Lorenza Mazzetti now runs a puppet theatre for children in Rome. But in London in the 1950s, when she was in her early twenties, she begged, borrowed and stole camera equipment to film K, an adaption of Metamorphosis, in a storage space in Notting Hill and a fabric shop in Soho with no script and a non-professional cast who had never heard of Kafka.

Her next project, Together, the first publicly funded British fiction film directed by a woman, portrays the friendship between two dockworkers. Both characters are deaf; there’s no dialogue. Filmed in the streets, wharfs, pubs and fairgrounds of the bombed-out East End in 1956, Together woke British audiences up to a different kind of cinema.

Mazzetti’s is the first signature on the Free Cinema manifesto:

As film-makers we believe that

no film can be too personal.

The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments.
Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim.

An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.

The other signatories – Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson – are now enshrined in British culture. So what happened to Mazzetti?

Unlike many female filmmakers, she found both an audience and critical acclaim. Together played at London’s Academy cinema for five weeks and even won a prize at Cannes, the most unfriendly-to-women film festival of them all. Mazzetti appeared on Panorama twice. She remembers someone called Dimbleby being rather condescending.

It’s a shame that her London Diaries made so little impact when they were published in English last year. The clunky cover design, hefty typeface and occasionally sloppy translation probably didn’t help. But the book is full of drama, humour, sharp observations and period detail.

There’s the thrill of the hustle: after stealing a camera, lights and tripod from a room at the Slade School of Art, Mazzetti had to find locations and a cast for K. She told the hardworking owner of the fabric shop she wanted to film in that Gregor Samsa is a man who dearly loves his employer and really does want to go to work.

But her diary also vividly describes what life was like for a lonely young woman, with very little money or English, trying to survive in ‘this strange black city’. Arriving at Dover, she had ‘undesirable alien’ stamped in her passport. She skipped from one job to the next, working on a potato farm, as a maid, an Italian teacher, a dishwasher and waitress. More often than not her landlords threw her out for not paying the rent. One night she discovered the heartbeat of London dancing with a Teddy boy, but her life mostly entailed finding enough to eat and fending off unwelcome male advances. ‘I gave him my hand,’ she says of a man who accosted her one night as she walked home, ‘and he never gave it back.’

Cinema was Mazzetti’s saviour. She talked her way into the Slade and started to make films – and friends. John Berger and Lucien Freud admired K. She was introduced to Denis Forman, the director of the BFI, who gave her funding to make Together. After Lindsay Anderson saw her footage, he helped her edit it and she met Reisz and Richardson too.

She fell in love with Denis Horne, who’d written the short story that Together was based on. He tried to commandeer the directing of the movie. ‘I detest foolish women who have opinions,’ he told her. ‘You’re a male chauvinist,’ she replied, ‘conditioned by a thousand-year-old habit of peddling abuse.’ Still, he has a co-director credit. I asked her why. ‘I loved him,’ she said.

Peppered through the diary, intruding into her everyday, are Mazzetti’s memories of the Second World War. After the death of their mother, Mazzetti and her twin sister lived with their father’s sister in Florence. Their Jewish uncle was Einstein’s cousin and his family were targeted at the end of the war by retreating Nazi soldiers. They executed Mazetti’s aunt and cousins. Mazzetti and her sister, herded into the basement of the house, were only spared, she believes, because they had a different surname. Her uncle, who had fled into the woods thinking he was the only one at risk, later committed suicide. That Mazzetti never talked to Reisz about what happened to her – she only later discovered that he was a Kindertransport refugee – is one of her biggest regrets.

Her diary finishes as Mazzetti returns to Italy, and starts to write her acclaimed memoir of her childhood years, The Sky Falls. In Italy she made one more short film and a documentary but when no one called her after that, she turned to writing, painting and puppets. Now 91, she wants to make a film about her time in London.