These blog posts, The World According to Grierson, ‘Drifters’ at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (2014) and The Lasting Appeal of Night Mail (1936), were written for my MLitt Film Studies course in 2014 and can be found on the University of Stirling Archives webpage.
It's interesting to look back on them after a number of years. I also wrote a blog charting the Free Cinema Movement, but, for whatever reason, it was never published.
So, here it is:
The Free Cinema Movement, a series of six film programmes screened at the National Film Theatre (NFT) in London between February 1956 and March 1959, referred to a small group of filmmakers who decided that total freedom from propaganda and economic constraints of the film industry be necessary.
Struggling to get their work screened in film theatres, Lindsay Anderson filmmaker and critic, Karel Reisz director of programming at the NFT, Tony Richardson stage director at the Royal Court Theatre and art student Lorenza Mazzetti created a film exhibition programme unlike the traditional method of distribution. Their films, O Dreamland (Anderson, 1953), Moma Don’t Allow (Reisz & Richardson, 1953) and Together (Mazzetti, 1956), made independently, had a common theme and attitude. These short films showed life as it happened, such as leisure time at a funfair in Margate, the nightlife of young adults in a Wood Green jazz club and the adventures of two hearing-impaired youths in the East End of London.
In Never Apologise, the collected writings of Lindsay Anderson, Anderson suggests that Free Cinema films ‘were aware of the world around them’, furthermore the films tried to represent the working classes without ridiculing them, unlike their depiction within many popular British films at the time. Anderson, himself a prolific critic, contributed to his own magazine Sequence (Ref. Anderson Archive, LA/4/1). He defended the existence of Free Cinema against the traditional Griersonian documentary filmmaking as being the opposite of a, ‘(R)ather well-turned out product of a highly efficient, standardised industrial process’ (Ref. Anderson Archive, LA/1/2/5/4).
The critical and public reception for the first screenings were successful and resulted in several more films being produced and exhibited, such as Everyday Except Christmas (Anderson, 1957), and We are the Lambeth Boys (Reisz, 1959). Nevertheless, in a 1986 television documentary on British cinema, Anderson suggested that some critics underrated the films as ‘unimaginative social realism’ and ‘dreary political propaganda’ (Ref. Anderson Archive, LA/2/5/7/1). Instead, the Free Cinema Movement heralded a shift in post-war documentary and conventional narrative filmmaking, both technically and aesthetically. The films were initially shot on 16mm hand-held cameras with no sync-sound, shot on location and with no script. The result was a more direct, intentional and immediate style of filmmaking, or as the Free Cinema manifesto of 1956 states, ‘(A)s film-makers we believe that no film can be too personal’ (Ref. Anderson Archive, LA/1/2/5/4).
In March 1959, the final Free Cinema films screened in theatres. Anderson et al. were forced to stop producing them due to the financial challenges they faced, plus exhibition was becoming difficult, for instance, the NFT refused to show any more of the productions as they were deemed too political (Ref. Anderson Archive, LA/2/5/7/1).
Similar to many film movements, as one expires, another takes over, and the Free Cinema Movement was no exception. The style of filmmaking and attitude developed further and took Anderson, Richardson and Reisz into the domain of narrative filmmaking. The late 1950s, early 1960s saw the rise of the British New Wave, spearheaded by Look Back In Anger (Richardson, 1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, 1960) and This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963).