Father of the Documentary
The documentary Grierson by the National Film Board of Canada was very interesting and had much to offer for thought and reflection. First, it was another example of the influence of Canadians and Canadian Institutions on many aspects of modern life. The documentary also exposed me to another person who was ahead of his time, much like Leo Vygotsky, whose work on child development and learning in the early 20th century still is in use today. While Vygotsky’s work was lost then rediscovered after his death. Grierson’s ideas took hold and had effect immediately. It is interesting how ‘new’ ideas are not always new.
I was struck by many of Grierson’s ideas explored in the documentary. The major accomplishment was how he took a fledgling new media, film, and came up with a new application for it, the documentary. His idea to use film to promote social democracy was groundbreaking. He saw the application of this medium for education and saw the importance of education to promote social justice – a current catchword in today’s schools. This new use of film was used to teach about and empower the common person. His idea of using the new films in schools and in public spaces, especially the latter, was very prophetic. Much of the promise of new technology in education is this very idea – to allow all persons the opportunity to be heard, to empower people and expose us to new points of view. This ideal may still not be realized, after all there is much disparity in access, know how, and control, however, the potential is there if used properly. I wonder what Grierson would make of our new media, of modern television and the Internet? YouTube, for example, allows anyone to post and there is a lot of ‘junk’ there, yet there are also gems that teach and have powerful messages for tolerance and understanding.
Another telling point about Grierson that was shared in the doc. was that he was not about the gadgets and technology itself, but rather about how to make use of it. This is the attitude promoted today about educational technology; that it is about the learning, not the technology itself.
One more thing that struck me, as Gary noted in discussion, is the effect that McCarthyism had on many people, including Grierson. His ideas did indeed promote the everyday man, yet the attack on Grierson in the communist ‘witch hunt’ of the fifties, shows how fear could be used to blind people to ideas and thinking that may speak against or threaten the existing power structure.
Grierson was surely ahead of his time, a visionary. Examining the past helps understand the now and the future and allows us to pause, reflect and learn.