Over the coming months, I will be exploring the films of the British Free Cinema Movement. A collection of films so vital in terms of their influence, yet rarely recognised for their cultural importance.
The movement began in the 1950’s. Lindsay Anderson, viewed as the founder of the movement, teamed up with friend (and NFT programmer) Karel Reisz, and along with filmmakers Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti programmed three of their shorts at a screening in the NFT. The three films- Anderson’s ‘O Dreamland’, Reisz and Richardson’s ‘Momma Don’t Allow’ and Mazzetti’s ‘Together’ were all fairly different in style, however the films all reflected a similar distain for how British cinema was represented at the time. The films of Post-war Britain, in particular documentaries, hadn’t quite managed to move away from the wooden, class-obsessed, propaganda that had been served to perk up the nation. And the portrayal of the working-class, who during the war went from being ignored or dismissed to being suddenly held up as the perfect soldiers, was uncomfortable, however well meaning. The four directors were tired of the rigid format, and wanted a change. The screening was the catalyst for what was to be known as the Free Cinema movement. As with any cultural ‘movement’, it is only upon reflection that the influence it had on British cinema can be realised. It grew to include non-British filmmakers (Mazzetti herself was an Italian immigrant), and heavily influenced the British New Wave (Truffaut, of the French Nouvelle Vague also made a film as part of the movement.)
The films were free in every sense of the word. Most importantly, they were free from the constraints of popular British filmmaking. Low budgets meant that the quality of the films were not always perfect, but that didn’t matter. It was substance over style. The mantra of Free Cinema was ‘No film can be too personal’- a filmmaker didn’t have to be afraid to speak up about injustice, or disagreeing with society’s rules. The first programme was so popular that five others followed, and brought about a great shift in the national cinema that still resonates today.
Programme 1: Free Cinema
O Dreamland– Anderson’s short film, was an abstract documentary set in the Dreamland fairground in Margate. The film cut nightmarish images of bizarre attractions with images of families playing at the fair. Over the film, a regular, sinister laughing from a grotesque, mechanical sailor is deeply chilling. The film is a direct reaction to the phony image of the archetypal British seaside arcades. Here, the fairground, is ugly and repelling. Anderson went on to make If…, which was of course heavily critical of another British establishment.
Momma Don’t Allow– Reisz and Richardson’s short, another documentary, was set in a London Jazz Club. With no solid narrative, the film merely observes ordinary groups of working class people on a night out. Everyone in the club is letting loose and dancing, and there’s a real air of fun. However, the relaxed atmosphere is almost spoiled, when an upper class couple enter, looking stifled and uncomfortable, and unhappy with the raucous crowd- hardly subtle, but then that was the point. Whilst both went on to make films as part of the British New Wave, the influence that Momma Don’t Allow had on Reisz’s superb ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is tangible.
Together– Mazzetti’s offering as part of the first programme was the first (and not the last) to deal with the subject of immigration, albeit in an abstract way. Set in London’s East End, the film, not a documentary, followed two deaf mutes, muddling through their lives, together. The lack of ability to communicate is difficult for both them and the audience, they are outsiders in the community. Mozzetti experiments with sound, capturing both the industrial sounds of the docks, and the silence of the world of the two lead characters. What is also striking is that 7 years after the war has ended, the East End is still recovering. Huge areas are still rubble, anti-Japanese graffiti is still visible. Mazzetti uses her piece to give a voice to those who are forgotten and those who are alone. It is perhaps the most overtly political of the three, and certainly the most moving.
I will continue to review the other Free Cinema films over the next few months- stay tuned.