Walking down Well Street in Hackney, you’d be forgiven for missing the Freed of London ballet shoe factory. But according to the filmmaker Jack Flynn, inside the factory lies “another world”.
Established in 1929, Freed of London manufactures pointe shoes for dancers globally – from young beginners to prima ballerinas. The small factory produces 48,000 standard and 112, 000 bespoke shoes annually – that’s 700 shoes every day.
But who are the people working the machines? This question captivated filmmakers Jack Flynn and Nick David who, in a four-minute, beautifully-crafted short film, tell the stories behind the story of Freed.
“We love the honesty of the film,” says David. “It was a very simple approach, but that’s when you get the magic.”
“Initially we wanted to document the manufacturing process,” adds Flynn, “but what became apparent after a couple of visits, were the stories of the people who worked there.”
Every worker has their own ‘maker’s stamp’ – “mine’s a crown,” says one – and all express a strong sense of pride in their craft. “Not many people can do the work,” explains one employee.
The workshop seems worlds way from the pristine theatres of world-class ballerinas, yet its rhythmic contraptions are almost dancingly hypnotic. “The contrast between ballet and the factory floor was really obvious,” says Jack, “yet we saw a real connection with the sheer physicality of both disciplines.”
In other ways, however, there is a disconnect between the crafts. One shoemaker has been in the business for 25 years, but is yet to go to the ballet. “I’ve seen it on telly,” he says, “but I haven’t gone to theatres or nothing like that. I don’t get the time to.”
Freed’s workers are undoubtedly devoted. Tony Collins started work in 1969 and has been there ever since. Sheila Goodman met her husband of 35 years at the factory. They’ve been working together for 40 years. “We didn’t tell no one that we was getting married!” she recalls. “We got married on the Saturday and on the Monday we were back into work. We didn’t even have a honeymoon!”
The factory’s walls are testament to the spirit and diversity of its workers. One wall is covered in football memorabilia and another cats and Hindu iconography. “I’m curious as to who’s wearing my shoes,” muses one worker. “Without the audience there’d be no dancers, without the dancers there’d be no makers. Life goes round in a circle… It’s unlike anything else.”