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The Free Cinema manifesto

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Working in the days before handheld synch cameras
Walter Lassally Film-maker
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So we always had to make this choice. Is it more important to be hand-held, have the freedom, improvisation, or is it more important to have synch dialogue, because you couldn't have both. You had to choose. So in "The Lambeth Boys" there's one sequence where we wanted some of the dialogue to be usable, and I devised this blimp, portable blimp, which was made out of a sleeping bag. We just cut up a sleeping bag and we made various pieces. One went around the hood, one went around the motor, one went around the whole body. There's a picture of me somewhere operating this camera, which was bulky but- but not heavy. And, so you could get synch sound- pseudo-synch sound, I'll call it. But it's in the film. It's perfectly effective. And then there's a proper synch-sound sequence in that film where the group of young boys featured in the film- because it's all- it's all centred on a youth hostel- on a youth club in- in South East London, Lambeth. And, so this one sequence where- where they all get together for this weekly discussion. The day we did it the theme was capital punishment and they were- my God, were they for it! They were all, to a man, for capital punishment on- on the basis of an eye for an eye, that is it you know. Yes, that's the way you should be, definitely. It was quite frightening. You see these 14- and 16-year-olds being so, so definitely for capital punishment. So that sequence was a natural synch-sound sequence where it doesn't hurt if you have a- a camera on a tripod and lighting set up. But in many situations, if you - if you need to set up a camera and lights, by the time you've done that, your subject has evaporated. It's very often the case. So you have to have two techniques available, and you have to choose between the spontaneity and the ability of capturing that spontaneity, or synch-sound. You couldn't have both. Now you can have both, but then you couldn't. And there's a very interesting sequence in "The Lambeth Boys" where they go to play their annual cricket match with a- with a very high-nosed school in North London. And there's a nice lorry ride- ride on the back of a lorry on the way to this cricket match. And then you have the cricket match itself which, again, is- is- there is no commentary at all on the cricket match. It just sets the scene. It tells every year they go to this place and they have a friendly cricket match with these high- with these Public School boys, with these Public School boys. Because, in England, as you know, Public School is a private school. Anyway- and that is a very interesting sequence because you have the- you have no need for commentary. You have these two groups and they sort of eye each other warily, and then they play this match. The- the Lambeth Boys are in street clothes and sort of thrown together bits and pieces, and the- the Public School boys are all in- and they've got their proper whites and their knee guards and their- one small pause for refreshment. So that's- seeing that sequence is quite instructive because it shows that one of the parts of the Free Cinema manifesto has a- has definite meaning. Because in that manifesto it says, the image speaks, sound amplifies and comments. And that ought to be framed and hung up in every producer's office across the land and across the world. Because the- nowadays, the- the- the sound speaks and the image might just as well be turned off. A lot- lot of films these days are like illustrated radio plays. All the information is in the dialogue. And there's a coda to all this again, where many years later the BBC made a film, 20 years later, roughly in the 80's I think it was. The- the BBC made a series called "The Lambeth Boys", which was about the- the making of this film and what happened to the people in it. And it was in three parts. Each part was an hour long and it was in colour, because the BBC had gone into colour by then. And, the first part- the first programme was a re-showing- a re-showing of the original film. And then they- the second part was following- they'd done some research, and they'd followed up on what happened to those boys who are now grown-up men. And they showed- they- they found half a dozen of the people who'd been in that club in that film, and they showed what they were doing nowadays. And then the third part is- the third programme was showing what that club, which still existed, was- was like now. And in the interval between 58 and- and 84, say, the club had turned 100% black. It was now a black club because Lambeth was a black borough, very much so. And, so that was the biggest difference, it was now a totally black club. And they interviewed the people there and, for me, the most interesting thing was not the actual content of the film, but what the- what the technique used in the- in the programme- how the technique used to make that programme differed from the technique used to make the film. Because, once again, in the programme, it's a Talking Heads programme. You have all these people, they appear on camera and they- their natter away, and that's it. But its in the actual film a lot of it is- is silent, and the- the- it's the image that speaks. And- that is the kind of film, to me, that is a must, that any- any half-way decent film, it has to be the image that speaks, not the- not the sound track. The sound track is secondary.

Born in Germany, cinematographer Walter Lassally (1926-2017) was best known for his Oscar-winning work on 'Zorba the Greek'. He was greatly respected in the film industry for his ability to take the best of his work in one area and apply it to another, from mainstream to international art films to documentary. He was associated with the Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, and the British New Wave in the early 1960s. In 1987 he published his autobiography called 'Itinerant Cameraman'.

Listeners: Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen is a Canadian who came to Europe to study and never got round to heading back home. He did his undergraduate work at Carleton University (in Biology) in Ottawa, and then did graduate work at the University of Western Ontario (in Zoology). After completing his doctorate at Oxford (in the Department of Zoology), followed with a year of postdoc at the University of London, he moved to the University's newly-established Audio-Visual Centre (under the direction of Michael Clarke) where he spent four years in production (of primarily science programs) and began to teach film. In 1974 Bowden became Director of the new Audio-Visual Centre at the University of Warwick, which was then in the process of introducing film studies into the curriculum and where his interest in the academic study of film was promoted and encouraged by scholars such as Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, and Richard Dyer. In 1983, his partner and he moved to Greece, and the following year he began to teach for the University of Maryland (European Division), for which he has taught (and continues to teach) biology and film courses in Crete, Bosnia, and the Middle East.

Duration: 5 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008