If Paul Rotha was going to be fired, he was going to be fired by the best. In the early years of his career, while working as an assistant designer for Hitchcock, Rotha published a scathing article on the stagnation of... [more]
If Paul Rotha was going to be fired, he was going to be fired by the best. In the early years of his career, while working as an assistant designer for Hitchcock, Rotha published a scathing article on the stagnation of British film. The future master of suspense was not impressed. Hitchcock canned Rotha -- however, this proved a stroke of luck for the young critic. Rotha followed up his article with "The Film Till Now," a comprehensive history of world film that established him as an important voice in early cinematic study.
His dismissal also freed Rotha to find a new mentor. In 1931 he joined John Grierson's film unit at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) and embraced the new form Grierson was developing: documentary. Grierson had solidified the genre with "Drifters," a film that depicts the dynamism of Britain's fishermen and the dignity of their labor. Rotha's work for EMB also aimed at fostering positive images of the working class. But, always the iconoclast, he broke with Grierson over their dependence on government funding. After a mere six months, he left to pursue his own projects (with independent sponsorship).
This move didn't mean that Rotha lost sight of his social agenda. He remained devoted to documentary, publishing a book in 1935 that set forth its fundamental principles. "Documentary Film" outlines the ethos of a morally and socially responsible cinema. For Rotha, it was crucial that the filmmaker maintain an independent perspective. At a time when the world was suffering from severe economic depression, Rotha opined that the camera should record the struggles of common people in order to open the eyes of government. For the first time in history, the camera became an instrument that could effect social change on a large scale.
Rotha's '30s documentaries, with titles like "Shipyard" and "Roads across Britain," depict the infrastructure of British life and the workers who made it all possible. During the '40s he documented the toll of the war effort with "Total War in Britain" and explored the lives of workers under communism in "Soviet Village." His post-war films, "The World is Rich" and "World without End," are considered his major achievements. They represented the opening of possibilities for the common man in the new era of prosperity and global communication.
The social import of film as a mass medium is recognized to this day, as well as the impact of its small-screen sister, television. Rotha heightened awareness of cinema's potential to speak across class, across the boundaries between haves and have-nots, and across the divide between government and governed. His work bespeaks an era of British cinema and British history when social issues were at the forefront of cultural production. [show less]