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What’s Another 25 Years? William Friese-Greene and Bristol Peter Domankiewicz

Written by Peter Domankiewicz

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William Friese-Greene. Sequences of images taken about 1885 to recreate movement. These cyclical sequences were projected using a lantern designed by John Arthur Roebuck Rudge. (Science Museum Group, objects 1994-5014/6, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 Licence)

Sometimes it can take a long time to develop and deliver a project. In the case of William Friese-Greene and Bristol, it took 25 years from early discussion and work in 1995/96 for the centenary of cinema to the 2021 programme on film and the city. No-one has done more than Peter Domankiewicz to bring to public attention this pioneer of filmmaking, often in the face of much criticism. Through Domankiewicz’s work we have a better understanding of FrieseGreene’s role and importance – as well as some of the myths about his life and work – and there is more to come as the research continues. The Film2021 project showed the importance of the longevity of Bristol Ideas and never giving up.

Twenty-five years certainly sounds like a long time for a project to come to fruition but, just occasionally, it can be exactly the right amount of time. It was in the lead-up to the centenary of cinema in 1995/96 that I first approached Andrew Kelly. I was a filmmaker who had become curious about a story I had heard that the inventor of cinema came from Bristol: a certain William Friese-Greene. Andrew lent me his copy of a 1948 biography of Friese-Greene with a warning that I was wading into a controversial subject area with strong views on both sides. I read the book, which built Friese-Greene up as an inventor, then I read some things written on the 1955 centenary of his birth, which pretty much trashed his reputation.

On that centenary, the leader of attempts to celebrate Friese-Greene in Bristol and beyond was local historian Reece Winstone. His energy and enthusiasm were admirable, but there was something uncritical about his approach. Meanwhile, Friese-Greene’s critics were at pains to exclude any information that would cast a favourable light on the man. He was clearly an interesting and complex figure and a reassessment was equally clearly needed.

I went back to Andrew and proposed that something be done during the cinema centenary to look at the work of Friese-Greene, and that this could be used to spin off various other local events. Andrew found a small amount of money to fund me doing further research and we developed a whole raft of proposed projects. But in practice there was neither time nor resources to do the subject justice before 1996 was upon us.

I continued to be obsessed with William Friese-Greene and carry out research but in 2004 I finally let it lie. In 2016 my interest was reignited and I decided to pursue putting my research into a concrete form of some kind. The film festival Cinema Rediscovered invited me to give a talk about Friese-Greene in 2019 and this led to renewed conversations with Andrew, and other potentially interested parties, about planning some kind of celebration and reassessment of Friese-Greene for 2021, to coincide with the centenary of his death. I felt that now the time was right for a more balanced assessment of his work.

Bristol Ideas jumped into action and started to look for funding, the plan being to use Friese-Greene as a springboard for a year-long celebration of filmmaking and filmgoing in Bristol. It felt like a dream come true, until Covid 19 hit and threw everything into doubt. But amazingly the funding was finally granted and it all came together for 2021, including a series of events at Cinema Rediscovered. And as if to set the seal on the idea, after three years of trying, that March I secured my funding to undertake a PhD into the moving picture work of William FrieseGreene.

New research had enabled me to understand the man far better and comprehend how humble his beginnings were in the city and how remarkable his rise was. Bristol Ideas commissioned me to write a series of pieces for their website that allowed me to take a more rounded look at William Friese-Greene, covering subjects as diverse as his proto-feminist ideas and his love of writing bad poetry. All this activity in Bristol stimulated other organisations in the UK to also stage events relating to Friese-Greene, including the Cinema Museum and Highgate Cemetery in London, and the Harwich Festival in Essex.

Then, just as Andrew predicted, a veteran documenter of early film wrote extensively and critically of just about every single thing that had been said by me during that centenary year. My PhD supervisors had to talk me down from responding, assuring me that my research was of such a superior quality to my critic’s that it would eventually supplant it.

Time had enriched our understanding and allowed us to celebrate William Friese-Greene in a more nuanced way, in all his complexity, rather than simplistically blowing the trumpet for a city or a country. One that could accept that although there was no singular ‘inventor of cinema’ there was a remarkable pioneer from Bristol. The Friese-Greene story was a great way to open the door to examine the city’s cinema history with many making wonderful contributions. But for some, even 25 years does not mellow a controversy and, in that sense, William Friese-Greene is still very much with us.

Peter Domankiewicz  is a film director, screenwriter and journalist with an abiding interest in the beginnings of moving pictures. He has written for The  Guardian  and  Sight and Sound and is currently pursuing a PhD on William Friese-Greene.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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