There is something magical about the dance sequence of the 1934 documentary, Song of Ceylon. The dancers turn their feet mechanically to the left and then to the right, spasmodic yet somehow graceful in their movement: the viewer is entranced, moved, viscerally taken. The magic, though, doesn’t lie in the fact that the images appearing on the screen so accurately resemble what we know as life, but in something else, something that distinguishes this film from the other two that it is grouped with as part of the E.M.B. Classics series entitled “The British Documentary Movement,” Volume One. (1)

The series seems to keep its home mainly in libraries and film archives, but is by no means commercially distributed (though a very low-quality version can be streamed from YouTube). The two films that precede Song of Ceylon on the tape are Drifters (1929) and Industrial Britain (1933). Before watching the films, I’d naively assumed that John Grierson, who is praised on the jacket of the VHS tape, was wholly responsible for all three. The towering figure of John Grierson as the “father of documentary” (2) sometimes overshadows the role of his collaborators, the handful of people he worked with on and off for decades. Though Grierson did indeed produce all three films on the tape, he was the main director only for Drifters. Robert Flaherty was the principal director for Industrial Britain (with Grierson finishing up when Flaherty ran over his budget), (3) and Basil Wright directed Song of Ceylon. I found the imagery of the flying seagulls and labouring fisherman in Drifters entrancing, and the insight into the worker’s relationship to his craft and the vision of industry in Industrial Britain at times seductive, but it was Song of Ceylon that really caught my eye. There was of course the exotic appeal of seeing people of a different culture on the screen—a welcome contrast to the footage of white British males that dominated the first two films—but my attraction to the film went much deeper than that. It was the combination of the movement on the screen and the sound track that pulled me from the flow of the other admittedly—to take a descriptor Bill Nichols uses to describe Grierson’s work in one of his jabs—more tedious films. (4) When I reached the end of the film, I realized that Basil Wright was the director and the editor, and I wanted to know how this film had come about, and why the dance sequence had affected me the way it did.

The Maker

Basil Wright was twenty-two years old and making experimental films when Grierson asked him to join the effort at the Empire Marketing Board. Only nine years his senior, Grierson would be the authority of the two, again the father figure, with Wright as his son and protégé. Wright had a deep respect for his teacher, and found working with him “rewarding personally, psychologically, and rewarding in terms of work.” (5) As a forward to his little book, The Use of the Film (1948), Wright pens a letter to Grierson, beginning:

“Dear John,

You have often urged me to write a book. Now I have done so, if only on a very small scale. I have not the least doubt that you will tear it to bits, and I for one shall not blame you, if only because I know we both agree that books about films somehow manage to leave out all the fun and affection which make the film-world one of the more pleasant (and crazier) areas of operation.”

Wright prepares himself for an attack, which he almost seems to believe he deserves. The book is a mere sixty-seven pages, and it is hard to imagine what Grierson would have torn to bits, especially since, in the few places where Wright does venture at theorizing about film, his arguments generally work to follow Grierson’s suit, or to lightly unpack other filmmakers’ approaches (like Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye, for example). Wright does articulate fourteen uses of the film at the start of the book, but none of them are glaringly original or controversial. His tone throughout is far from forceful; he delivers his thoughts with a pale fraction of the conviction (which sometimes verges on aggression) that Grierson uses in his writing.

Wright was a humanitarian and a pacifist. In 1980, already in his seventies, Wright told an interviewer about his father who came home after serving as a major in World War I and “devoted the whole of the rest of his life to the promotion of peace.” (6) Wright goes on to say that he was raised in “a total anti-war, pro-League of Nations atmosphere,” and the latter third of his book endorses a plan that would have enabled UNESCO to use the media for educational purposes throughout India and Africa.

The bulk of Wright’s book is devoted to demystifying the economics surrounding the film industry in the 1930s and 40s, and exposing the amount of influence corporations and governments had on what was being produced. Wright describes 1920s Britain, the period that directly preceded the making of Song of Ceylon:

“[I]t had become clear that Western democracy was in danger of collapse because its citizens did not know how to make it work. […] The economic system of the great Victorian era was falling apart. The political system was in danger of complete collapse, not so much through threats of revolution as through electoral apathy. People had become bewildered because life had begun to move too fast for them.

This basic failure in democracy was a failure in education.” (7)

Wright blames the state of affairs on poor education, claiming that citizens were taught “nothing related to people’s everyday lives and problems.” Instead, they were taught “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” but in a “limited, unimaginative” way. “Film was chosen, rather than any medium,” Wright explains, “because the gift of sight is common to all men. Seeing is believing.”(8) Thus Wright and Grierson agreed that cinema, with its emphasis on the visual, was the best way to access an illiterate public: “[O]rdinary people are no fools. In the complexity of the modern world they may not be able to know everything about everything all the time, but, as John Grierson puts it, ‘they have an unerring sense of smell.’” (9) Grierson’s compliment, I’m sure, is well taken by some, but dehumanizing to my ear. Wright the ventriloquist manages to wax romantic about “ordinary people” while passing the ugly words through Grierson’s dummy lips.

Knowledge and Experience in Wright, Grierson, and Dewey

There seems to be a tendency in Grierson scholarship to avoid offending the father of documentary. Even in Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement (1990), where author Ian Aitken makes a point in his Introduction of finally cutting through all the sugarcoating of the history of the documentary movement and telling it like it is, Grierson emerges a hero:

“[A]lthough Grierson found himself in an intellectual context which was often dominated by conservative and anti-democratic ideologies, he consciously distanced himself from these ideologies, and associated himself with more liberal pragmatist and positivist ideologies.” (10)

Aitken then adds, as though in apology:

“However, he was significantly influenced by the fashionable belief that society must be governed and guided by elites, and this belief can be found in many of his writings, from the twenties to his final years. This belief had a formative influence in shaping his views on democracy, and on the role of the mass media within democratic societies.” (11)

Namely, Grierson’s rather starkly anti-democratic position on “ordinary people”—that is, he might have had trouble agreeing that democracy is of the people and by the people—is softened by Aitken mentioning that it was a fashionable belief at the time. It’s not that Grierson looked down on ordinary people, he was just a victim of his times.

What Grierson’s and Wright’s stance on the capacities of ordinary people did mean was that, if film was going to have a wide effect, it would have to take into account that its target audience was a kind of animalistic, instinctive, visually oriented mass. The focus would have to be on the experience of watching the film, on producing a reaction in the viewer. Here, pragmatism’s effect on Grierson, and by extension on Wright, becomes relevant. Aitken went through Grierson’s notes from his time at Chicago University in 1924-25, and found not only that Grierson “had been familiar with the writings of Dewey, James, and other American pragmatist theorists,” but that “he was particularly influenced by the pragmatist distinction between knowledge which did and did not lead to useful results.” (12) This language takes the reader back to Wright’s claim that Britain was failing to educate its public by teaching it “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”

Crucial to Dewey’s pragmatism and Grierson’s and Wright’s theories of film is an understanding of knowledge as resting in the shade of experience. How can knowledge be on the same plane as experience, let alone trump it, if knowledge itself is a form of experience—an experience in thought? Grierson, Wright, and Dewey would all agree that without experience and attention to the historical world’s specific problems and solutions (as opposed to, say, the quest for absolute truth), social improvement will always be kept at bay.

John Dewey’s conceptions of experience are articulated clearly in Art as Experience, published the same year as Song of Ceylon was completed. In the opening paragraph to his section entitled “The Live Creature,” Dewey writes: “Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding.” (13) He goes on:

“While man is other than bird and beast, he shares basic vital functions with them and has to make the same basal adjustments if he is to continue the process of living. Having the same vital needs, man derives the means by which he breathes, moves, looks, and listens, the very brain with which he coordinates his senses and his movements, from his animal forbears.” (14)

The experience of responding to a work of art is an engagement, again, with these animalistic senses, the ordinary person’s sense of smell, as Grierson would have it. Dewey proclaims his stance perhaps most succinctly in Democracy and Education (1916): “An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance.” (15) In the early 1930s, as part of an essay for Cinema Quarterly entitled “First Principles of Documentary,” Grierson wrote: “(1) We believe that the cinema’s capacity for getting around, for observing and selecting from life itself, can be exploited in a new and vital art form.” (16) “Vital” is the word that came to mind when I watched Song of Ceylon for the first time. It is of course a difficult word to use in a critical context, for what does it mean for something to be vital—to be literally, “of life”? And if that is the case, then am I not back where I started, now contradicting my first declaration about the power of the dance sequence not lying in its true-to-lifeness?

But there is a distinction to be made here between being “of life” and being “like life”—the first definition, of course, is significantly more flexible, while the second inevitably implies some sort of equivalence or at least representation. What I experienced as I watched the child dancers move along with their teacher half-way through the film, and then again in the last five minutes of the film, was the feeling that something had come over me, that I had engaged with the film in a bodily way, that it had provoked a marked experience in me. Dewey writes that experience “in the vital sense is defined by those situations and episodes that we spontaneously refer to as being ‘real experiences’ those things of which we say in recalling them, ‘that was an experience.’” (17) He goes on to explain the way in which these types of experiences differ from the otherwise constant flow of experience that we creatures live on a daily basis. Dewey’s use of the word “real” here to explain his idea to the average reader is instructive: when we say we had a “real” experience, do we mean it was real in its true-to-lifeness, in its resemblance to what we perceive as reality, or do we mean something different? I think Dewey’s second example (“that was an experience”) gives us the answer: we say the experience was “real” because we tend to equate reality with existence.

Dewey assumes that saying the experience was real and saying that it simply was offer the same signification. What I think he is actually talking about, and what Grierson and Wright aim to produce in the viewer (and succeeded, in my case), is a bodily experience. Dewey spends pages upon pages of his books trying to break down the body-mind dualism that privileged theory over practice. The legacy of the Enlightenment for Dewey was that “[p]ractice was not so much subordinated to knowledge as treated as a kind of tag-end or aftermath of knowledge.” (18) In her essay “Political Mimesis,” Jane Gaines explicates the argument that anthropologist Michael Taussig makes in his book Mimesis and Alterity: “There are things the body ‘knows’ that the mind does not, [Taussig] would say. Still, our Enlightenment assumptions make us dubious.” (19) We are so automatically invested in rational knowledge that the prospect of a separate but equally significant knowledge tends to elude us.

This is not to say that the spectator is necessarily learning anything by watching, say, a dance—one may simply be reacting involuntarily to the image on the screen. Providing some insight into this topic is Linda Williams, who explores the body’s reactions to three genres of film (pornography, horror, and melodrama) in her piece “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” She begins the piece anecdotally: “When my seven-year-old son and I go to the movies, we often select from among categories that promise to be sensational to give our bodies an actual physical jolt.” (20) While Song of Ceylon does not fall easily into any of the film genres mentioned above, it did provoke in me the kind of “involuntary mimicry” (21) that fascinates Williams. But to be more precise, it was not that I wanted to get up and dance like the Ceylonese on the screen; I was moved by the moving image on the screen (and the sound), but I didn’t want to mimic the dancers’ exact movements with my own.

The power of the experience did depend on the image presented on the screen together with the sound, and it was only enhanced by the knowledge, which only documentary film can provide, that what I was watching had actually happened. As Jean-Louis Comolli writes in “Documentary Journey to the Land of the Head Shrinkers,

“[T]he work of the cinematic scene is actually a prefiguration of the moment of absence, intensifying through it this moment of presence, so as to intensify, finally, the presence of bodies through the promise of their coming absence. The image of the actor’s body, absent but represented, finds a response, and possibly a hidden correspondence, in the real body of the spectator. (22)

What thrilled me even more was the knowledge that, while I was being moved by this imagery in 2009, the footage had been recorded in 1934. The vitality of the dancers’ movements, though, eclipsed the temporal gap, and I felt as energized (if not less) by watching them as I might be were I to watch the same footage filmed today.

What further complicates the parallel between the “body genres” that Williams analyzes and Song of Ceylon is the next step she takes of questioning the degree of perversity inherent in watching the kinds of films that provoke a physical reaction in the viewer. In Williams’ breakdown of her genres, the potential dangers of viewing pornography, horror, and melodrama are sadism, sadomasochism, and masochism, respectively. Williams problematizes the very notion of perversion, though, questioning whether we should even condemn these forms of perversion (namely the viewing of these films). Maybe we ought to leave our guilty pleasures alone.

In her article, Williams focuses on “female body genres” and her questions circle around the objectification of women and the male gaze; applying a similar lens to Song of Ceylon yields a sticky, Orientalist fruit. Perhaps my physical experience watching the dance sequences in the film were an embodiment of my eroticizing of the Other. Perhaps this is the quintessence of what Brian Winston calls the tradition of the Griersonian victim. (23) Look how magical these foreigners are, and see how differently they dance! My, how different they are from me.

Not Just Plain Old Orientalism

The shooting of Song of Ceylon was paid for jointly by the Empire Marketing Board and the Ceylon Tea Marketing Board. (24) Here was Basil Wright, capturing the natives as they happily packaged tea for the British colonialists, taking his salary from the very marketing company that was exploiting the workers he filmed. There are of course the seemingly eternally smiling faces of the natives; this continuity is hard to believe, and hard to swallow as a white viewer who knows that the British Empire exploited the Ceylonese. If there are suffering natives on the island, they are not shown in Wright’s film.

While at first glance Song of Ceylon lends itself to neat categorization as a classical, Orientalist ethnography, there are significant stylistic elements to the film and details about its provenance that suggest it might be more complicated than that. The sound track is perhaps the aspect of the film that most effectively reveals its overall complexity. As the credits run at the beginning of the film, a plaintive Ceylonese melody is sung by a male voice. The music credit is attributed to Walter Leigh while the “Commentary” credit reads “Robert Knox in the Year 1680.” The text that is narrated over the course of the film is gleaned from the testimony of a certain sailor, Robert Knox, whose ship was damaged and found himself captured, along with his father, Captain Robert Knox, by the Ceylonese in 1658. (25) The text that Wright chose for the film, however, doesn’t mention that Knox, the Brit, was held captive on the island for twenty years. So, while having a Western account of Ceylon read as the images of the land are presented seems immediately Orientalist, the extra twist of using a British captive’s account of 276 years earlier, and ridding it of any reference to his captivity, sheds new light on the film. This reversal arguably works to begin counteracting an Orientalist interpretation of the film. Moreover, the selection from Knox’s text that Wright chooses is in no way a proportional representation of the original 356-page account—Wright heavily emphasizes the role that Buddhism plays in the text, for example. One could say that Wright leaves out the vast majority of the damning parts of Knox’s book.

The film is divided into four parts: “The Buddha,” “The Virgin Island,” “Voices of Commerce,” and “The Apparel of the Gods.” The reading of Knox’s text is interspersed with diegetic sound of the natives as they are filmed, as well as an intricate composition by Walter Leigh that includes elements of Ceylonese music mixed with British voices that begin in the third section, at the twenty-third minute, just after the sequence of the children dancing with their teacher has ended in a peaceful moment of silence: “New clearings, new roads, new buildings, new communications, new developments of natural resources.” While Knox’s text is read in a wistful, almost nostalgic voice, these new voices are mechanical, statistical, extensions of a machine. The image simultaneously shown is of an elephant on the island knocking down a palm tree with the crown of its head. Commerce has arrived. The sound track speaks of dollars and cents as the reel shows imagery of halved coconuts, commodified goods. We hear a British radio transmission as we see shots of the transmission room, knobs, and clocks, intercut with shots of dusty Ceylonese landscape. And the grating sound of machines hums on and off throughout, so numbing that at times it’s nearly inaudible.

In The Use of the Film, Wright comments on Leigh’s creation: “the track had a life of its own; and when it was allied to the picture it was clear that Leigh had achieved a new and important synthesis. The picture said one thing; the track said something else. Together, the two produced a third quality denied to either of them separately.” (26) Theoretically, Wright’s analysis recalls Eisenstein and Kuleshov; Wright himself uses montage technique in the imagery that accompanies Leigh’s sound track. As Wright juxtaposes the imagery of the radio transmission room and the Ceylonese landscape, the jumble of musical tracks collides into one surging mess, and the viewer experiences the horror, if only for a moment, of empire.

When asked by Alan Bloom in 1980, “Was there any film where you didn’t have the freedom you wanted? Where you had to make a compromise that you really regret?”, Basil Wright replied:

“[W]hen I was a very young man and had no resources, Grierson sent me around the Caribbean in 1933 to film the British Colonies; Jamaica, Barbados and all that chain of islands. I was alone and toting a camera about and I wasn’t very experienced. I wished I could have managed to say more about the diabolical capitalist or British Colonial policy which was always so nice and fat. I got a bit of it into Song of Ceylon the next year, but, you see, if you’re working for the Empire Marketing Board in the British Colonies, you can’t do it.” (27)

There is of course the question of economic and political constraints to consider when looking at any work of art, government-subsidized or not. Had Wright had his way, perhaps the film would have been more obviously provocative and political. However, given that he didn’t feel he could be as politically outspoken as he wanted to, he managed to produce an effect in at least one viewer that could certainly rival the kind of emotion provoked by a documentary (or really any film) with a strong ideological message.

Conclusion: On Poetry

Bill Nichols describes the “poetic mode” of documentary as being “particularly adept at opening up the possibility of alternative forms of knowledge to the straightforward transfer of information, the prosecution of a particular argument or point of view, or the presentation of reasoned propositions about problems in need of solution.” (28) Nichols locates the beginnings of this mode at the dawn of modernism. The poetic mode, Nichols argues, was an extension of a fragmented view of reality, filled with “subjective impressions, incoherent acts, and loose associations.” (29) The homelessness of the mind, to take a phrase from Peter Berger, manifested itself in the poetic mode. (30) After World War I, when rationality seemed to falter, it is no surprise that a pacifist like Basil Wright grabbed his camera and set out for Ceylon to seek new forms of knowledge. It was his favorite of all the movies he ever made. (31)

Song of Ceylon would fall comfortably in the category of poetic mode, but Nichols, somewhat uncharacteristically, glosses over its nuance. According to Nichols, the film is about “the untouched beauty of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) despite the inroads of commerce and colonialism.” (32) He lists it among a handful of others, all of which he claims “return to a more classic sense of unity and beauty and discover traces of them in the historical world.” (33) Nichols misses an opportunity here to discuss the complex structure and rather aggressive (if implicit) interrogation of the very notion of classic unity and beauty that the film carries out.

Despite Nichols’ oversight, the film still serves as a powerful example of the poetic mode. It is not direct cinema, nor is it purely observational; it is not making an explicit claim to tell the whole truth about the Ceylonese people. The filmmaker’s hand is very heavy both in the shooting itself as well as in the editing. I would argue in fact that the treatment of the footage and the sound is so experimental and extraordinary that Wright cannot be accused of perpetuating the myths of purity or objectivity. The cuts are drastic and noticeable. The film is an incomplete portrait, a riff on a text from 1680, a symphony of movement and sound that is resolved with the banging of a gong.

“Poetic” seems to be the word people use when they’re not quite sure what to call something. Like the word “lyric,” it tends to signify some sort of eruption, a break from the continuous flow of prose. Grierson describes Wright as having “this inner feeling for movement,” “a sort of inner gift of movement.” (34) The force is within the man, it’s inner, it’s unexplained, it’s a gift. It’s an inner knowledge that guides him, that manifests itself in his work, which leaves a trace of that knowledge for the viewer to grasp.

As to my experience watching Song of Ceylon, I found the most truthful resonance in Comolli’s insight into documentary film:

“Since its making requires confrontation with a world, it will offer testimony and the trace of this encounter, as an abutment on the stubborn part of this world, one resistant to our tales, our computing. That part will always resist, with something of its toughness; it will resist our efforts of seduction.” (35)

I can call it poetic, or lyric, or simply art, but the knowledge that the dance sequences in Song of Ceylon seemed to possess and somehow, upon my viewing of them, conjure in me, eludes easy classification. It falls in the magical realm of negotiation between reality, its representation, and its viewer, that we call documentary.


  1. The British Documentary Movement. Volume 1, E.M.B. classics [videorecording]. 109 mins: sd., b&w; ½ in. New York: Kino Video, 1992. Drifters, 1929 (49 min.); Industrial Britain, 1933 (21 min.); Song of Ceylon, 1934 (39 min.).
  2. Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, 145.
  3. Sussex, Elizabeth. The Rise and Fall of British Documentary: The Story of the Film Movement Founded by John Grierson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975, 24.
  4. Nichols, 148.
  5. Sussex, 57.
  6. Mareth, Paul and Alan Bloom. “Basil Wright: An Interview.” Film & History, Vol 10, Issue 4, December 1980, 78.
  7. Wright, Basil. The Use of the Film. New York: Arno Press & The New York Times: 1972, 38.
  8. Ibid., 39.
  9. Ibid.,
  10. Aitken, Ian. Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement. London and New York: Routledge, 1990, 58.
  11. Ibid., 58.
  12. Ibid., 54-55.
  13. Capps, John M. and Donald Capps, Eds. James and Dewey on Belief and Experience. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005, 268.
  14. Ibid., 269-70.
  15. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan Company, 1937, 169.
  16. Hardy, Forsyth, Ed. Grierson on Documentary. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971, 146.
  17. Capps, 275.
  18. Dewey, 312.
  19. Gaines, Jane.“Political Mimesis.” Collecting Visible Evidence. Eds. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 94.
  20. Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Genre Reader II. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995, 140.
  21. Ibid., 143.
  22. Comolli, Jean-Louis. “Documentary Journey to the Land of the Head Shrinkers.” Trans. Annette Michelson. October, Vol. 90, Autumn 1999, 38.
  23. Winston, Brian. “The Tradition of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary.” Ed. Alan Rosenthal. New Challenges for Documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 269-287.
  24. Sussex, 49.
  25. Knox, Robert. An Historical Relation of Ceylon. Dehiwala: Tisara Prakasakayo, 1966, 250.
  26. Wright, 17.
  27. Mareth, 79.
  28. Nichols, 103.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Berger, Peter L., Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner. The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness. New York: Random House, 1973.
  31. Sussex, 99.
  32. Nichols, 105.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Sussex, 111.
  35. Comolli, 41.

About The Author

Daniella Gitlin is a candidate in the Nonfiction Writing program at Columbia University in New York, where she also teaches expository writing. In 2009, her essay-film On the Futility of Escaping the Self was screened at the Queens International Film Festival.

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