Drifters, John Grierson’s pioneering film of North Sea herring fisherman, is widely acknowledged as the first British narrative documentary. Taking the Shetland community of Lerwick as its starting point and filming at sea in all weathers, Grierson also used studio sets to enhance the documentary experience and convey a traditional way of life threatened by a new age of industrial modernity. It’s powerful depiction of an epic struggle against a hostile environment on the open seas was seen as truly revolutionary in its rough reality and was quite unlike anything else at that point in contemporary British filmmaking.
The newly-composed, cinematic score will be performed live at the Festival by Field Music, the Mercury Prize-shortlisted band led by Sunderland brothers Peter and David Brewis. Over the last ten years, Field Music have released four full-length albums and toured around the world as one of the most critically acclaimed bands to come out of the North East. This commission sees the original line-up of Peter, David and Andrew Moore reunite for the first time since 2007. The film will be introduced by the BBC's Film programme presenter Danny Leigh.
Drifters was inspired by the montage techniques of the Russian filmmakers Eisenstein and Dovzhenko and the earlier documentary work of American Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North). It was the first time that the British worker had ever been seriously represented on the screen, as Grierson believed passionately in the power of film to raise the consciousness of the viewer, to enlighten and inform and educate the people of an advanced industrial society. His philosophy and approach provided a counterpoint to what he saw as the escapist fictional filmmaking coming out of Hollywood at the time.
Drifters marked the beginning of the documentary movement in this country. The film was made for the Empire Marketing Board, and its success led to Grierson setting up the Empire Marketing Film Unit. Under Grierson’s vision and also through its later incarnation as the GPO Film Unit, it provided a training ground for some of Britain’s most influential documentary filmmakers including Basil Wright, Harry Watt and Edgar Anstey and the later experimental works of Len Lye and Norman McLaren.
“Despite its narrative simplicity – fishermen go to work, catch fish and come home – Drifters is a complex film in terms of its political, cultural and aesthetic significance.”
– Alan Clarke, World Cinema
Drifters – which originally premiered in 1929 alongside Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – will be presented for the first time with its new soundtrack in Berwick before going on to tour to other cinemas and events across the UK. This new commission has been supported by PRS for Music Foundation and Arts Council England, and the world premiere sponsored by Simpsons Malt.
Dr. John Grierson CBE (1898-1972) was born in Perthshire, Scotland, and studied philosophy at Glasgow University, but was drawn into film-making through post- graduate study in the US on the influence of mass media on public opinion. His ground- breaking work on the Scottish herring fleet, Drifters, had its premiere in 1929 alongside the first British showing of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In 1936, he produced the celebrated Night Mail, directed by Harry Watt with script by W.H. Auden and score by Benjamin Britten. A prolific director and producer, throughout his long career he was responsible for the production of well over 1000 films and television programmes.
Field Music hail from Sunderland in North East England, drawing on influences as wide-ranging as Stravinsky, Stax R&B, Fleetwood Mac, Serge Gainsbourg, Thelonious Monk and Kate Bush. Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2012, Field Music have played festivals world-wide from Glastonbury to SXSW, becoming known internationally for a deconstructionist approach to songwriting, playfully twisting compositions into new and odd shapes, with a refreshing disregard for convention and cliché. The band’s core consists of brothers David and Peter Brewis, who at one time played drums for fellow Sunderland band The Futureheads, with Andrew Moore featuring as pianist on the first two albums – this performance sees the original line-up reunite for the first time since 2006.
John Grierson I UK I 1934 I 11min
The work of a trawler on the Viking Bank in the North Sea. In Grierson’s short documentary, we follow "Isabella Grieg" from her base in Granton Harbour, in Edinburgh, right up the east coast of Scotland to the fishing grounds between Shetland and Norway.
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