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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Free Cinema
Free Cinema
Facets Video // Unrated // November 27, 2007
List Price: $69.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Chris Neilson | posted December 17, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Film

Free Cinema began in 1956 as a marketing ploy by a group of young filmmakers to get their work screened. By the time Free Cinema completed its sixth and final program of shorts in 1959, it had helped propel British cinema out of an extended period of post-war stagnation and into perhaps its most vital period before or since: the British New Wave. For the first time on DVD in North America, Facets' new 3-disc box set, Free Cinema, gathers together eleven shorts released under the Free Cinema banner, as well as five more that followed in the movement's wake.

On four cold evenings in February 1956, sellout crowds packed into London's National Film Theater to see a triple bill of shorts under the program title 'Free Cinema'. The shorts had been made separately, but shared similarities in technique and aesthetics. All were made with small crews, and used non-synchronized sound. All eschewed traditional British documentary's patronizing narration and staid middle-class sensibilities. Dispensing with narration, the Free Cinema shorts allowed the images of London's working class to carry the message that the everyday lives of common people is a subject matter every bit as valid and worthy of respectful consideration as that of the rich and powerful. Media hype about the revolutionary filmmaking had brought the initial crowds in, but the strength of the shorts ensured their success throughout their four-night run and beyond.

The amusement park owners who allowed Lindsay Anderson to film his short O Dreamland (1953, 12 Mins.) on their premises, could not have imagined how Lindsay's directorial gaze would wordlessly reveal and indite the artless consumerist amusements on offer to the dead-eyed crowds. O Dreamland skirts a fine line between lumping the working-class crowds in with the park owners as a subject of ridicule, but there's more reason than not to give Anderson's motives the benefit of the doubt.

If O Dreamland had brought the mood of the audience down, the night's second short, Momma Don't Allow (1956, 22 Mins.) buoyed them. Directed by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, Mamma Don't Allow documented a Saturday night in a hopping jazz club populated by flashy youths tearing up the dance floor with mad swing. Probably for the first time on film, London's emerging youth scene of teddy boys was shown in a positive, non-condescending light. Few films better capture the joy of being young and carefree, if only for one night, than does this short.

The final short on the program was Lorenza Mazzetti's drama Together; the poetic story of two deaf-mute London dockworkers bemusedly isolated by their shared impairment from the hearing world around them. Set against a backdrop of London's poor East End, the film presents its subjects as worthy of respectful consideration without stooping to sentimentality.

Free Cinema had been such a success that further programs were organized under the Free Cinema label. Free Cinema 2, 4 and 5, which are not included in this box set, focused on foreign shorts that shared the techniques and sensibilities of the British Free Cinema movement. The international Free Cinema programs were instrumental in nurturing young talent abroad, especially in Poland, and in creating a sense of Free Cinema as being a truly international film movement.

The focus was again on Britain in Free Cinema 3. Like the first program, Free Cinema 3 included shorts made prior to the establishment of the Free Cinema. These were Lindsay Anderson's Wakefield Express (1952, 30 Mins.), which examines communal small town life, and The Singing Street (1952, 30 Mins.), an extract from a longer work by a trio of Scottish directors, that follows a group of students through a school day.

The high points of the Free Cinema 3 program though were the two new shorts made explicitly under the New Cinema banner in 1957. Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner's Nice Time (17 Mins.) about the nightlife in and around Piccadilly Circus, and Lindsay Anderson's Every Day Except Christmas (39 Mins.) which follows the night workers of Convent Gardens' fruit, vegetable, and flower market through their night shift. Shot using newly-developed 35MM film stock that allowed for night shooting under near-natural light conditions, Every Day Except Christmas is a beautiful film, well deserving of the Grand Prix it received later that year at the Venice Festival of Shorts and Documentaries.

By the time Free Cinema 6 ran in March 1959, the organizers were ready to move on to bigger projects beyond the collective Free Cinema label. Billed as 'The Last Free Cinema', Free Cinema 6 is the most uneven of the Free Cinema programs. Michael Grigsby's Enginemen (1959, 17 Mins.) which documents the working day of British train engineers, and Robert Vas's Refugee England (1959, 27 Mins.) a fictional story about a Hungarian immigrant's first day in London, would have fit in well on the first Free Cinema program. However, Karl Reisz's We Are The Lambeth Boys (1959, 49 Mins.) about a South London youth club, is diminished by a patronizing narration not in keeping with Free Cinema's promise of letting the imagines speak for themselves, and the last short on the program, Elizabeth Russell's Food for a Blush, is an experimental surrealist fable that bares little similarity to other shorts under the Free Cinema banner, and thus constituted an odd ending to the program and movement.

Free Cinema, the movement, ended here as its originators moved on to bigger things, most notably, to create the British New Wave. Free Cinema, the box set, however, goes on to include five more Free Cinema-inspired shorts: Leslie Daiken's One Potato Two Potato (1957, 21 Mins.), documenting children's street games; March to Aldermaston (1959, 33 Mins.), directed by committee, covers a march for nuclear disarmament; Robert Vas's The Vanishing Street (1962, 19 Mins.), documents a traditional London Jewish community threatened by neighborhood redevelopment; Michael Grigsby's Tomorrow's Saturday (1962, 17 Mins.) documenting a typical weekend for cotton workers in a small mill town; and, John Irvin's Gala Day (1963, 25 Mins.) covering 24 hours at a coal miners' festival.


Facets' Free Cinema is a slightly stripped down port of the box set released in Great Britain by the BFI in 2006 to commemorate Free Cinema's 50th Anniversary.

The Video:

The Free Cinema shorts were filmed under a variety of conditions using several different qualities of film stock. Given the condition of the original material, the image looks very good. Further, I can discern no noticeable difference in picture quality between the original BFI PAL release, and Facets' NTSC port.

The Audio:

The original 1.0 mono is maintained in this release. While production noise is present on a number of these shorts, it is likely faithful to the original audio recordings.

The Extras:

Facets' release falls short of the BFI release in terms of extras. Both include a mildly interesting 43-minute documentary composed largely of interviews, clips and stills, and both include a booklet with identical text prepared by BFI film historian Christophe Dupin. However, BFI's large color booklet bests Facets' smaller black-and-white booklet. Finally, where BFI offers subtitles for the hearing impaired, chapter stops, and plenty of interesting disc menus, Facets provides no subtitles, no chapter stops and a few static menus.

Final Thoughts:

Free Cinema was an important movement in British Cinema that largely lived up to its hype. It shook up a stagnant post-war national cinema by challenging traditional documentary's patronizing narration and staid middle-class prejudices. Free Cinema not only reinvigorated British documentary filmmaking, it also shined a spotlight on the young talents that would go on to challenge the British cinema more broadly through the British New Wave. Lindsey Anderson (This Sporting Life, If...., O Lucky Man!), Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), and Karel Reisz (Saturday Night, Sunday Morning) all used Free Cinema as a springboard to greater success in the British New Wave and beyond.

Facets should be commended for bringing Free Cinema to North American viewers. Although it falls short of the BFI release in terms of extras, Facets' Free Cinema is a good quality release of great filmmaking. I highly recommend it.

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