And Action! UN and UNESCO Coordinating Information Films, 1945–1951

  • Suzanne Langlois


The history of the relationship between UNESCO and the UN coordinating body for film encapsulates the challenges and tensions of the founding phase of the UN and its specialized agencies.1 The choice of information films as a lens through which to view the early history of UNESCO is based on the fact that the organization was founded at the very time when cinema-going was at its peak in the 20th century, just prior to audience fragmentation in the 1950s. Making your mark in 1945 meant appearing on the world’s screens. The stakes were huge. Well aware that half of the world’s population were illiterate,2 UNESCO was particularly attracted to this medium as it would complement its worldwide delivery of information to all, literate as well as illiterate audiences, and work as a powerful tool for modernization. This commitment also followed the sustained interest in the uses of film for educational purposes since the days of the League of Nations.3 In 1945, UNESCO was planning a film and radio information service while, at the same time, in New York, the UN was setting up its Department of Public Information, including a division for visual information, in the form of both still and moving images. Surveys and memoranda from 1945 and 1946 stressed the need to avoid duplication, but the central concern was to have a strong visual presence. Who would see to it? How, and with what resources?


Public Information Motion Picture Mass Communication Consultative Committee Interwar Period 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. 3.
    See the enlightening discussion by Zoë Druick, “‘Reaching the Multimillions’: Liberal Internationalism and the Establishment of Documentary Film” in Inventing Film Studies, ed. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 66–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 4.
    Mark D. Alleyne, Global Lies? Propaganda, the UN and World Order (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    For excellent works on the historical development and issues concerning documentary film, see the important contributions of Bill Nichols, and of Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane. Through her case study (Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), Haidee Wasson has examined the change of paradigms which brought popular movies into the sphere of high culture. Closer to our preoccupation with the role of film and communication discourses and practices in the UN system, Zoë Druick has made essential contributions in addition to her article, “Reaching the Multimillions”, mentioned above; see, in particular, her articles “Visualising the World. The British Documentary at UNESCO” in The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit, ed. Scott Anthony and James G. Mansell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Chapter 23;and “UNESCO, Film and Education. Mediating Postwar Paradigms in Communication” in Useful Cinema, ed. Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 81–102. Also, since 1998, Jasmina Bojic, film critic and lecturer at Stanford University, has organized one of the oldest international documentary film festivals in the USA (the United Nations Association Film Festival) at Stanford University.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Kenneth H. Garner, Seeing Is Knowing: The Educational Cinema Movement in France, 1910–1945 (PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2012). In the UNESDOC database of research about UNESCO, Garner’s work is the only one dedicated to film culture. See (accessed 25 March 2015). Another angle of approach comes from the work of François Debrix, “Deploying Vision, Simulating Action: The United Nations and its Visualization Strategies in a New World Order”, Alternatives. Social Transformation and Humane Governance 21:1 (January–March 1996): 67–92.Google Scholar
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    Marcel L’Herbier, Intelligence du cinématographe (Paris: Corrêa, 1946), 31.Google Scholar
  7. 20.
    See documents from January to June 1946, AG3 Preparatory Commission, London-Paris 1945–1946, vol. VI, Sub-committee on the needs of devastated areas, UNESCO Archives. For recent research on the contribution of UNESCO to post-war reconstruction, refer to Chloé Maurel, “L’action de l’UNESCO dans le domaine de la reconstruction”, Histoire@Politique 1:19 (2013): 160–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 21.
    Christel Taillibert, L’Institut international du cinématographe éducatif. Regards sur le rôle du cinéma éducatif dans la politique internationale du fascisme italien (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999), 273. See also Jean-Jacques Renoliet, L’UNESCO oubliée. La Société des Nations et la coopération intellectuelle (1919–1946) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1999), 306;and Zoë Druick, “Reaching the Multimillions”.Google Scholar
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    “Overseas News”, Documentary News Letter 7 (February 1948): 16–17, cited in Jack C. Ellis, John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 234.Google Scholar
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    See my entry on Jean Benoit-Lévy in Encyclopedia of Documentary Film 1, ed. Ian Aitken (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 108–109.Google Scholar
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    Preface by John Grierson for the third edition of Paul Rotha, Sinclair Road and Richard Griffith, Documentary Film: The Use of the Film Medium to Interpret Creatively and in Social Terms the Life of the People as It Exists in Reality (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1951 (1st edn 1935)), 21.Google Scholar
  12. 49.
    Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace. The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 23. See also John Toye and Richard Toye, “One World, Two Cultures? Alfred Zimmern, Julian Huxley and the Ideological Origins of UNESCO”, History 95:319 (July 2010): 310; the authors see in this episode a struggle between literary intellectuals and scientists for cultural leadership.Google Scholar
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    Paul Rotha, “Foreword to Third Edition” in Paul Rotha, Sinclair Road and Richard Griffith, Documentary Film. The Use of the Film Medium to Interpret Creatively and in Social Terms the Life of the People as It Exists in Reality (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1951), 31.Google Scholar

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© Suzanne Langlois 2016

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  • Suzanne Langlois

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