Information on John Grierson’s ‘First Principles of Documentary’
(from Macdonald and Cousins, Imagining Reality: the Faber Book of Documentary,1996 : 97-102

The First Principles:
from p.97:

1) ‘We believe that the cinema’s capacity for getting around, for observing and selecting from life itself, can be exploited in a new and vital art form. The studio films largely ignore this possibility of opening up the screen on the real world. They photograph acted stories against artificial backgrounds. Documentary would photograph the living scene and the living story.’

2) ‘We believe that the original (or native) actor, and the original (or native) scene, are better guides to a screen interpretation of the modern world. They give cinema a greater fund of material. They give it power over a million and one images. They give it power of interpretation over more complex and astonishing happenings in the real world than the studio mind can conjure up or the studio mechanician recreate. ‘

3) ‘We believe that the materials and the stories thus taken from the raw can be finer (more real in the philosophic sense) than the acted article. Spontaneous gesture has a special value on the screen. Cinema has a sensational capacity for enhancing the movement which tradition has formed or time worn smooth. Its arbitrary rectangle specially reveals movement; it gives it maximum pattern in space and time. Add to this that documentary can achieve an intimacy of knowledge and effect impossible to the shim-sham mechanics of the studio, and the lily-fingered interpretations of the metropolitan actor.’

So what is Grierson saying? Well, his first point is that the Hollywood machine at the time of writing (1934-6) largely was disinterested in producing cinema of the ordinary people, but more concerned with fantastical adventures that were fantasy in almost all regards. The documentary he champions for is one that can lift the lid on the world of the real, rather than the fantastical, where observations of reality could be shown on screen. He also believes that using non-professional actors who are the ‘natives’ to the real location should be the people representing this reality on screen. He also suggests that the real world, away from the recreation of it in the studios by the set designers and the rest of the crew, has a far greater potential in ways of telling a story than could possibly be conjured up. Through the deliberate selection and juxtaposition of images, interpretations of the material are almost boundless for what the director may want to say. Finally, he offers the idea that capturing a story in its purest form – in the ‘raw’ – can be far greater than the same story contrived and acted by someone who has never lived in his character’s environment before. In short, a greater sense of reality and truth can be found using these Griersonian principles.

Indeed, documentary filmmakers to this day still adhere to these principles. Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Michael Tobias and Richard Leacock are such practitioners.

Next Page –>
03 – Realism in Action: When does fiction become a reality?

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Related Links:

Corner, John (1996) – The Art of Record: A critical introduction to documentary. Manchester University Press.

Robert Flaherty’s adherence to these rules in Senses of Cinema

Reilly, Michael (Nov 2004), ‘New Persuasions’ in Senses of Cinema

One Response to “02 – History: Grierson’s First Principles of Documentary”


  1. […] 01 – Introduction: Laying out the Facts * 02 – History: Grierson’s First Principles of Documentary * 03 – Realism in Action: When does fiction become a reality? * 04 – Defining ‘Documentary […]


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