The ambivalent legacy of Free Cinema

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"I've just seen a marvellous programme of documentaries," I enthused to a young sculptor friend who has no particular interest in cinema. "Oh! Documentaries," he replied, "You mean those films that are like driving along in a car with the radio on!" - John Berger, Sight and Sound, 1957.

Berger's palpable excitement leaps off the page as he describes his reaction to a series of highly influential Free Cinema short films which re-energised British documentary making in the 1950s by recording "the virtues and dignity of ordinary people at work". The documentaries were "free" in the sense that they were not subject to overt commercial pressure or propaganda of any kind, although this is arguable as one of the programmes received backing from a multinational corporation, Ford of Britain.

However, what ran through each was the desire to portray working class people not as crude stereotypes or objects of comedic derision, but rather as part of a "rich diversity of tradition and personality". A manifesto outlining the political intentions of the filmmakers accompanied each showing, proclaiming a "belief in freedom, the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday".

Every Day Except Christmas was a 37-minute documentary directed by Lindsay Anderson, one of the founders of the movement. The first of a series called Look at Britain, it was a portrait of Covent Garden Market from the early hours of the morning until midday. Shown in 1957, it typifies many of the features of Free Cinema and is possibly the most well known, representative and ambitious example of the genre.

Anderson began by shadowing workers around the market for several nights. A rough treatment was then written but the majority of the documentary was improvised on location and shot over the next four weeks. The film is deliberately low key. It begins on a Sussex farm and follows crates of produce on the long, dark drive to London. At Covent Garden porters unload deliveries. Fruit and vegetables are unpacked and displayed. Flowers are unwrapped from tissue paper and placed in florists' buckets ready for sale. The market workers then take a short break in a nearby cafe before the buyers arrive at dawn. A mad rush follows and by 11am the market is almost deserted.

Anyone reading this description could be forgiven for thinking it sounds less than riveting, but they would be mistaken. It is totally absorbing, not just because the subject seems so remote from us, but because "it makes perfect use of Free Cinema's trademark features: virtuoso cinematography alternating highly poetic moments with candid camera shots, and an imaginative soundtrack using natural sounds, voices and added music".

The film was almost universally well received by mainstream critics and went on to win the Grand Prix at the Venice Festival of Shorts and Documentaries that year. Interestingly, the response to the Look at Britain series from left wing social commentators and academics was more ambivalent. Berger, generally an enthusiastic proponent of Free Cinema, took issue with Anderson for his "affectionate" dedication to the market porters at the beginning of the documentary. Others suggested that the movers and shakers behind Free Cinema and their contemporaries were guilty of producing a "series of exciting images of revolt" rather than putting revolutionary politics into action.

Fifty years later I share that ambivalence, as one of the main protagonists of Every Day Except Christmas is my grandmother, Alice Saben, the last woman porter at Covent Garden. It is a curious feeling knowing that this documentary has been deconstructed hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. It has been the subject of numerous dissertations. The British Film Institute sells stills from it. Wikipedia gives it more than a passing mention. It can be downloaded from YouTube or bought from Amazon.

Alice Saben's image, and that of everyone else in the film, has become just another commodity and I am pulled in several directions. Is this documentary a valuable celebration of a working class community that has disappeared, captured on celluloid and available to be replayed any time I want my comfort blanket of nostalgia? Or, however well intentioned, did Anderson and his colleagues inadvertently open a door for capitalism to exploit and diminish the very people Free Cinema professed to have such "affection" and respect for? I don't have a definitive answer and I suspect there probably isn't one.

Free Cinema is available from retailers and the BFI Filmstore