Humphrey Jennings, The Silent Village, 1943. Courtesy BFI

Humphrey Jennings, The Silent Village, 1943. Courtesy BFI

Humphrey Jennings, Spare Time, 1939. Courtesy BFI

Humphrey Jennings, Spare Time, 1939. Courtesy BFI

Humphrey Jennings, Listen to Britain, 1942. Courtesy BFI

Humphrey Jennings is widely considered Britain’s greatest documentary director. In 1937 he founded Mass Observation, and used his surrealist imagination to observe working-class leisure pursuits in the film Spare Time. He used associative montage to evoke daily life in Britain at war (Listen to Britain and Words for Battle), and re-enactment to stage Nazi destruction in a Welsh mining community (The Silent Village).   

Spare Time
Made for the New York World Fair, Spare Time is an incredible portrait of the pre-war working class and an early illustration of Jenning’s approach. Unlike many films of the Grierson school it does not expound on social, economic or industrial problems. Narrative is all but abandoned as clips of wrestling, ballroom dancing, card games and pigeon fanciers are strung together in startling combinations to the sounds of brass bands, choirs and jazz.

Spare Time, dir: Humphrey Jennings, UK, 1939, 15min, DCP, BFI Distribution.

Words for Battle
Considered by Lindsay Anderson as Jennings’ best work, Words for Battle marries excerpts from major passages of English poetry and prose with footage of the contemporary, war-afflicted landscape. The film descends from the rolling clouds – a Godlike viewpoint looking down on England – into the fields and provincial towns, to eye-level with local people.

Words for Battle, dir: Humphrey Jennings, UK, 1941, 8min, DCP, BFI Distribution.

The Silent Village
The Silent Village was designed as a tribute to the mining community of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, which had been the scene of Nazi atrocity on 10 June 1942 when its entire adult male population was executed. News of the massacre caused shock in the UK, particularly in the coal-mining areas of the country. The film recreates events in Lidice but transports them to a South Wales mining community to indicate that if the German invasion of Britain had been successful in 1940, then the atrocities would just as likely be happening contemporaneously in the UK. Jennings worked with an entire cast of untrained local people. People were filmed going about their daily lives in a largely improvised manner with no script.

The Silent Village, dir: Humphrey Jennings, 1943, 36min, DCP, BFI Distribution.

Listen to Britain
In this film Jennings is selling a myth of national unity; that in spite of pre-war differences all classes were united in war socialism. But it is a bottom up view that highlights individuality, the ‘unity within difference’. Having learnt through Mass Observation that the British people were uncomfortable with detecting propaganda, Jennings used a poetic style to mask it.

Listen to Britain, dir: Humphrey Jennings, UK, 1942, 20min, DCP, BFI Distribution.

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.

Finest Hour: Films by Humphrey Jennings

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

Wed 2 March, 5.45pm (80min)

Tyneside Cinema

10 –12 Pilgrim Street
Box Office 0191 227 5500