After service on minesweepers in the Royal Navy during World War I, Grierson entered the University of Glasgow, where he spent a good part of his academic career enmeshed in impassioned political discussion and leftist political activism.
In 1924, after graduating from the university in moral philosophy, he received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship to study in the US at the University of Chicago, and later at Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focus was the psychology of propaganda--the impact of the press, film, and other mass media on forming public opinion. Grierson was particularly interested in the popular appeal and influence of the "yellow" (tabloid) press, and the influence and role of these journals on the education of new American citizens from abroad.
In the 1930s, Grierson further argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Robert Flaherty's film Moana had "documentary value". Grierson's principles of documentary were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with the Soviet propagandist Dziga Vertov's contempt for dramatic fiction as "bourgeois excess", though with considerably more subtlety. Grierson's definition of documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance, though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing stagings and reenactments.
Like a number of other social critics of the time, Grierson was profoundly concerned about what he perceived to be clear threats to democracy. In the US, he encountered a marked tendency toward political reaction, anti-democratic sentiments, and political apathy. He read and agreed with the journalist and political philosopher Walter Lippmann's book Public Opinion which blamed the erosion of democracy in part on the fact that the political and social complexities of contemporary society made it difficult if not impossible for the public to comprehend and respond to issues vital to the maintenance of democratic society.
In Grierson's view, a way to counter these problems was to involve citizens in their government with the kind of engaging excitement generated by the popular press, which simplified and dramatized public affair. It was during this time that Grierson developed a conviction that motion pictures could play a central role in promoting this process. (It has been suggested some of Grierson's notions regarding the social and political uses of film were influenced by reading Lenin's's writing about film as education and propaganda.)
Grierson's emerging view of film was as a form of social and political communication--a mechanism for social reform, education, and perhaps spiritual uplift. His view of Hollywood movie-making was considerably less sanguine:
During this time, Grierson was also involved in scrutinizing the film industries of other countries. He was involved in arranging to bring Sergei Eisenstein's groundbreaking film The Battleship Potemkin (1925) to US audience for the first time. Eisenstein's editing techniques and film theories, particularly the use of montage, would have a significant influence on Grierson's own work.
In the US Grierson had met pioneering documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. Grierson respected Flaherty immensely for his contributions to documentary form and his attempts to use the camera to bring alive the lives of everyday people and everyday events. Less commendable in Grierson's view was Flaherty's focus on exotic and faraway cultures. ("In the profounder kind of way", wrote Grierson of Flaherty, "we live and prosper each of us by denouncing the other"). In Grierson's view, the focus of film should be on the everyday drama of ordinary people. As Grierson wrote in his diaries: "Beware the ends of the earth and the exotic: the drama is on your doorstep wherever the slums; are, wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty." "'You keep your savages in the far place Bob; we are going after the savages of Birmingham,' I think I said to him pretty early on. And we did.")
On his return to England, Grierson joined the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), a governmental agency which had been established several years earlier to promote British world trade and British unity throughout the empire. One of the major functions of the EMB was publicity, which the Board accomplished through exhibits, posters, and publications. In 1930 Grierson convinced government funding agencies to establish a film unit within the EMB and to assign him the directorship of the unit. It was within the context of this State funded organization that the "documentary" as we know it today really got its start.
In late 1929 Grierson and his cameraman, Basil Emmott, completed his first film, Drifters, which he wrote, produced and directed. The film, which follows the heroic work of North Sea herring fishermen, was a radical departure from anything being made by the British film industry or Hollywood. A large part of its innovation lie in the fierce boldness in bringing the camera to rugged locations such as a small boat in the middle of a gale, and leave relatively less of the action staged. The choice of topic was chosen less from Grierson's curiosity than the fact that he discovered the Financial Secretary had made the herring industry his hobbyhorse. It premiered in London on a double-bill with Eisenstein's then controversial film The Battleship Potemkin, and received high praise from both its sponsors and the press.
After this success, Grierson moved away from film direction into more production and administration within the EMB. He became a tireless organizer and recruiter for the EMB, enlisting a stable of energetic young filmmakers into the film unit between 1930 and 1933. Those enlisted included filmmakers Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey, Stuart Legg, Paul Rotha, Arthur Elton, Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, and Alberto Cavalcanti. This group formed the core of what was to become known as the British Documentary Film Movement.
In 1933 the EMB Film Unit was disbanded, a casualty of Depression era economics. Grierson's boss at the EMB moved to the General Post Office (GPO) as its first public relations officer with the stipulation that he could bring the EMB film unit with him. Grierson's crew were charged with demonstrating the ways in which the Post Office facilitated modern communication and brought the nation together, a task aimed as much at GPO workers as the general public. During Grierson's administration, the GPO Film Unit produced a series of groundbreaking films, including Night Mail (dir. Basil Wright and Harry Watt, 1936), and Coal Face (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1936).
Grierson eventually grew restless with having to work within the bureaucratic and budgetary confines of government sponsorship. In response, he sought out private industry sponsorship for film production. He was finally successful in getting the British gas industry to underwrite an annual film program. Perhaps the most significant works produced during this time were Housing Problems (dir. Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, John Taylor, and Grierson's sister Ruby Grierson, 1935) and Song of Ceylon (dir. Basil Wright, 1935)
In 1938, Grierson was invited by the Canadian government to study the country's film production. He proposed the government create a national coordinating body for the production of films. In 1939, Canada created the National Film Commission, which would later become the National Film Board of Canada. Grierson was the first Commissioner of the Board. When Canada entered World War II in 1939, the NFB focused on the production of propaganda films, many of which Grierson directed. After the war, it focused on producing documentaries that reflected the lives of Canadians. The NFB is recognized around the world for producing quality films, many of which have won Academy Awards.
In 1945 Grierson was dismissed from his post as Commissioner of the NFB after allegations of communist sympathy regarding several of the films the Board had produced during the war. Following his dismissal, and the dismissal of three of his coworkers Grierson returned to Scotland.
From 1957 to 1967 Grierson hosted a successful weekly television program on Scottish television, This Wonderful World, which showed excerpts from outstanding documentaries. In 1957 he received a special Canadian Film Award.
Grierson Awards are presented annually in nine categories:
Filmography as producer/creative contributor:
Gary Evans, John Grierson & the National Film Board -- The Politics of Wartime Propaganda; University of Toronto Press, 1984
Joyce Nelson, The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend; Between the Lines, 1988.