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June 06, 2008

100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell: Review

100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell British Film Institute 2007: Review

100 British Documentaries Cover

Cover of 100 British Documentaries. The cover image comes from Kötting's Gallivant 1996. It features his Grandmother and daughter who has Joubert syndrome. She speaks in yelps and some sign language. She isn't expected to live into adulthood. The film took 3 months to make as they travelled around the country it combines bringing out the everyday with much formal experimentation and is a film that Russell clearly thinks highly of.


Introduction

I recently purchased a nice little book from the BFI Screen Guides series called 100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell who is Senior Curator for non-fiction film with the National Film Archive. The book doesn't set out to be about the very best of British documentaries, although very many of the ones covered are, rather it sets out to cover the scope of the documentary field since British documentaries started being made. The earliest one covered is from 1896 on the Yarmouth Fishing Fleet and covers 2 very recent documentaries Touching the Void 2003 and Supersocieties (Life in the Undergrowth) 2005. Many well known documentaries such as Night Mail (1936)are covered as well as many lesser known ones. In this sense it is a careful examination of the genre not a "Best of guide". One good thing about the book is its compact size and the way it has a range of fairly short entries which makes it an excellent book for reading in the bath or on train journeys which can easily be interrupted. One can pick out themes such as Second World War documentaries or documentaries of postwar politics: a Hugh Hudson party political documentary on Neil Kinnock (1987) is covered and a rather longer film Tracking Down Maggie (1994) on Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher is also included for example.


Russell makes it clear at the outset that he has chosen his selection: 

...because each illustrates something specific about the many forms British documentary has taken, and the numerous use to which it has been put, as it has developed historically


city ruins from Land of Promise Rotha

From Paul Rotha's Land of Promise (1946)

This seems to be an excellent academic criteria upon which to base a choice and gives the book an underlying committment to developing knowledge about the twists and turns of documentarism over the decades. Russell is clear that these films may not necessarily the best, neither are they necessarily his personal favourites. Russell makes it clear that there are many good  documentaries missing. However the tome isn't meant to be a complete history of the Britiish documentary. Hopefully this is a step towards that. However at over 270 pages there is plenty to get stuck into and in terms of signalling imprtant aspects of documentary development this is a 'must buy' book for British cinephile and film students alike. It was recently reviewed in the June issue of Sight & Sound. Mark Cooke the reviewer who also read it on a train ride suggests the book is flawed in that it doesn't represent architecture or issues about sexuality in the changing 20th century. I agree these are both important issues but in fairness the book squeezes an awful lot in and hopefully will contribute towards a greater academic interest in British documentarism, beyond the 'greats' of the 1930s.


What Counts as Documentary?

Russell spends a little time commenting on the documentary form itself at the beginning of the book. Rather than just being as truthful a representation of "actuality" which is what many consider to be the ideal documentary form there can be a considerable amount of experiment:

Hybrids are the rule not the exception (p3)

notes Russell. Many of the films discussed in the book are experimental + documentary, documentary + entertainment, documentary + politics, promotional and educational tools. Russell points out that narrative structures can be very different as well. In brief the documentary is an ever changing field of expression and this book through its use of examples elaborates upon this very effectively.

Well Known and Well Loved Documentaries

Some of the best known documentary film-makers are included such as Paul Rotha with two of his films covered: The Face of Britain (1935) and Land of Promise (1945) which is the name of an excellent multi-DVD collection of British documentaries which has been recently released by the BFI and will be covered on another occassion. The titles of these films cover a period when Britain was struggling with the aftermath of the Depression and was still a country of deference, compared with 1945 when the country had undergone something of a sea-change with the Labour Party gaining a landslide victory in the aftermath of the defeat of Hitler in Europe but before the Atomic bombs had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki irrevocably changing the nature of the world to come. The social democratic moment and a land of social unity was in the air and the successful prosecution of the war had put the building of a welfare state and a planned economy with nationalisation of the worst run industries firmly on the agenda.

Listen to Britain 1

From Listen to Britain (1942)


Another very different stylist of the documentary Humphrey Jennings is also represented with perhaps his best and most poetic work Listen to Britain (1942) with editor Stewart MacAllister also on the credits being one of his wartime films. For my money it is is easily the most powerful propaganda film I have ever seen and knocks the infamous,lamentable and much over-rated Triumph of the Will by Riefenstahl into the proverbial cocked hat. It is a film which through its very essence could not be made by an authoritarian regime. If effective propaganda is about creating foundational national myths then this one is unlikely to be surpassed.  Also by Jennings is his well known A Diary for Timothy (1946) following the birth of a baby boy made at a time - 1944/1945- when Britain was in a war weary mode and just looking forward to getting the job done and starting to rebuild Britain as a better place for all. Timothy was to become a teacher later in life signifying the hopes for the future that are inevitably bound up with education. The film was produced by Basil Wright and had a script from E. M. Forster with a voice over by Michael Redgrave.

Drifters (1929) by John Grierson was the foundational film of what was to become the British Documentary Movement Other films from this important grouping are also represented such as: The Song of Ceylon (1934) Housing Problems (1935), Night-Mail (1936) with the famous poem by Auden driving its rhythms and Today We Live : A Film of Life in Britain (1937) by Ruby Grierson (John Grierson's sister) and Ralph Bond.


Political Themes

March to aldermarston 1

March to Aldermarston (1958)



Many important political documentaries are also covered which signify very important moments in the social history of post-war Britain upuntil the present. March to Aldermarston (1958) was given a collective credit but is widely recognised to have had the guiding hand of  Lindsay Anderson behind it.  CND and the anti-nuclear Movement was to become a powerpul political force in the UK and as such represents a deep polarisation that was to exist in the country for decades until the Cold War collapsed. Nightcleaners (1975) Berwick Street Collective represents the shifting gender balance in Britain, for it was during the 1970s that Equal Pay Legislation came in that decade. It also signifies the battle to unionise marginalised areas of the labour force and to get recognised the importance of women in doing that work.

A Conservative Party election Broadcast of 1979 from the image campaign managed by Saatchi and Saatchi is included. This powerful campaign was undoubtedly important in providing some impetus to set Britain down the political path of Neo-liberalism as the way out of the recession triggered by oil crisis but which really marked an end to the long economic boom of the West since the end of the war. In that sense this marks a turning point in British post-war politics, economics and society. 

Handsworth songs 1

From Handsworth Songs (1986)


Handsworth Songs (1986) John Akromfrah represents the changing ethnic composition of Britain which had been going on since the 1950s and unlike two other documentaries covered in the collection was made by a radicalised person from one of those communities. The film covers the Handsworth rioting of the mid 1980s and used several different formal techniques. Russell suggests that it lacks a strong enough interior logic to make it more than the sum of its parts. On this basis he considers the film as being overrated seeing a sort of 'inverse racism' at work. I didn't get to see the film at the time and I'm not certain about its current availability. I certainly remember the riots and despite Russell's criticism that the the film is hiding behind an academic "jargon" in a BFI publicity handout of representing

"... the riots as a political field coloured by the trajectories of industrial decline and structural crisis"

that is really what it was. The hand of Stuart Hall the then director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies defended the film against (predictably) Salman Rushdie who according to Russell thought it pretentious. Russell points out that the film in his mind has dated badly and that it is still praised because there is still an invidious situation of ethnic under-representation. This leaves us some food for thought.


Lockerbie a night Remembered

From Lockerbie:  A Night Remembered (1998)


Lockerbie: A Night Remembered (1998) can be read as signifying the continuous exposure to terrorist violence faced by Britian and the West in general since the 1960s whther from the Red Brigades, nationalist movements such as the IRA or religious fundamentalist inspired violence such as the London Tube bombings as as 9/11 of course. McLibel (1998/2005) signifies the growth of corporate power embodied in Macdonalds throughout the 1980s and 1990s and the fight back which individuals have made on a continuous basis.


Other Themes

Many other themes can be dug out of the book such as music documentaries from Let it Be (1970) to Johnny Cash in San Quentin (1969) -which is a British film perhaps surprisingly -. this marks the swinging sixties and the rowth of pop and rock music as an important cultural force.

Let it Be 1

Setting up the roof concert at the end of Let it Be


One obvious theme is coal mining. A Day in the Life of a Coalminer (1910)is the first of these, Cavalcanti's Coalface (1935) follows. Mining Review Fourth Year Number 12 (1951) is a report from the recently nationalised caolmining industry which under private ownership had become outrageously exploititative and also underininvested. Lastly there is The Coal Board's Butchery (1984), a Miner's Union campaigning video against the pit lcosures put into operation by the Thatcher government. As such it encompasses a key turning point in British society which has lead to the diempowering of the Trade Union movement. As was recognised by the Miner's leaders at the time it was a battle against neo-liberal politics and as such was much more than about coal miners jobs. Deindustrialised Britain has been the net outcome.


Conclusion

There are many other themes to be dug out of the book. It represents excellent value and is an enjoyable way of spending some time. It's breadth deals not just with the various forms of documentary film making themselves but provides a range of insights into British culture and society in a poignant way. One can only hope that the BFI put together a matching set of documentaries to accompany the book. That would make a truly excellent package.




January 04, 2008

Glossary of Documentary Film Terms

Glossary of Documentary Film Terms

From the Kinoeye Reference Section


Aleatory techniques. Aleatory technique is when the element of chance is incorporated into the film making process. Action and sound may not have been planned or scripted. The British film maker Humphrey Jennings was renowned for this.  Even in fiction films this technique has been used. Jean-Luc Godard used improvisational interview techniques with his actors which questioned the distinction between acting and being and also the division between documentary and fiction.

Cinema Verite. A type of observational film which uses available light, fast film stock, handheld lightweight cameras, portable sound recording and a minimum of other equipment to record profilmic events. Aleatory techniques are very important to this style. The style became widely known after being introduced by the anthropologist / filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Jean Morin in Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Rouch saw the camera as a participant in the unfolding of events which makes cinema verite quite different in approach to Direct Cinema. Rouch believed that the camera functioned as a psychological stimulant which although it altered behaviour in front of the camera arguably revealed deeper underlying truths about personalities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) can be understood as a precursor of this approach. The camera did boast of its own presence and influence upon the profilmic events. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) by Marcel Ophuls can be seen as another example.

cover_of_man_with_a_movie_camera.jpg


City Symphony film. This developed as a sub-genre of documentary film. They are often abstract films loosely structured around the theme of the day in the life of a city. The use of montage provides a sense of rhythm and movement. Rien que les heures (1926) Alberto Cavalcanti was shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. Man With a Movie Camera: Dziga Vertov (1929) is far more than just an impressionistic view of the city. The film is an optimistic perspective on the importance of industrialisation and modernisation. Vertov also brings in a strong element of reflexivity in which the film is shown as being made as well as showing the audience and the place of exhibition.

Crown Film Unit. In August 1940 the GPO Film Unit was remaned the Crown film Unit directly under the Ministry of information thus becoming a directly propaganda organisation. Many of the films were made by Humphrey Jennings as well as Watt and Jackson. After the war documentaries were stil made but the energy, belief by government and and social consciousness had dissipated. The Unit was closed in 1951.

Direct Cinema. A type of observational documentary practice which developed in the USA during the 1960s. Profilmic events were recorded as they happened without rehearsal or reconstruction. Unlike cinema verite the practivce sought to be as unobtrusive as possible giving rise to the term ‘Fly on the wall’ coined by the film-maker Richard Leacock. Stylistically they feature long takes and minimal editing and try to keep a chronological structure to preserve profilmic events as effectively as possible. Subjects are allowed to speak for themselves and the camera observes ho0ping to record a privileged moment which will display the truth of the person behind the words.

Documentary. The term was invented by John Grierson when reviewing of Flaherty’s Moanna (1926). Any film practice that has as its subject persons events or situations that exist outside the film in the real world also referred to as non-fiction film. The first films ever shown to the public were documentaries exhibited by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. They were very popular for some some with travelogues being especially popular. As editing techniques developed fictional narrative films gradually eclipsed documentaries. Documentary then survived inside the institution of cinema as newsreels. Pathe News began these in 1910 and soon other major companies began making them. Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922) was the first ever full length feature documentary. It demonstrated that fictional techniques could be used in a documentary.

Nanook of the North DVD Cover


Few full length documentaries have ever been made. Woodstock : Michael Wadleigh (1970) was one that managed to be distributed in mainstream cinemas. Documentaries differ from fiction because they refer to the historical real. The documentary theorist Bill Nichols describes the pleasure derived from watching documentary as ‘epistephilia’ or knowing about the real world. Fiction film cannot substitute for the hooror of an on-screen assassination or the explosion of the space shuttle challenger or the planes flying into the world trade centre. There is no need to suspend disbelief. Initially for many the fact that real events were caught on camera meant that documentaries were somehow unbiased. Nowadays it is widely accepted that documentaries are biased, as a result those seeking more objectivity take more concern with how the subjects of the documentary represent themselves. Blandford, Grant and Hillier (2001) argue that documentary isn’t a genre citing Nichols who comments that:

Documentary as a concept or practice occupies no fixed territory. It mobilises no finite inventory of techniques, adresses no completly known taxonomy of forms, styles, or modes’.

Nevertheless on the arguments that Neale uses to describe 'Art Cinema' as a 'genre' by virtue of its exhibitionary and distribution target audience, documentary with all the sub-generic forms has a more powerful case to be described as a genre. Interestingly Bill Nichols himself has included two articles on documentary including one by himself under 'Genre Criticism' in his seminal Movies and Methods Vol 2 (1985).


Empire Marketing Board (Film Unit). Existed to market the British Empire. John grierson headed the film unit between 1928 - 1933 when the whole board was wound up. It produced nearly 100 short films including The Drifters (1929) by Grierson himself and also Industrial Britain 1932) by Robert Flaherty. The Public Relations head Tallents went to the GPO and took Grierson and the film unit with him.


Ethnographic Film. Anthropological documentary that seeks to present and describe other cultures with a minimum of interpretation and ideological distortion. The first feature film usually considered as a foundational ethnographic film was Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922). However it romanticised the Inuit people. This type of approach to documentary film making can often be seen as condescending by representing indigenous people as ‘exotic others’.

Fast Film Stock. This describes how sensitive the emulsion is to light. Fast film stock is more sensitive to light and is rated at 400 ASA and above. Slower film stock can start as low as 50 ASA. Fast film was very useful in low light conditions and shooting could take place without artificial lighting. The disadvantage of this was that the film would look grainy compared to slower speed films.

Free Cinema Movement. This was a short lived movement in the late 1950s in Britain which tried to develop a different approvoach to documentary cinema. It had a powerful effect upon the British New Wave feature films which emereged soon afterwards. It was founded by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. The term was used to designate a number of documentary films they made during the 1950s. The ideals held in common were that documentary films should be made free of all commercial pressures. That they should be inflected with a humanistic and poetic approach. This gave the work of Humphrey Jennings over that of John Grierson. Both anderson and Reisz were critics for the film magazine Sequence . The magazine criticisd British documentary for being conformist and feature filmmaking for its lack of aesthetic innovation. They also criticised the monopoly practices of British cinema. They also criticised the predominant genres of war films -which seemed to glorify war and avoid the horrors - and weak comedies. Their own shorts were largely self-funded although some grant money from the BFI was forthcoming. Ford UK was also a significant source of funding. Ford commissioned a series of documentaries ‘Look at Britain’. Free Cinema was responsible for Every Day Except Christmas : Anderson (1957) and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). These filmmakers believed in representing working class culture as it was lived. The editing was very rhythmic dliberately connoting Jazz which had become an important part of working class subculture. Stylistically these 3 directors were smilar and 4 out of the 6 films they made had Walter Lasally as the cinematographer. The directors they were influenced by included John Ford, Marcel Carne, Jean Cocteau, Jean Gremillon, Humprey Jennings, Jean Renoir, Vittorio de Sica and Jean Vigo.

GPO Film Unit. This started under Grierson in 1933 after the Empire Marketing Board was wound up. It became the main institution to be associated with documentary film in the 1930s. It had a wide brief only some being linked directly to the Post Office. The films were heavily influenced by montage alongside a committment to representing ordinary people. It was propagandist in so far as it existed to serve the needs and purposes of the state. After Cavalcanti joined the unit there was also experiment with sound montage. Tensions arose between exponents of developing new forms and those who emphasised a more straightforward aproach. Later 1930s films tend to be less experimental than the earlier ones. There was also the development of drama documentaries. Many of the Unit’s conceptions were based around a similar public service principle to the BBC. In 1937 Cavalcanti took over the unit. In 1940 the unit was renamed the Crown Film Unit under the Ministry of Information.

Handheld Camera. Rather than using a tripod, dolly or crane the camera operator had far more flexibility and mobility. Images produced handheld weren't stable before the development of the steadicam. This created a certain look and feel usually associated with cinema verite and Direct Cinema both of which sought to follow profilmic events as they happened.




Woman with Steadicam System

This Steadicam system allows film makers to significantly reduce the unstable feeling of handheld cinematography. Handheld photography can now be used as an artistic device to impart a feeling of reality for the viewer. A good example of this is the sequence in Saving Private Ryan where the American troops are pinned down on the beach by Nazi gunfire as they launch the invasion of France.









Observational Cinema. This is a type of cinema in which the camera follows the profilmic events as they happen intending to reveal truths about these events. Ethnographic film, cinema Verite and Direct Cinema are all types of observational cinema. The question of whether and how much the film exploits, manipulates or documents the social actors are central. The films are seen as relatively truthful as they aren’t constrained by the technological limitations of older equipment which required dramatic reconstruction and a voice of god narrator.

Portable Sound Recording. Sound recording of location sound remained a problem until the 1950s when the break through in electronics which saw the development of the transistor meant that locational synchronised sound and filming was possible. This encoured styles such as cinema verite and Direct Cinema. The Swiss Nagra sound recorder was very popular with the French New Wave.

Profilmic Event. This is a theoretical term for the reality in front of the camera which is photographed. In observational documentary such as Direct Cinema / Ethnographic Cinema / Cinema Verite film makers aim to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of these events (what is filmed) as much as possible

Voice of God Narration. The term has developed to describe the use of voice-over in documentary films. It is often used to describe the voice-over style used in Grierson produced documentaries. The voice is usually male, disembodied and omniscient. This style has been rejected by documentary makers in recent times as it is considered as being patriarchal, ethnocentric and manipulative. Personal voice-over is often used as in Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989)




Other Kinoeye glossaries include:


European Cinema and Media Glossary A-E

European Cinema and Media Glossary  Ed-Mo




Glossary of New Media Technologies (A-N)

Glossary of New Media Technologies (O-Z)





October 21, 2007

Free Cinema the Precursor to the British New Wave

Free Cinema the Precursor to the British 'New Wave'

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. (Programme notes to Free Cinema 3)

Introduction


Lindsay Anderson

Lindsay Anderson


The Free cinema movement in Britain is rightly described on the cover of the BFI three disc set called Free Cinema as a "highly influential but critically neglected" movement in cinema history.  This article sets out to help publicise and establish a wider critical discourse around this body of films. Free Cinema itself started out as a cultural event at the National Film Theatre (NFT) in 1956. This proved to be extraordinarily popular and allowed Karel Reisz who was programme planner at the NFT at the time as well as an active film-maker to hold another five programmes which went on until March 1959. The films themselves were documentaries which were made in the spirit of the quirky at times quasi-surrealist fashion tradition of Humphrey  Jennings rather than in the more seemingly "objective observer" tradition of Grierson. The full six programmes afforded enthusistic audiences to see a range of films that would have been almost impossible to see otherwise and all the screenings were a sell out. Critical and audience success are the two benchmarks by which we can judge the success of the movement. 

An International Dimension

Karel Reisz

Karel Reisz


Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson were responsible for putting together the six programmes and their own films were screened in Free Cinema, Free Cinema 3: Look at Britain and Free Cinema 6: The Last Free Cinema. Importantly the other three Free Cinema programmes screened the work of Foreign Directors including Lionel Rogosin, Georges Franju and Norman McLaren in Free Cinema 2. Free Cinema 4: Polish Voices screened work by Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowcyzk and others. Free Cinema 5: French Renewal screened work by Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. When one looks at the directors who made their films in Britain as a part of this series of programmes one can see that there was a strong committment to opening up the cinema to a wide range of international mainly European influences including some from behind the Iron Curtain which must have taken some organising only a couple of years after the infamous Hungarian uprising. 


Movement or Tendency?

Lorenza Mazzetti

Lorenza Mazzetti

According to Lindsay Anderson this film movement or tendency coincided with the seminal theatrical work of the period John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956). Anderson was responsible for assembling the programme of shorts and documentaries which were to be shown at the National Film Theatre. The concept of being ‘free’ cinema meant that the films were made outside of the framework of the industry and because the films were personal statements about contemporary society. Hayward (1996) suggests that tendency is a better term than a movement in so far as the Free Cinema programme was eclectic and international rather than being comprised of directors who had a common style and common ideals. There were three directors who did form the basis of a movement, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. According to Tony Richardson the term free cinema was originally invented to describe the documentary films made by these directors during the 1950s. Later Anderson was to deny that Free Cinema could be described as a movement.

Regarding the documentaries they considered that these should be made free of all commercial pressures and based upon a humanistic and poetic approach. In espousing these sentiments their work owed more to the poetic realism of Humphrey Jennings than to the more positivist sociological inflections of John Grierson. The intellectual backdrop for this approach came from the magazine Sequence which Anderson had founded in 1946. Many articles had focused upon the conformity and apathy engendered by the documentaries of the time whilst others targeted at the feature film had criticised the lack of aesthetic experimentation.

In Sequence Anderson and Reisz concentrated upon issues of style and criticised the conformity in feature films in terms of the narrative structure which was largely based upon the Hollywoodised ‘classic narrative cinema’. They also attacked the bourgeois nature of this cinema and accused it of lacking reality because of its very weak representation of the working class. They also criticised the industrial giants Rank and ABC (part of Warner Bros) which were the only two feature film companies in distribution and exhibition at this time.

Overall I tend to come down on the side of the argument that argues it was a movement, for the notion of tendency seems to imply a much looser milieu whilst this one was relatively compact and just like  Neorealism and much of the French New Wave the leading members had been working on the same critical magazine. If it wasn't bound by a tight manifesto it was more than just a bunch of people drifting along as the following quotation from Anderson taken from the Free Cienam 1 programme indicates:

Talking with Karel, Tony and Lorenza about the miserable difficulty of getting our work shown I came up with the idea (at least I think it was me) that we should form ourselves into a movement, should formulate some kind of manifesto and thereby grab the attention of the press and try to get a few days showing at the National Film Theatre. (Booklet accompanying the BFI Free Cinema DVD).

Anderson notes later that even though they got an interview on Panorama the manifesto was a ploy to get Momma Don't Allow, Oh Dreamland and Together all screened. It is clear that they were overtaken by thier success and that there was an audience out there wanting more and different content. The problem with manifestos is that they can act as poles of attraction and create their own impetus. 


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 in the significance of the everyday

Filmmaking Methods

Despite Hayward's doubts there were a number of features in common between the British made films. They were all made in black and white using hand-held Bolex cameras that were only capable of 22 second shots at the maximum. They were documentaries and they largely avoided the use of didactic style voice-over commentaries.There tended to be a lack of narrative continuity and sound and editing was fairly impressionistic. There was also a conscious decision to go out of the studio and film the reality of contemporary Britain. The possibilities for this were improved as the revolutionary HPS (hypersensitive) film stock from Ilford came onto the market. Although the use of this has become associated with the French New Wave in an interview with Walter Lassally the main cinematographer of the British Free Cinema he points out that he drew the attention of the  French directors to the  use of the high speed Ilford film allowing for nighttime shooting. Another distinguishing feature which makes the work of these three directors a movement is the use made of Walter Lassally as the camera-person on four out of the six films which belong to this oeuvre. Because of the low funding available all were very low to low budget films.

The Financing 

When it came to making their own films unsurprisingly Rank was not forthcoming with finance for these trenchant critics of the British film making institutions. The British Film Institute (BFI) Experimental Film Fund and more surprisingly Ford’s of Dagenham which commissioned a series of documentaries called Look at Britain two of which were made by the Free Cinema directors: Anderson, Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). The BFI provided funding for Momma Don’t Allow (Richardson and Reisz, 1956).


Momma Don't Allow

Tony Richardson

Tony Richardson


Momma Don’t Allow explored the  leisure particularly looking at jazz and dance and noting a mixing of the classes on the dance floor. The editing reflected the jazz syncopation and the importance of jazz and dance and emerging popular music was an important facet of the later New Wave features with Johnny Dankworth providing the music for Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning as well as for Losey’s The Servant (1963) -a film not usually classed as British New Wave but one which can be seen as part of the whole changing culture of Britain none the less. Dankworth also did the soundtrack for Schlesinger’s Oscar winning Darling (1965), which takes both his and Julie Christie’s career post-British New Wave and into London’s 'Swinging Sixties' with representations of a new media and show biz glitteratti and people trying to make it. 

In Britain the cinematic ‘New Wave’ was born out of the conjunction of two tendencies with Richardson playing an important part in both. Firstly there was the growth of new sentiments emerging through the theatre and its responses to the growth of social consensus developed in Britain in the 1950s. Secondly there was the influence of British Free Cinema. In this sense it is perhaps better to talk of a rapidly changing cultural milieu especially in London which both senses and participated in changing British society and was made up from a range of generally younger artists operating in various branches of the arts.


The Free Cinema Films


Free Cinema Programme 1

Walter Lassally

Cinematographer Walter Lassally


O Dreamland, (1953): Directed Lindsay Anderson

Momma don't Allow (1956) Karel Reisz  and Tony Richardson

Momma Don

Momma Don't Allow


Together (1956) Lorenza Mazzetti

Free Cinema Programme 3

Wakefield Express (1952): Lindsay Anderson

Nice Time (1957) Claude Goretta & Alain Tanner

Piccadilly Circus from Nice Time

Picadilly Circus from Nice Time


Everyday Except Christmas (1957) Lindsay Anderson (winner of the documentary prize at the Venice film festival)

Everyday except Xmas

Everyday Except Christmas


The Singing Street (1952): McIsaac, Ritchie, Townsend


We are the Lambeth Boys (1959) Karel Reisz


We Are the Lambeth Boys 1

We are the Lambeth Boys


Refuge England (1959) Robert Vas

Enginemen (1959) Michael Grigsby


Food for a Blush (1959) Elizabeth Russell


The End is the Beginning 


Free Cinema


Unlike many artistic movements the Free Cinema movement was very clear about the sixth programme being the last one. It is extremly hard work being underfunded and on the edge. Prizes had been won and recognition had been won. Anderson, Reisz and Richardson were in a position to move on to making proper feature films. As the Times of  1959 noted they had made documentaries for thier generation in a style which marked the changing times for it was very different to the Griersonian method of 30 years ago. 

It is important to recognise just how much they were part of a wider socio-cultural movement in the country as the Times notes. Richardson had  co-founded the English Stage Production Company with George Devine. He had directed Osborne's very successful and groundbreaking Look Back in Anger in 1956 and this led to Osborne ad Richardson establishing Woodfall Films in 1959.

The new opportunities and the shift in culture allowed the full length features of the British Social Realist movement to emerge. This would probably not have happened had the Free Cinema not emerged in the first place.  


Webliography 


http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/freecinema/archive/ellis-freecinema.html

This BFI page is a route into some excellent resources which are unlikely to be bettered.

Lindsay Anderson writing in Sight and Sound on Humphrey Jennings who was a core inspirational force for the Free Cinema directors.  

Geocities on Free Cinema. This is an example of a website which only partially knows its facts. It asserts that it was founded on the precepts of Italian neorealism. In fact Humphrey Jennings had far more influence and he was a neorealist before neorealism! Second point is the argument that it was heavily influenced by the French New Wave. As it was Walter Lassally who passed over ideas to the French cinematographers about shooting on Ilford 400 ASA this doesn't quite add up, neither do the dates. The reality is that the most imaginative young film makers in both countries were developing different approaches to film making. The issue of how far there was an inter-relationship and cross-fertilisation of ideas is what needs to be explored.  

Senses of Cinema Review of the BFI Triple DVD release of Free Cinema

Guardian review feature on the Free Cinema movement.

Vertigo Magazine 2004 on: Documentary is Dead – Long Live Documentaries! This makes important reference to Free Cinema as well as considring the state of documnetary now in relation to TV. Julian Petley's comments about regulation are of particular interest.



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The BFI Glossary of Film Terms

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/education/glossary.html#new-wave
screenonline: Glossary of Film and Television Terms

BBC Film Network

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Malcolm McDowell Introduces British Free Cinema

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screenonline: Malcolm McDowell on Free Cinema

Paul Merton Introduces Early British Comedy

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tours/merton/tourmerton1.html
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Bill Douglas Centre

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Vertigo: British based journal about global independent cinema

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Vertigo Magazine – for Worldwide Independent Film

Deutsche Film Portal

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The Berlin Film Museum

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Filmmuseum Berlin – Deutsche Kinemathek

Goethe Institute London Film Pages

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Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung

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Framework a Peer assessed Film and Media Journal

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Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media

Kinoeye. No relation to this blog. Cinema journal mainly focused upon Central & Eastern Europe

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Kinoeye | Polish cinema | Vol 4.05, 29 November 2004

Cineuropa: A joint initiative

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