Film studies: The Drifters
The twentieth century opened the new era of development and led to collision of the modern industrialized world and pure untouched nature.
John Grierson was extremely fond of tendencies of the modern art. He would consider them to reflect the coming changes in their full extent. The other peculiarity was his interest in Soviet films, especially those of Sergei Eisenstein. All these things rolled into one were expressed in the brand-new technique of representing the reality.
After Lumier brothers John Grierson made another breakthrough which became the turning point in the history of the whole cinematography. He appeared to be the founder of the documentary film movement. The studying of the mass communications in the United States put an imprint on his vision of what a film should be like. The ideas were represented in his first ever-created documentary film “The drifters”. Actually the term “documentary” itself was introduced by John Grierson. The first experience proved to be successful and the film became one of the classic examples of the films of such kind.
“The Drifters” were released in the end of the third decade of the twentieth century. The 1929 creation “was to be Grierson’s only ‘personal’ film and was to steal Eisenstein’s thunder at a famous London Film Society premiere shared with Potemkin” (Steve Foxon). The technologies were still to be advanced, that’s why the film appeared on the big screens as silent and in black-and-white colours. It proved to be a good example of how the talent of the writer, the director and the editor comprised together in one person and made his creation stand out among the others. The idea of the film was based on the Soviet conception of the working class, but at the same time John Grierson strived to show the reality of the industrialized Britain. So the outcome appeared before our eyes in the form of a documentary film, revealing the life of fishermen in the small village on the coast of the Northern Sea.
Documentaries presuppose capturing the scenes from real life, with real people being the heroes and real events taking place. “The Drifters” were filmed in a small fishing village in Northern England. The frequently changing images of the village itself, the sky above, the sea below, different parts of various contraptions for hauling, steaming boats – help us to visualize the picture with as many details as possible. Although the film is silent and we cannot hear the voices, it is accompanied by the music throughout the whole act. It is neither obtrusive nor superfluous. Оn the contrary it draws our attention to some of the key points in the film: the approaching tempest while the workers had not finished their task yet. We hear how music changes its carefree sounding, and some tense and oppressing tunes clinch. The scene with dogfish can be another example of the abrupt change of the melody. Somewhat like double hauling happens. Herring has nowhere to escape. It is doomed. Both people and sharks catch it with the common aim – to survive. All the events are reflected in the melody.
People on the screen are not the professional actors; they are simply fishermen, who devoted their lives to obtaining the gifts of the sea. They are being filmed in their natural conditions, they do not have to pretend, they just feel comfortable doing their usual routine.
The plot itself appears to be uncomplicated, deprived of the sophisticated twists. We become the witnesses of how the ordinary worker spends most of his life. “Following the opening titles, the men go down to the harbour and make their ship ready for the catch. The film then follows one ship as it leaves the harbour, with the camera mounted on the ship to record the view from it, as well as the action on it. Eventually, after the men struggle to land their catch, the ship returns; the fish are sold, packaged, loaded and transported to market”. (Jamie Saxton) But still under the mask of simplicity the main conflict between technical progress and nature is covered.
The direct indication of it are the opening titles, which describe the whole situation common to the society with its breakthrough inventions throughout the twentieth century and continuing up to now. “The herring fishing has changed. It was once an idyll of brown sails and village harbours – its story is now an epic of steam and steam. Fishermen still have their homes in the old time village - But they go down for each season to the labour of a modern industry” (John Grierson).
The controversy of the steel as the element of technical development and sea as the element of nature is clearly seen throughout the film. Grierson constantly rests our attention on the parts of the steaming boats, the process of making it move by throwing the huge amounts of coal into the furnace, the winches with iron chains – he uses the close-ups to show as clearly as possible how the labour becomes automated inch by inch. At the same time he uses this very technique to reveal the nature – seagulls in a close-up, heavy sea, the storm drawing nearer, the struggle of herring and dogfish. The quickly changing images of both sides only deepen the controversy between two completely different notions.
The image of a bird is opposed to the image of a worker. Both of them appear to be the chains, the tiny bolts in huge systems, both of them struggle to survive. The linking element between those systems becomes a herring. The parallel can be clearly observed – the seagull catching the herring and workers catching the herring – with the same aim to earn the living, to earn a place in this circle of life. The goal is common but the means to achieve it are completely different. In the case with the seagull everything happens just due to the natural course of events, and in the case with the worker the process occurs only with the help of force, because a human being ceased to find satisfaction in using natural tools and created something immense and completely alien. And this issue has become the breaking point in the struggle between natural and artificial.
Jamie Sexton. Grierson’s machines: Drifters, the Documentary film, Movement and Negotiation of Modernity. 11 Oct. 2012
John Grierson. The Drifters. 11 Oct. 2012
Steve Foxon. John Grierson. 11 Oct. 2012.