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20s-30s Avant-Garde

The birth of avant-garde film in Britain

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In the years between the two World Wars, a number of films emerged in Britain as alternatives to mainstream commercial filmmaking. These were supported by the appearance of specialist exhibition outlets (of which the most important was the Film Society) and critical journals (notably Close Up).

These cultural practices reflected an intellectual approach to the cinema, in which the medium was promoted as a modern, vanguardist art form. A number of films that did not fit in with commercial cinematic practice were championed, specifically those films seen as representing innovative aesthetic uses of the medium. Most admired were European movements of the 1920s: German Expressionism, Soviet montage and the French avant-garde.

In the mid-1920s a number of people connected to this movement began to make films reflecting these interests. The first batch of these were not clear-cut 'avant-garde' films, but parodic experiments, lampooning elements of British filmmaking perceived as 'distasteful'. Adrian Brunel and Ivor Montagu were two major practitioners of this form of filmmaking.

From the end of the 1920s to the beginning of the 1930s a more serious form of experimental filmmaking began to emerge. This included a number of self-consciously 'aesthetic' documentaries, many of which began to use Soviet-style montage methods in conjunction with 'pictorial' cinematography. A few Soviet-influenced films were also made by some of the left-wing political filmmaking groups such as Kino.

Alongside these documentary experiments were a number of more 'painterly', abstract films, many of which were also produced within the context of the documentary film movement. These included, most notably, abstract films by Len Lye. Outside the documentary movement, figures like Norman McLaren, Oswell Blakeston and Francis Bruguière also made some 'photographic' abstract films.

Jamie Sexton

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Beyond This Open Road (1934)Beyond This Open Road (1934)

Experimental short about a visit to the countryside

Thumbnail image of Birth of the Robot, The (1935)Birth of the Robot, The (1935)

Len Lye's masterful animation advertising Shell oil

Thumbnail image of Blue Bottles (1928)Blue Bottles (1928)

Experimental slapstick comedy by Ivor Montagu

Thumbnail image of Borderline (1930)Borderline (1930)

Avant-garde feature exploring racial, sexual and psychological issues

Thumbnail image of Bread (1934)Bread (1934)

Experimental short protesting against poverty during the Depression

Thumbnail image of Colour Box, A (1935)Colour Box, A (1935)

Abstract animation by Len Lye, made by painting directly onto film

Thumbnail image of Contact (1933)Contact (1933)

Paul Rotha-directed documentary about air travel

Thumbnail image of Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)

Hilarious, surreal, spoof travelogue - humour decades ahead of its time

Thumbnail image of Drifters (1929)Drifters (1929)

Pioneering documentary about Scottish fishermen

Thumbnail image of Every Day (1929)Every Day (1929)

Hans Richter's experimental documentary about city workers

Thumbnail image of Hell Unltd (1936)Hell Unltd (1936)

An animated protest against the arms race, co-directed by Norman McLaren

Thumbnail image of Pett and Pott (1934)Pett and Pott (1934)

Cavalcanti-directed comedy made to advertise the telephone

Thumbnail image of Rainbow Dance (1936)Rainbow Dance (1936)

Vivid and energetic Len Lye animation made to advertise the Post Office

Thumbnail image of Song of Ceylon (1934)Song of Ceylon (1934)

Beautiful documentary about what is now Sri Lanka

Thumbnail image of Tell Me If It Hurts (1934)Tell Me If It Hurts (1934)

Classic Richard Massingham short about a painful visit to the dentist

Thumbnail image of Tusalava (1929)Tusalava (1929)

Len Lye's first film, an ambitious piece of abstract cel animation

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