Paul Rotha, Land of Promise, 1946. Courtesy BFI

As Orwell was documenting poverty in the industrial North in 1936, the British Documentary Movement of the 1930s was also focusing on the culture, labour and problems of the working-class in Britain. The programme focuses on films from this period concerned with social reform and employment. Housing Problems (Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey) is a propaganda film about slum housing using the voices of real people to show living conditions. Today We Live (Ruby Grierson) shows working people building their own community spaces for leisure activities and to learn new skills. Eastern Valley (Stuart Legg) is an agit-prop film about a volunteer-led co-operative amidst unemployment in the South Wales valleys. Land of Promise (Paul Rotha) is about national failures to coordinate housing policy.

Housing Problems
Housing Problems is both a propaganda film and a document of optimism. With its iconic image of new flats rising behind an old row of slum terraces in Stepney, it shows what has been done to improve living conditions by the most 'enlightened' local authorities and planners, and provides an exhortation to others to follow suit. Rather than merely asserting the necessity of new housing, it uses the voices and stories of working class men and women to demonstrate the slums' dreadful conditions, and the benefit of the new estates.

Housing Problems, dir: Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, UK, 1935, 15min, 35mm, BFI National Archive.

Today We Live
The narrative of Today We Live intertwines two stories, combining actuality footage with re-enacted scenes. The first, directed by Grierson, features a group of women in South Cerney converting a barn into a community centre for leisure activities such as amateur dramatics and keep-fit classes, while the second, directed by Bond, observes unemployed coalminers building an occupational centre for learning new skills, such as carpentry and shoe repairing, in Pentre. The film documents how people living in these communities have improved their environment and living conditions. Today We Live was praised for its human and sympathetic treatment of the working class, free from sentimentality.

Today We Live, dir: Ruby Grierson, Ralph Bond, UK, 1937, 23min, 35mm, BFI National Archive.

Eastern Valley
Eastern Valley is an agit-prop film and example of the work of the Strand Film Company. Succinct, well edited and humanist in tone, this presentation of a Monmouthshire co-operative scheme contains many Strand trademarks, including a lyrical commentary which occasionally veers into leftist polemic. The film empathises with the collective's aims but never encourages false optimism. The men's views and the authoritative voice-over suggest that this initiative is only a short-term palliative for workers discarded and misused by industry.

Eastern Valley, dir: Stuart Legg, UK, 1937, 16min, 35mm, BFI National Archive.

Land of Promise
The first section of the film, covering 1919-39, indicts national failures to coordinate housing policy. The second argues that wartime evacuation and conscription had revealed the poor health of many citizens, but that collectivised planning proves what can be achieved in peace. The ground is laid for the film's uncompromising argument for a command economy driven by compassionate technocracy.

Land of Promise, dir: Paul Rotha, UK, 1946, 63min, 35mm, BFI National Archive.

Presented as part of Resistance: British Documentary Film, more information about all the films in the series here.

Film Pass Four: Resistance: British Documentary Film
Tue 1 – Thu 24 March
£28 Full Price / £23 Concession
Includes entrance to all films in the series, including screenings at Northern Charter
Film Passes can only be booked via the Tyneside Cinema Box Office. 

1930s - 40s British Documentary Movement

£7.50/£6, book here
Film Pass Four, £28/£23

Tue 1 March, 5.45pm (120min)

Tyneside Cinema

10 –12 Pilgrim Street
Box Office 0191 227 5500