A Backward Glance at a Retrospective

By John Krish

john-krish.jpgJohn Krish © Peter Everard Smith

Target: Audience – a life’s work in documentary

“…Audiences seemed taken aback by the personal commitment, the strong sense of authorship and the diversity of styles, tone and subject matter, rare in an individual filmmaker”  

The film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow was entirely to blame. I was against it, sure no-one would be interested in a bunch of my old documentaries. Nevertheless, the National Film Theatre immediately agreed, later deciding to have five evenings of my films in NFT2.

It started with lengthy screening sessions at the British Film Institute (the National Film and Television Archive held copies of virtually everything I’d made). There I met and worked with two dedicated young men - Patrick Russell, Keeper of Non Fiction and Joss Winn, Moving Image Archivist.

Suddenly, I was committed to something that would unsettle me in ways I’d never imagined…. the endless sleepless nights, ideas and memories nudging me awake, forcing me to get up at 2 or 3am and write it all down. With each screening I was being forcibly reminded what making films on all those wide-ranging subjects had done to my system. Years of struggle, intellectually and financially, fighting for what I believed in. The endless effort of convincing sponsors to change their minds over a brief I was sure wouldn’t work. Coming up with an acceptable alternative and then making the film – which, if it didn’t work, could cost me my reputation and the production company an awful lot of money. And all the time arguing for the right equipment, enough stock, the right crew, enough time to recce, shoot and edit...

I realized my career had shifted a million miles from where I’d started, back in the Crown Film Unit in those wartime days of 1941, working on, and learning from, propaganda, made for a bombed, rationed and wounded British public to boost morale.

I also learnt some significant lessons, about patience, loyalty and treachery, on the very first film I directed, Pattern for Progress (not my title) in 1947. I was 24 and, although I’d been a film editor for three years and knew something about putting a film together, I had no idea how to keep a unit together. There I was, at large in a steel works, the youngest in the unit and impatient to start shooting and keep shooting. In my head I was Eisenstein about to make some fantastic movie about the great sweating workers at the furnace; or Potemkin, but without the steps!

Then later, I found myself making films like Counterpoint, a comedy for the Post Office and full of actors. Could it really be called a documentary? In the Crown Film Unit, the directors I assisted and admired never used actors. But I believed the very reality of the people they used all too often made the scenes they were re-enacting seem artificial. Their bravery and front line experience was of little use in helping them cope with the discipline of filming and scripted dialogue.

So did I let the side down? Is Counterpoint a documentary? Does it matter? Not to me. But in those days, there was a very real snobbery in some companies. They believed that, because they only used real people, they were the only ones making real films. They were kneeling at the altar of John Grierson, who’d said all that in the 1920s. However, having coined the word ‘documentary’, he gave it the widest of definitions: ‘…the creative treatment of reality’, which can mean absolutely anything you want it to.

With the diversity of my films, Patrick Russell had a problem finding a thread to hang them on. Finally he focused, as he later wrote, on “…Krish’s compulsion to stretch the boundaries of Documentary… and the tension between these creative instincts and the sometimes restrictive demands of his public and corporate sponsors became one of the season’s themes… making it possible to put together films which would seem to have little in common… (such as) the lyrical They Took Us to the Sea and the surreal and shocking The Finishing Line, because they relate to the theme of childhood and were made to an impossible brief”.

Almost all the sponsored documentaries I made were, to use P.R. jargon, for ‘Target Audiences’. Indeed, we called the retrospective Shooting the Message. Both the above were aimed at children and sponsored by the NSPCC and British Rail respectively. The latter was intended to stop children vandalizing the railway but without showing any vandalism, in case it gave them ideas. The script I came up with was a child’s fantasy about a bizarre and bloody school sports day on a railway line. It really was aversion therapy. I went to schools showings, saw that it worked and heard it had saved lives. It was a rare example of enlightened sponsorship but eventually the publicity wing of the British Transport Commission thought it was too strong and it was withdrawn.

I made a number of other films for or with the young, including Red Cross, That’s Us! a recruiting film for the junior section and I Want to Go to School and Our School, both sponsored by the NUT and lifting the lid on the many-sided relationships between children and teachers in a Primary school and a Secondary Modern respectively. There was also What Are They Doing At College? for those who’d dropped out of school, to get them to think about going to a College of Further Education.

I also made films for the elderly, on road safety and suchlike, but I Think They Call Him John, un-sponsored and made in total freedom (thanks to a generous industrialist) was different, a demanding film about solitude and old age, moving at the pace of this one old man, alone on a Sunday. I made it to generate guilt because too many of us, who know there’s an old person living down the same road, do little or nothing about it.

It was rare to have that kind of freedom but enlightened sponsorship did happen, and sometimes from the most unlikely places. In the case of H.M.P, it was the Home Office. The film was about prison officers and I was surprised to find so many of them full of ideas and theories and absolutely dedicated to what seemed an impossible job. It led me to persuade the Home Office to change their original brief. They’d wanted the film to say, ‘if you join the Prison Service, here are all the places you could be working in’. I thought a stronger message would be, ‘if you join, this is the job you’ll be doing’.

When H.M.P. was shown for the Home Office’s approval, surprisingly nothing was changed. I thought they would have seen the film as dangerous because it exposed the arguments and the uncertainties about dealing with crime and punishment in a civilized way.

More often however, things were somewhat more frustrating. I made Captured, a feature-length film for Military Intelligence, in 1959. Set in the Korean War, it shows what it was like to be a prisoner of the North Koreans. I had written and directed it with a great bunch of actors and expected it to be my calling card into features. But when I delivered it to the War Office, they immediately classified it as ‘secret’ and I was never allowed to show it. So, after waiting 44 years, this screening was very important to me.

Then there was The Elephant Will Never Forget, made in 1952 when I was at British Transport. the Unit producer Edgar Anstey asked me to go to New Cross Depot to film the Chairman of London Transport shaking hands with the driver of the last tram. I said that there had to be a film to be made in the last week of London’s trams: he said there wasn’t. I left his office, stole some film from the cupboard and filmed all that week. When it was finished and an obvious success, Anstey sent me a letter of dismissal, thanking me for all my work with the Unit and saying it was time for new blood. I was 29.

We often had to film in imaginative ways, just to get things made. Let My People Go, about apartheid in South Africa, was made here after the Sharpeville killings with money from an incensed public. Every actor and technician worked for nothing. When it was finished, the South African Government took advertising space on the front pages of our major newspapers ‘warning’ people about the film…

We ended the retrospective with Return to Life, made in 1960 for the Foreign Office. It was World Refugee Year and they wanted a film listing everything that Britain had done for refugees. I argued that what would be more valuable was a film that showed what it felt like to be a refugee. They agreed.

The film is about what life is like in their first months here for a family from Yugoslavia - a young mother with a nine year old boy and baby son, her husband and his mother. The young mother had her real children. The man playing her husband had been a prisoner of the Russians for two years, in solitary confinement and in the dark. The woman playing his mother been a slave worker in Auschwitz and had prayed every night that the R.A.F. would bomb the place and kill her. She gassed herself before the film was finished. There were three of us at her funeral: the priest, the warden of the hostel where we filmed and me. On the last day on location, when everybody was saying goodbye, the young woman and the man would not shake hands. She was Croat, he was Serb and they spat at each other.

At every show people were touched, moved, shaken, disturbed by what they saw. One letter seemed to sum up all nine screenings. “…Audiences seemed taken aback by the personal commitment, the strong sense of authorship and the diversity of styles, tone and subject matter, rare in an individual filmmaker”.

Then there was the impact of seeing the films on a big screen and the comparison with television documentaries today. A former Channel 4 executive wrote, “…they operate at a completely different pace and frequently chew subjects up and spit them out… The films in the retrospective were the complete antithesis. There was room to breathe, to think and digest and, in spite of their age, the work is still fresh and original, the message strong. They have a timeless quality and a strong sense of prevailing humanity”.

One final thought. As my 80th birthday approaches, I realize how fortunate I am to have had this retrospective, not as an obituary, but while I am still breathing; and to have been given the opportunity to acknowledge publicly what I owed to everyone in the Crown Film Unit, where I started as an assistant to committed editors and directors.

Shooting the Message, a retrospective of the work of John Krish, was held at the National Film Theatre, London in April and May. The above text was extracted from a longer piece.