Soup Dreams

Film still for Soup Dreams

One day in a Soho café Lindsay Anderson and pals dreamed up Free Cinema. Was it the dogma of its day ask Bryony Dixon and Christophe Dupin? FC's Lorenza Mazzetti tells all.

The day you abandon us, you'll be bringing up the rear of a very long line. And if you don't come back, perhaps one day you'll write a book explaining why so many writers have left England for good over the last fifty years." So Lindsay Anderson said to Gavin Lambert when he heard his friend, a former editor of this magazine, was leaving Britain to take up residence in Los Angeles.

Lambert - who records the quote in his warm and insightful biography of the director, Mainly about Lindsay Anderson - doesn't tell us if Anderson (who also wrote for Sight and Sound) meant this as a rebuke, but it's hard not to read the comment without hearing the faint rattle of an accusation. That "abandon us", for instance, speaks volumes. The exchange between the two men took place at the launch of Free Cinema at London's National Film Theatre in February 1956. And it was here that former critic Anderson and a group of like-minded film-makers pledged collectively to dedicate themselves to producing the kind of innovative, ambitious cinema that simply wasn't being made in Britain at the time. The way Anderson tells it, it was a vital, vigorous campaign, one worth fighting, and one important enough for the desertion of a fellow propagandist to rankle.

Strictly speaking, Free Cinema was the title of the programme of films shown at this event, three shorts made by young, relatively inexperienced film-makers: Anderson's O Dreamland, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson's Momma Don't Allow and Lorenza Mazzetti's Together. But what the film-makers wanted the term to signal was a change in attitude within British cinema. Theirs was a personal, dedicated form of film-making: unashamed of experimentation, proud of the medium's status as art, excited by the potential of new technology (all three shorts were shot on 16mm) and committed to capturing undiscovered pockets of British society (Anderson zeroed in on the rude vulgarity of a Margate funfair; Reisz and Richardson on Teddy Boys in a London jazz club; Mazzetti on the lives of deaf East End dockers). To accompany the event Anderson set out the principles underlying the movement in a manifesto, to which Reisz, Richardson and Mazzetti added their names. Over the next three years the NFT screened five more Free Cinema programmes and by the beginning of the 60s most of those involved in the movement were making features.

Forty-five years on, this March sees a reconstruction of the original programme at the NFT, in the presence of the surviving film-makers. It's a fitting tribute to their contribution to British film history and one that highlights just how singular an achievement Free Cinema was. The British, it seems, are suspicious of fiery manifestos and self-proclaimed movements; they prefer to leave challenging, experimental cinema to talented individuals working on the sidelines. Free Cinema was, of course, preceded by John Grierson's documentary movement in the 30s, but it was oddball aesthete Humphrey Jennings whom its proponents held up as an influence, not the civil-service-like functionaries behind the majority of Grierson's films. And if Grierson's approach to documentary was underpinned by a set of social and political objectives, Free Cinema was driven by aesthetics and attitude - in which it had more in common with the invigorating work such angry young men as John Osborne and Kingsley Amis were doing in contemporary theatre and literature.

Recreating the original NFT event helps us see Free Cinema as a product of its times. For much as there is to admire in the film-makers' attempts to shake things up, their insistence on "the importance of people and the significance of the everyday" can seem a little naive, if not patronising. For all its observational flair, Anderson's O Dreamland, for instance, comes across today as somewhat aloof. Few British film-makers would have considered working-class pleasure-seekers enjoying a day out at a Margate funfair a worthy subject for a film; Anderson does, but having got there he can't resist heavy-handed editorialising, staging the promenaders' diversions as a belaboured metaphor for the noisy emptiness of consumer society. In a delightfully acerbic piece in 1969 Ray Durgnat wrote of O Dreamland and Momma Don't Allow: "Anderson's vehement ambivalence towards the common people and Reisz's cool calculated tact dampen one's enthusiasm a little. We're too obviously in the presence of outsiders to the society they claim to be revealing to us."

Ironically, the liveliest of the Free Cinema films were made by those with the greatest claim to be outsiders: Nice Time, a charming short capturing Piccadilly Circus at night, which pushed the available technology to its limits, was directed by Swiss duo Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner; Together, a haunting study of two deaf dock workers, one of whom was played by sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, was made by the Italian Lorenza Mazzetti. Perhaps because these film-makers soon left Britain - Tanner returning to Switzerland, Goretta working largely in France - their contribution tends to be overshadowed by Anderson, Reisz and Richardson, who in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and This Sporting Life parlayed the stylistic and thematic concerns of their short films into some of the key British features of the early 60s.

Of the four original signatories to the Free Cinema manifesto, Lorenza Mazzetti has all but slipped from the pages of film history. Mazzetti was brought up by her aunt and uncle in Florence after her parents died when she was very young. Following a traumatic war - the SS killed her aunt and cousins; her uncle later committed suicide - she moved to London in the early 50s where she studied at the Slade School of Art. There she directed her first film - a short 16mm version of Kafka's Metamorphosis - and soon afterwards was given money by the bfi Experimental Film Fund (which backed many of the Free Cinema shorts) to make Together. Returning to Italy in 1959, she settled in Rome and directed a few television programmes for RAI. In 1961 she published a novel, The Sky Falls, based on her childhood (the memoir became a popular film in Italy last year). She currently lives in Rome, where she owns a puppet theatre.

Christophe Dupin: How did you come to study at the Slade School of Art?

Lorenza Mazzetti: When I arrived in London in the early 50s I worked as a waitress during the day and did strange drawings at night. One day I went to the Slade School and asked if I could register as a student. They refused because I wasn't British and also because they said there would be a lot of difficult exams to take. I got very angry and as I was making a lot of noise in the corridor, a man walked out of his office and I told him I wanted to speak to the director. It was the director, William Coldstream - I showed him my drawings and he must have found them interesting because the next thing he said was, "From tomorrow morning you'll be a student at the Slade."

What was your first experience as a film-maker?

I knew the school's film society had a small 16mm camera, some film and lights, so I decided to make a filmed version of Kafka's Metamorphosis. As the college was full of very interesting characters, I asked one of my student friends to play Gregorio Samsa and two others to play his mother and sister. But I had no one to play Samsa's boss until I met a fur dealer in the street. It was lucky he accepted the part because we had no money and he had to feed us more than once during the shoot.

Then I edited the film in my bedroom, asked my friend Danièle Paris, an avant-garde composer, to contribute the music and had the film printed in a lab in Grosvenor Street, instructing them to charge the school. When William Coldstream received the bill, he told me, "My dear Lorenza, either you pay the bill or you go to jail. But since I don't really want you to go to jail, I'll let you organise a screening in the school and charge the students. If the screening's successful enough to pay off your debts, then the film will be officially produced by the Slade. If it's not, then the police will be waiting for you at the end." Eventually the film was so well received Coldstream introduced me to Denis Forman, the director of the bfi, who said he could help me make another film. The day after we had tea together and I showed him a four-page synopsis of a film then titled The Glass Marbles.

How did the project become 'Together'?

I had serious psychological problems because of my past, but as no one knew about it, the only way to express my anxiety was to translate it unconsciously into a filmscript. My film was about two deaf-mutes who lived in the East End and were completely excluded from the world around them. I'd projected my own feelings of being different on to these characters, who were constantly followed by a group of children who shouted things they couldn't hear. As time went by the children became more and more daring until one of the deaf-mutes suddenly rebelled.

Forman liked the idea a lot and told me to find my actors and start filming. I chose Michael Andrews - then a fine-art student - to be one of the main characters and then I called sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, whom I'd met earlier at an art gallery, to ask him to take the other leading role. The cinematographer was a young Egyptian, Hamid Hadari, who'd shot the Kafka film, with some additional photography by Walter Lassally.

At the same time I met Denis Horne, who'd been at Oxford where he'd known Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, and I immediately fell in love with him. I asked him to co-direct the film but the script he wrote had lots of dialogue and what I really wanted was silence. We argued a lot and he wanted to direct the film on his own, but Paolozzi said, "Either Lorenza directs it or I'm off." So I finished the film alone. Denis couldn't accept that I was becoming more famous than him. It traumatised me so much that a few years later, when Anderson, Reisz and Richardson offered to produce another project of mine, I asked if Denis could come along. But they said they wanted me alone and I lost my last chance to make a film in Britain.

How did you finish the film on your own?

After Denis left I started to cut the film in a cutting room owned by the bfi in the middle of the countryside. As I was experiencing many difficulties, Forman asked Lindsay Anderson to give me a hand. Lindsay saw the film, liked it and decided to help me to edit it and work on the soundtrack with John Fletcher. Danièle Paris came all the way from Rome to compose some of the music and we added a few traditional English songs. By then Lindsay had become a good friend.

Had you seen his 'Thursday's Children' before he helped you to finish 'Together'?

No I hadn't. I didn't even know who he was. He showed me a few issues of his film magazine Sequence and then screened O Dreamland. He was a fascinating, tenderly rude and grumpy man. His enthusiasm made me fall in love with everything.

Why did you choose London's East End as a location for your film?

When I arrived in the East End I was shocked by the landscape, the atmosphere, and I thought I should film the people who lived in this world. It was like a ready-made film set. The people's difficulty in expressing themselves, in communicating, overwhelmed me. But I found their reserve and genuine kindness extremely moving.

How was your relationship with your actors?

We were very close. Andrews was extremely shy but he always understood immediately what I expected of him. It was never necessary to tell either him or Paolozzi what to do.

What happened between finishing your film and the first Free Cinema screening?

One day - it must have been in January 1956 - Lindsay came to see me in the Kitchen Soup café on Charing Cross Road where I was working as a waitress. We sat at a table and he said, "I talked about your film to my friends Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. It turns out that your film has the same qualities, the same objectives and the same political agenda as ours. We'd like to show our three films together and write a manifesto." So we started writing the manifesto on that table in the Kitchen Soup.

Some time later I was introduced to Reisz and Richardson. Then, on 5 February 1956, Lindsay told me, "Come on, you've got to come with us to the NFT." The four of us were very nervous about the whole thing and it got even worse when we saw the long queue of film enthusiasts waiting outside. Eventually all went well and the reviews in the papers the next day were very flattering. Film critic Dilys Powell spoke of "White Hopes" in the Sunday Times.

What was your relationship with the so-called Angry Young Men group?

I met John Osborne at Tony Richardson's place. He was a charming man. After the success of the first Free Cinema screening it became evident that London was ready for something completely new.

Why did you abandon your next project, a film about London Teddy Boys?

It would have been a beautiful film, but it didn't happen because of my relationship problems with Denis Horne. When he abandoned me I fell into a terrible state of confusion because I had no family left apart from my twin sister, and her husband thought twin sisters should be kept apart. At that point I started seeing a psychoanalyst because I couldn't see a knife without wanting to cut my wrists. The psychoanalyst helped me to let out the tragedy - that's why I could write The Sky Falls. If I'd kept that tragedy inside me I wouldn't have done anything with my life.

How did your experience in London shape your return to Italy?

People like Denis Forman and William Coldstream were crucial to my early career. In Italy such a start would have been impossible. It seems that in Britain when someone has talent they are appreciated without any bribe involved. My experience in London was a wonderful period in my life. I met a lot of fascinating people and there was genuine friendship between artists who shared a spiritual affinity. When I returned to Italy, on the contrary, there was a constant competitive atmosphere in the artistic community. They all looked at me as though I was nobody. Only film-maker Cesare Zavattini appreciated my work after he had seen Together in Cannes in 1956 where it won a prize. He became a great friend and in 1961 made me direct the first episode of his television series Le italiane e l'amore. When The Sky Falls was rejected by all the publishers he was the only person who praised it. He showed it to Bernardo Bertolucci's father, who was working for the publisher Garzanti. He liked it and had it published.

Did you ever return to Britain?

No. I met my second husband Bruno Grieco and I never returned. After writing my book I was 'cured' and I didn't need to go back. But Lindsay came out to visit us a few times and I saw Karel Reisz again when he and I were given the De Sica award in Naples in 1986.

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Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012