O Dreamland (dir. Lindsay Anderson, UK, 1953, 12 mins)
Momma Don\'t Allow ( dir. Karel Reisz/Tony Richardson, UK, 1956, 22 mins)
Together (dir. Lorenza Mazzetti, UK, 1956, 52 mins)
Wakefield Express (dir. Lindsay Anderson, UK, 1952, 30 mins)
Nice Time (dir. Alain Tanner/Claude Goretta, UK, 1957, 17 mins)
Everyday Except Christmas (dir. Lindsay Anderson, UK, 1957, 40 mins)
Enginemen (dir. Michael Grigsby, UK, 1959, 21mins)
We Are the Lambeth Boys (dir. Karel Reisz, UK, 1959, 52 mins)
by Michael Brooke
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.
So said Lindsay Anderson, one of the founders of the Free Cinema movement, which existed to give a platform to young filmmakers who wanted to work outside the industrialised mainstream. Although the six Free Cinema programmes shown at London\'s National Film Theatre from 1956-9 made a big critical splash, and many of their creators went on to high-profile careers in either fiction (Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, Claude Goretta, Alain Tanner, cameraman Walter Lassally) or documentary (Mike Grigsby, Robert Vas), the original films have been far more discussed than actually watched.
This is for the same reason that they had difficulty getting shown in the first place: they were almost entirely short documentaries, typically 20-50 minutes long. Britain already had a venerable documentary tradition, but the Free Cinema films stood apart from this, not least because they were unashamedly auteurist - to cite a phrase that had only just joined the critical lexicon.
They span 1952 to 1963, postwar austerity to the eve of the Beatles. Although many fitted standard documentary criteria – Every Day Except Christmas (Anderson, 1957) and We Are The Lambeth Boys (Reisz, 1959) were even sponsored by the Ford Motor Company for a series called \'Look at Britain\' – they were also heartfelt, consciously poetic personal statements. O Dreamland (Anderson, 1953) and Nice Time (Goretta/Tanner, 1957) were impressionistic portraits of Margate and Piccadilly Circus, while Momma Don\'t Allow (Reisz, 1956) was a similarly free-form study of a jazz club in London\'s Wood Green.
Britain is often seen through foreign eyes: Reisz, Vas, Goretta, Tanner and Lorenza Mazzetti were all born elsewhere and most were relative newcomers. Refuge England (Vas, 1956) shows a monoglot Hungarian refugee\'s bewildering first day in London. Together (Mazzetti, 1956) examines other outsiders: two deaf mutes coping with work, leisure and unwanted attention in London\'s East End.
The films unselfconsciously examined ordinary working life, often at the end of an era: Wakefield Express (Anderson, 1952) was about a provincial newspaper\'s portrayal of an industrial community; Enginemen (Grigsby, 1959) depicted railway workers facing the decline of steam; Tomorrow’s Saturday (Grigsby, 1962) showed a typical weekend in Blackburn, while The Vanishing Street (Vas, 1962) captured an East End Jewish community threatened by redevelopment. Invariably shot on black-and-white 16mm, any lack of technical finesse is outweighed by immediacy: there are no more vivid street-level portraits of Fifties Britain.
Most were made with financial support from the British Film Institute, which has renewed this commitment half a century on with this comprehensive DVD package, containing all eleven British films from the original NFT programmes. Impressive context-setting extras include a brand new documentary about the movement\'s history, as well as five more films made according to the same principles.
The films were free in the sense that they were made outside the framework of the film industry, and that their statements were entirely personal . They had in common not only the conditions of their production (shoestring budget, unpaid crew) and the equipment they employed (usually hand-held 16mm Bolex cameras), but also a style and attitude and an experimental approach to sound. Mostly funded by the BFI\'s Experimental Film Fund, they featured ordinary, mostly working-class people at work and play, displaying a rare sympathy and respect, and a self-consciously poetic style.