I’d never heard of John Krish when Roy Stafford suggested a Friday night at the pictures to see documentaries made 50 years ago. Low expectations often lead to an over generous appraisal, however these four films are undoubtedly the work of a great documentarian.
Take They Took Us to the Sea (1961) (above) which follows an NSPCC trip to Weston-Super-Mare from the slums of Birmingham. The subject matter is sufficient to engage most, however aesthetically this is an incredible film. Krish primarily works in observational cinema, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953) about the last tram in London being an exception in the four films, where the camera has to appear to offer a ‘window on the world’. This requires participants not to look at the camera, otherwise the fourth wall is broken. HOW THE HELL DID HE GET THIS BUNCH OF OVER-EXCITED KIDS NOT TO LOOK AT THE FOUR CAMERAS USED TO MAKE THIS FILM?! Presumably they were told they’d chucked off the train or dumped into the sea… you get my drift. I found the film an utterly astonishing portrayal of the day. There are numerous close ups of the children and never once do they glance at the camera (a copper helping them cross the road does). The effect of this is to offer an incredibly intimate representation of the day on the beach for these under-privileged children: a masterpiece.
Krish doesn’t use the long takes characteristic of observational cinema, and he sparingly uses voice overs, but there’s no doubting the veracity of what we see. The NUT sponsored Our School (1962) is a fascinating glimpse into a secondary modern school, again beautifully shot. The emphasis in what we see is ‘modern’ and not ‘bog standard’; even in schools which were designated for the non academic. Clearly the film has a propagandistic function, though – as I said above – it was entirely convincing.
The final film, I Think They Call Him John (1964), is possibly the best portrayal of loneliness I have ever seen. Again Krish shows his ability to allow his subject to act ‘natural’. Even when John is shaving with the camera as his mirror, I wasn’t really aware of the constructedness of the image. It’s a film that verges on the heartbreaking through under-statement (though it was surreal hearing Bruce Forsyth on John’s telly).
Catch these brilliant films and I look forward to seeing more by Krish.