These films were not made together; nor with the
idea of showing them together. But when they came
together, we felt they had an attitude in common.
Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom,
in the importance of people and the significance of
As filmmakers we believe that
No film can be too personal.
The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments.
Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.
An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.
On 5th February 1956, fifty years ago, an unusual programme was handed out to a packed National Film Theatre. Such was the anticipation surrounding the event that four hundred people had to be turned away. The above manifesto was printed on page two of the programme, detailing the principles of a new movement in British filmmaking, ‘Free Cinema’, positioned by its founder Lindsay Anderson, ‘in direct relation to a British cinema still obstinately class-bound; still rejecting the stimulus of contemporary life, as well as the responsibility to criticise; still reflecting a metropolitan, Southern English culture.’ It was over two years before the French New Wave and thirty-nine years before Dogme 95. The films that the audience had flocked to see were three non-professional experimental shorts directed by the manifesto signatories.
The first of the Free Cinema signatories, Lorenza Mazzetti, arrived in London in the early 1950s. She was an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle alongside their two daughters. In 1944, on 3rd August, the SS killed her aunt and her two cousins. A year later her uncle committed suicide. In London she studied at the Slade School of Arts and on the strength of a short film made at Slade the BFI Experimental Film Fund gave her the opportunity to direct a film named Together. It became the third short film screened at the NFT as part of the Free Cinema programme on 5th February 1956. It was about the travails of two deaf-mutes in east London who are barely understood by their fellow labourers but who understand each other perfectly well.
In 2001, forty-five years after that first seminal screening, Lorenza sat again in the NFT and recalled how the Free Cinema manifesto came to be written. ‘I remember that Lindsay came to the Soup Kitchen where I was a waiter and he said...he told me well, let's write something together, so we sit there while people are calling me to bring coffee and start writing, he was very good in writing insolent sentences.’
‘He would say 'Do you like that?' 'It's all right.’
The programme read, ‘Although Together has been shot entirely in the streets and houses, the markets and pubs of the East End – and with people in the East End behaving exactly as they do in life – it is very far from being a Documentary. Nor is this intended as a realistic story of two deaf-mute labourers in the London docks. It is not so much their muteness that matters, as their isolation.’
Lindsay Anderson first met Mazzeti when he came to view one of her short films. Reputedly he told her, ‘if I like it I’ll help you, if I don’t like it I won’t help you.’ Not only did he help her but when her plot-orientated film The Glass Marble was in danger of remaining unfinished for want of the right footage, he advised her to completely rethink the existing footage, resulting in the ‘poetic film’ screened as Together.
Like the filmmakers of the French New Wave, those involved in Free Cinema, which prefigured the British New Wave of the 1960s, were dissatisfied with their domestic film industry and were more or less amateurs. In 1954 Francois Truffaut wrote his polemic ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ against the conservative period films with lavish production values highly esteemed in France at that time. He looked towards Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles and homegrown forbears such as Renoir, for his model of the auteur pursuing personal obsessions despite the inevitable compromises of industrial production.
Similarly, although not identically, the Free Cinema filmmakers resented the conservatism of British films, such as those from Ealing studios. They wanted to make films that reflected everyday life in modern society and the radical undercurrents in postwar Britain that they felt the establishment barely acknowledged. They had all been affected by the war in one way or another and like Truffaut, Godard et al, three of them were critics (their critical writings influenced their filmmaking but in a subtly different way) and all of them were alienated to some extent from their middle-class upbringings. They were part of the broader postwar movement of the New Left, which included the so-called working-class and middle-class ‘Angry Young Men’ immortalized in John Osbourne’s play Look Back in Anger.
Lindsay Anderson was the key founder of Free Cinema. The son of a Major General, he was educated at Cheltenham College and Wadham College, Oxford, where his studies were interrupted by wartime service in the Intelligence Corps. On his return he co-founded the critical film magazine Sequence, which despite a small circulation and a relatively short lifespan became extremely influential just before Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette were making waves across the channel with Cahiers du Cinema.
It was during this time that Anderson coined the phrase ‘Free Cinema’, rewriting the end of a contributor’s article to make it ‘a bit more ‘important.’ ‘I prefer’ he wrote, ‘to group these films under another heading – Free Cinema – which has the advantage of being inclusive rather than exclusive, of indicating a genre to which we may credit all films which please or illuminate without compromise or self-mutilation.’
In 1948 Anderson began to make films influenced by Humphrey Jennings’ wartime studies of everyday life and John Ford, whose My Darling Clementine had first alerted him to cinema’s artistic potential. He co-directed an Oscar-winning documentary prior to the very personal documentary O Dreamland, in which a fairground attraction apes capital punishment to provide spectacle for tourists. The camera views the spectacle with explicit distaste. O Dreamland was the first film screened in the Free Cinema programme.
‘Perhaps’ read the programme, ‘the qualification ‘social documentary’ used by Jean Vigo when talking about ‘Apropos de Nice’ will suggest the approach more clearly. Vigo said: ‘social documentary is distinct from the ordinary short film […] in that its creator will establish his own point of view.’
‘British documentaries, on the other hand [...] seem rather the well-turned product of a highly efficient, standardised industrial process.’
Free Cinema looked across the Atlantic towards the humanism of John Ford, back towards the British wartime documentaries of Humphrey Jennings and, partly because half of the founders were continental refugees, towards the French filmmaker Jean Vigo and the Italian Neo-Realists, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. Both they and the French stood at a point when the technology needed to make a film was becoming more portable, less expensive and easier to use, encouraging non-professionals and opening up new artistic possibilities outside of the industry.
The industry remained a closed shop. As with the French New Wave, as with Dogme 95, we can construct a theoretical equation. When new technology democratises filmmaking opportunities but the established film industry remains closed and conservative, filmmakers will work outside the industry defining themselves by their rejection of industrial norms, couched in terms of independence, innovation and integrity. They may formalise their endeavour in a manifesto to strengthen their solidarity, purpose and ideas in their financially and ideologically precarious situation, to attract publicity and thus further the movement and their careers on their own terms. In emphasising personal films made about everyday subjects, for which high production values and big budgets were not the primary concerns (‘size is irrelevant’), and the ideological content of cinema (‘an attitude means a style. A style means an attitude’), Free Cinema was railing against almost everything that the industry, and the establishment, stood for.
Karel Reisz, the third signatory to the Free Cinema manifesto, met Lindsay Anderson when they were double-booked on the Movieola at the National Film Archive. Anderson had come to watch Hitchcock’s The Lodger to research an article for Sequence while Reisz was researching for a book on film editing. The two hit it off and Reisz joined the editorial team at Sequence.
In 1938 Reisz had arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and then served as a RAF fighter pilot during the Second World War. He studied chemistry at Cambridge and, after a brief spell as a teacher, he became the head of programme planning at the NFT from 1952 until 1955. It was probably his idea to arrange the Free Cinema screening.
In 2001 Reisz spoke about the disproportionate media attention that such a small movement attracted. ‘There was something true about it, undoubtedly, but it was also a piece of manipulation. I mean, you know, the cinema was full for God knows how many evenings, every newspaper wrote about it, there were sort of wild ridiculous things about the renaissance of British cinema […] I mean this for three amateur shorts, you know. And part of it was that the British cinema had been very dull and conformist.’
He went on to say, ‘there's a great danger in making this seem more important than it is, this whole Free Cinema thing is an important footnote.’ Anderson reportedly said that the Free Cinema ‘manifesto’ had been drafted ‘to give journalists something to write about’ and that ‘Free Cinema wasn’t part of an intellectual movement…Free Cinema came into being for entirely practical reasons.’
Reisz co-directed the second film on the first Free Cinema programme (there would be others for other filmmakers) with Tony Richardson. Momma Don’t Allow observed the new nightclub scene haunted by the so-called Teddy Boys and Shop Girls who were among the first of the more liberated postwar generations. This short documentary prefigured Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the night and day chronicle of working class life starring Albert Finney that Reisz directed at the end of the fifties.
Tony Richardson knew Lindsay Anderson at Wadham College, during which time Richardson trained at the BBC and directed theatre. He worked as a film critic at Sight and Sound from 1954-1956 and during that time produced the influential article ‘The Metteur en Scene’ criticizing filmmakers who were neither true creators nor faithful interpreters, preoccupied with style over content.
The Free Cinema programme declared, ‘Momma Don’t Allow was shot on nine Saturday evenings at the Wood Green Jazz Club. […] It was made cheaply – on 16 mm film; with single-track sound transferred from tape recordings; mainly with the camera held in the hand; and with lights strung up in fixed positions from the rafters. […] Unhampered by sponsorship, we did not need to take up the conventional class attitudes of British filmmaking. We felt free not to disapprove of Teddy-boys, not to patronise shop-girls; not to make sensational or hysterical a subject that is neither (but is almost always shown so).’
Clearly the Free Cinema screenings were extremely popular because there was little alternative to a monolithic mainstream while there was a growing desire amongst new audiences for something different, something that reflected the society they lived in (‘the importance of people and the significance of the everyday’). The Free Cinema manifesto was undoubtedly opportunistic. O Dreamland, Momma Don’t Allow and Together were made separately and then grouped with each other afterwards.
There were also two technicians instrumental in the Free Cinema movement: Walter Lassally and John Fletcher. Lassally was the principal photographer. His father had been an industrial filmmaker in Berlin prior to fleeing Germany with his family in 1939. In England Lassally became a clapper boy and worked his way up. He was cinematographer for Momma Don’t Allow. Meanwhile Fletcher worked on both the sound and the image for Together.
Karel Reisz said: ‘We made films and wrote manifestoes to provide a little publicity for the movement, but the value of those films, if they have one, lies in the films themselves and not in the movement.’
Yet there was truth in the manifesto. It reflected broader concerns and was influential not least because of the careers that it launched and the space that it opened up in British filmmaking.
By 1956 Anderson was writing for Sight and Sound and in Autumn, a few months after the first Free Cinema screening, he wrote perhaps his most influential piece of criticism, ‘Stand Up! Stand Up!’ Given that three of the Free Cinema founders were critics, it is perhaps to their critical writings, especially those of Anderson, that we should look for a deeper understanding of the Free Cinema manifesto.
In ‘Stand Up! Stand Up!’ Anderson applied the same principles to film criticism that he applied to his filmmaking. Arguing against a tendency towards ‘objective’ film criticism, ‘non-political’ and ‘impersonal’, that he felt epitomized the prevailing conservatism towards cinema, he argued that cinema was both an art and a cultural and propagandist force. Therefore it should be taken seriously both aesthetically and politically. In the former case because ‘It is impossible to praise things that are bad without injuring things that are good’ and in the latter, because too much was at stake. Since all criticism was at least implicitly political, any objectivity was disingenuous and politics should be expressed openly.
‘…criticism cannot exist in a vacuum; and writers who insist that their functions are so restricted are merely indulging in a voluntary self-emasculation. […] …so far as film criticism is being written here and now, and deals with an art intimately related to the society in which we live, it cannot escape its wider commitments. […] It is merely a question of the openness with which our commitments are stated.’
With the growing disillusionment with the Soviet Union and the failure of the 1945 Labour government, ‘commitment’ had become a way for leftists to express solidarity outside of party politics. Far from an endorsement of solipsism, Free Cinema was rather a rejection of any spurious pretence to objectivity, particularly in documentaries. For Anderson everyone was committed to something (‘an attitude means a style; a style means an attitude’) and those commitments should be made explicit. Equally because cinema was an art it should be ‘free’ to focus on personal, non-commercial, considerations.
In his arguments Anderson was influenced by the essay ‘Towards a Social Cinema’ by French filmmaker Jean Vigo. Tony Richardson had also written about the necessity for a director to bring a personal commitment to filmmaking rather than acting like a cog in the industrial machine or simply focusing on style as if an underlying attitude did not exist. Yet, as his reluctance to consider Free Cinema an intellectual movement attests, Anderson distrusted the auteur theory propounded by Truffaut in 1955 because it denigrated the collaborative effort involved in filmmaking. In general he considered the French critical reliance upon theory to be potentially a reduction of cinema. At worst he felt that it could represent the surrender of the humanist values he held dear - the personal values - to impersonal schema.
Free Cinema lasted only three years and in all there were six screenings. It was no more than a moment in film history but Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson went on to be instrumental filmmakers in the so-called British New Wave of the sixties in which some of the ideas they expressed in Free Cinema achieved a fuller realization. Anderson directed the terrific This Sporting Life, set in the working-class environs of a Northern mining town, with a performance by Richard Harris reminiscent of Marlon Brando while Reisz directed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Richardson directed Look Back in Anger. After the New Wave petered out, far sooner than its more significant French counterpart, these directors continued to work. Anderson arguably achieved auteur status with films such as If… and O, Lucky Man. The Free Cinema technicians, Walter Lassally and John Fletcher also pursued successful careers. Lorenza Mazzetti returned to Italy and wrote a book about her traumatic childhood.
Socially committed cinema was not an original idea when Free Cinema was born however Free Cinema provided opportunities for young socially aware British filmmakers. It both inspired and facilitated the work of subsequent generations of independent British filmmakers, not least Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.
At the last Free Cinema screening in March 1959 another programme was handed out at the NFT. It read:
‘In making these films, and presenting these programmes, we have tried to make a stand for independent, creative film-making in a world where the pressures of conformism and commercialism are becoming more powerful every day. We will not abandon these convictions, nor the attempt to put them into practice…’
‘Free Cinema is dead. Long live Free Cinema!’
Quotations and excerpts are taken from:
BFI / Features / Free Cinema at www.bfi.org.uk
Never Apologise - The Collected Writings by Lindsay Anderson, ed. Paul Ryan. Plexus Publishing, 2004.