Grierson Award

John Grierson

The Grierson Award is presented to new, innovative documentary film shown at the London Film Festival. The award is named after the celebrated documentary film-maker John Grierson. The Grierson Award should not be confused with the Grierson Awards that are presented by the Grierson Trust.

Who was John Grierson

John Grierson is an internationally-renowned Scottish documentary film-maker and film critic who is viewed as the father of both British and Canadian documentary film. It was Grierson who first used the word “documentary” in 1926.

Grierson was born in 1898 in Deanston in Scotland. During the First World War, he served on the Royal Navy’s minesweepers. After the end of the war, he studied English and Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from which he graduated in 1924.

After he received the Rockefeller Research Fellowship, he went to the United States and continued his education at the University of Chicago, and then at Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studied the influence of the press, film and other media on public opinion. It is thought that it was Grierson who introduced the term “documentary” in his review of Moana by Robert Flaherty that appeared in the New York Sun in 1926. If this is true or not remains uncertain but it is certain that his review attracted a lot of attention as he was afterwards asked to write critics for the New York Sun.

In 1927, Grierson returned to Britain and focused on film making. He completed his first film, Drifters two years later and according to Grierson, he directed and produced it himself. The film was a success but Grierson focused on film production and administration instead. He started working for the EMB for which he also recruited talented film-makers. After the dissolution of the EMB’s unit he was working for, he briefly worked for the General Post Office. He also made a film programme for the British gas industry.

In 1938, Grierson accepted the invitation of the Canadian government. On his proposition, the Canadian government set up the National Film Commission (the later National Film Board of Canada) and helped create propaganda films during the Second World War, working as the Commissioner of the National Film Commission. He was dismissed from his position for allegedly filming pro-communist films. He then returned to Scotland and employed himself at the Southhall Studios in London. He later worked as a host in the television program This Wonderful World on Scottish television.

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