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A History of Free Cinema

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"Baby stuff". That's how John Grierson, father of the British documentary tradition in the 1930s, described the Free Cinema movement. Such cynicism is less surprising bearing in mind that Free Cinema was, to some extent, a rejection of Grierson's generation.

There's little doubt that in its organisation, conditions of production and immediate impact, Free Cinema was more limited in scope than its 1930s predecessor. As critics Alan Lovell and Jim Hillier put it in 1973, "if Free Cinema were compared with the documentary movement of the 1930s, it would undoubtedly come off worse. The documentary movement of the thirties lasted longer, produced more, was more sustained, more ambitious than Free Cinema".

Essentially, Free Cinema was a series of six programmes of - mainly - short documentaries shown at the National Film Theatre in London between February 1956 and March 1959. The programmes were put together by a group of filmmakers and critics - principally Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, Walter Lassally and John Fletcher - whose films were shown in the three British programmes of the series (Free Cinema 1, Free Cinema 3: 'Look at Britain' and Free Cinema 6: 'The Last Free Cinema').

But Free Cinema was more than just a series of programmes. It was characterised by a new attitude to filmmaking which rejected both the mainstream British cinema and the alternative documentary tradition - although Humphrey Jennings, a founder of the Mass Observation movement and director of stirring propaganda films like London Can Take It! (1940) and Fires Were Started (1943) was admired. Instead, Free Cinema members praised 'poetic' filmmakers such as 1930s French director Jean Vigo (Zéro de conduite (France, 1933), L'Atalante (France, 1934)), and John Ford, the Hollywood director best known for westerns like Stagecoach (US, 1939), My Darling Clementine (US, 1946) and, later, The Searchers (US, 1956). This theoretical background was set out in in the film journals Sequence and Sight and Sound, for which Anderson and Reisz wrote.

Free Cinema represented a group of films all produced in semi-amateur conditions, largely by the same (unpaid) technicians, and sharing a 'common attitude' summed up in a manifesto. The films were financed either by their makers (like O Dreamland (d. Anderson, 1953) - made some time before the first Free Cinema programme) or by small grants from sponsors which gave them almost complete creative freedom (hence Free Cinema). Two organisations financed most of the films. The first was the BFI Experimental Film Fund, a tiny fund for innovative films set up and administrated by the British Film Institute since 1952. The second was the Ford Motor Company, after Karel Reisz was appointed its 'Officer of Commercials' in 1956.

The Free Cinema films also had a number of formal and stylistic features in common. Typically, the films were short (the longest was We Are the Lambeth Boys (d. Reisz, 1959) at 52 minutes), used hand-held, 16mm cameras, avoided the use of narration and used sound and editing impressionistically. Some of these were a consequence of the low budgets - for example, the costs of necessary equipment ruled out live 'synchronised' sound, while often, as in the case of Together (d. Lorenza Mazzetti, 1956), funding to add a soundtrack was given only once the rushes were judged to be a suitable quality.

But the filmmakers made a virtue of their limitations: as Anderson put it, "with a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much - in commercial terms. You cannot make a feature film and your possibilities of experiment are severely limited. But you can use your eyes and your ears. You can give indications. You can make poetry."

The culture of mid-1950s Britain was undergoing profound change. After the advances of the Labour administration of 1945, Britain had again elected a Conservative government, and although the economic hardships of the post-war 'austerity' period were beginning to lighten, there was a feeling that a long overdue programme of social change had stalled. In particular, the cracks in Britain's rigid class system were beginning to show, while the gap between the generations had never seemed so wide.

It was in this context that a new breed of writers began to challenge the existing cultural order. The 'angry young men' as they became known, tended to be politically left-wing, and focused on lower-middle class and working class life and were savagely critical of middle class values. They included novelists Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and David Storey and, in the theatre, John Osborne - whose Look Back in Anger (1956) was the archetypal 'angry young man' work - and Arnold Wesker.

The angry young men had a direct link to Free Cinema in Tony Richardson who, with George Devine, had co-founded the English Stage Company at London's Royal Court Theatre, and directed the first production of Osborne's Look Back in Anger (this was the beginning of a partnership for Richardson and Osborne which would lead to the pair setting up the film production company Woodfall, whose first release, in 1959, was an adaptation of Look Back in Anger directed by Richardson). Lindsay Anderson, too, had a long association with the Royal Court.

With the sixth Free Cinema in March 1959, Anderson, Reisz and Richardson decided, mainly for financial reasons, to end the series. All three went on to direct feature films, and Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963), Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) made a major contribution to the 'British new wave' of social realist cinema in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Since that time, Free Cinema has been occasionally remembered in universities and cinemas in Britain but more so abroad - especially in France and Italy. Debates about Free Cinema continue to this day - whether it was a 'real' film movement, how far the social-realist features which followed represent a continuation of the Free Cinema ideals. To quote Anderson again:

Free Cinema, whether as a specific historical movement or as a genre or as an aspiration, has been defined, written about or attacked in terms so various that it isn't surprising there is a great deal of confusion as to what exactly the term implies.

Christophe Dupin

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