script. The archive is suffused with similarly artificial moments: in Workers and Jobs or A Job in a Million for example, a sanitized aural impression of human interaction is created. Even Jennings, arguably the most effective of this generation of directors to achieve something closer to, say, the affective  realities of Italian neo-realism, could not sustain the illusion of capturing life unawares — the ‘One Man Went to Mow’ sequence from Fires Were Started might work (just?) but the injured stiff upper-lip woman assuredly does not.  However, this, Lindsay Anderson claimed, was how we were, the best of us. Surely a question can be asked as to the possible validity of this claim?

This paper will argue that the performative element (limited in this usage to performance by the subjects before the lens) in the classic British documentary is an under-examined element in undercutting Griersonian claims on the real.


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