Thursday, September 19, 2013

Film scholar Daniel Fitzpatrick has curated the IFI and Experimental Film Club programme for September, and here he discusses its theme: Re-evaluating British documentary cinema 

British cinema has always gotten a bad rap. Ever since Truffaut made the claim that the words ‘Britain’ and ‘cinema’ were incompatible it has struggled to be taken seriously. For Truffaut and many others this was a cinema that was “boring”, lacked “enthusiasm, zeal and impetus”; it was a cinema that reflected “a submissive way of life”. Britain’s cinema has been continuously dismissed for being dull, safe and ‘realistic’, in the pejorative use of the term, but this screening of short films taken from various points within Britain’s history of documentary film production quickly puts paid to those claims. What is revealed instead is an evolving tradition of experimentation and innovation. It is a history full of contradictions and often apposite positions. The Free Cinema movement for example, and its figurehead Lindsay Anderson, rejected outright the influence of John Grierson and the formative British documentary film movement, opting instead for a low budget form with no ties to industry or government and little or no editorialising commitment. Their film O Dreamland (1953) is included here. The film was shot on, what was then, newly affordable 16mm stock and it takes us on an almost hallucinatory trip through the Margate funfair, taking in, among other things, a terrifying cackling clown and a ‘Torture Through The Ages’ exhibit.

The Free Cinema movement took their primary inspiration from Humphrey Jennings, often considered the true poet of British documentary cinema. Jennings films stripped away everything that was deemed unnecessary in the documentary form, replacing the narrative voice with a collage of sounds that far more effectively captured the specifics of a time and place. Included in this programme is his film Spare Time. Originally created for the New York World Fair of 1939, it offers us a picture of Britain at work and at play in the interwar period. This deeply evocative film also reflected Jennings involvement with the Mass Observation movement, removed as it was from the kinds of editorialising and condescension that often dogged documentary cinema and its engagement with the ‘working classes’.

Len Lye Trade Tattoo (1937)

Going back to British documentary’s formative period and John Grierson’s reign as head of both the Empire Marketing Board and later the GPO Film Unit we find here an equally dazzling embrace of formal experimentation and playful innovation. Within his stated objective of making films that would speak directly to the masses, that would educate and inform, Grierson managed to surround himself with a truly eclectic group of creatives, many of whom were drawn from an emergent European avant-garde. These would include Alberto Cavalcanti, Len Lye (two films by Lye are included in this programme), Norman McLaren (his short Love On The Wing is featured here), Basil Wright and Edgar Antsey. These filmmakers often truly functioned as a collective with various influences present across a wide number of films. The films themselves, particularly those included here, were full of ideas, highly adventurous, and certainly never dull.

Hans Richter Every Day (1929)

This programme also includes Hans Richter’s Every Day (1929), a scarcely seen film which features a rare screen appearance by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The film depicts a day in the life of an increasingly industrialised and mechanised existence. Geoffrey Jones’ film Locomotion (1975), which also effectively combines human and machinic rhythms, is a masterpiece of creative editing, and it closes out this exciting programme.            

The IFI & Experimental Film Club’s N or NW: Experimental Lineages within British Documentary Cinema will take place on September 25th at 18.30.  BOOK NOW.  

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