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Evasive Enlightenment: World Without End and the Internationalism of Postwar Documentary

Edinburgh University Press
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  • Design
  • Linguistics
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science


This article explores the discursive theme of documentary's crisis and renewal through internationalism as it evolved at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, established in 1947. During its first decade Edinburgh was the most significant forum for discussion on the future of documentary as an international genre, a debate to which all the key figures of the prewar generation contributed, as critics, panelists, advisors, speakers and film-makers. Amid a sense of crisis for British documentary, marked by the perceived dominance of instructional film-making of limited social and aesthetic ambition, these figures urged film-makers to look to the developing world, where the old themes of documentary could inspire new work to match the canonical works of the past. Presented at Edinburgh in 1953 World Without End, an aesthetically ambitious film made in Siam and Mexico, sponsored by the international agency UNESCO and co-directed by two of the British documentary movement's most celebrated film-makers Basil Wright and Paul Rotha, was widely praised as renewing the prewar traditions of the sponsored documentary. The article argues that the well-intentioned critical discourse of renewal through thematic engagement with international development, evident in the reception of World Without End, evades the contemporary politics of the British state's relationship to its empire, the movements of national liberation that actively sought to end it and the new forms of despotism nurtured by the geopolitics of the Cold War.

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