Workshops: a Dossier

By Margaret Dickinson, Anne Cottringer and Julian Petley

The film and video workshops

The film and video workshops have their roots in the creation in the late 60s and early 70s of a number of radical film collectives such as Cinema Action, the London Film-makers Co-operative and, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Amber Films. These shared certain common characteristics: a desire to establish on-going working bases, rather than simply existing as loose groupings of freelance individuals; the avoidance of conventional organisational forms, such as the profit-seeking, limited liability company, in favour of collective or co-operative modes; a commitment to the local community and to pressure groups such as trade unions and feminist and anti-racist organisations; the realisation of the importance of providing wide access to equipment and facilities; and finally, the stress on integrating production with distribution, non-theatrical exhibition and education.

Together with like-minded individuals, the proto-workshops argues for recognition within the ACTT and, in 1974, formed the Independent Film-makers Association to provide a voice for this growing sector of production. After lengthy discussions with the main funders of this ‘grant-aided’ sector, namely the British Film Institute and the Regional Arts Associations, the ACTT produced the Workshop Declaration in 1981, one of the most radical documents in its history, which provided a framework that enabled television money not tied to the production of specific, individual programmes to enter the independent sector.

With the creation of Channel 4, television took on a new significance to this sector. Indeed, the IFA had lobbied intensely around the birth of the Channel, and the result of this was that it obtained on-going funding for workshop practice and the appointment of a commissioning editor – Alan Fountain – ‘knowledgeable in, and sympathetic to, work being done by independent film-makers’, as Jeremy Isaacs put it in a letter to the IFA.

In order to become ‘franchised’ under the Workshop Declaration, a workshop had to be non-profit-making and organised along co-operative lines, to retain copyright and rights of exploitation in all that it produced, to carry out no more than 25% straightforwardly ‘commercial’ work, and to pay an equal flat rate to all its members (£10,088 in 1981). The workshop also had to be involved in production, though great stress was laid on the integration of production with distribution, exhibition, archiving, education, etc. Equally important was the forging of close links with the local community, and a commitment to regional, non-metropolitan cultures.

The early 80s saw a tremendous growth in workshop activity. This was largely due to the Channel’s support, but also had a great deal to do with the arrival of other funding bodies on the scene, such as the Metropolitan County Councils and the Greater London Council, which had a strong commitment to the development of the ‘cultural industries’ at the local level. However, this tier of local government was soon to find itself abolished for its pains and the remaining authorities were capped. The result was that many of their funding activities in the cultural sector were curtailed. Meanwhile, the ACTT was severely affected by the government’s anti-union policies, and Channel 4 was soon to find itself in an increasingly difficult and uncertain environment thanks to the Broadcasting White Paper and subsequent Act. Given all these circumstances, the Channel began to phase out its special funding arrangements for the workshops.

Thus, in the 90s, long-term commitment to individual workshops has ceded to a more conventional form of funding on a project-by-project basis. However, it was precisely the Channel’s continuity of funding which was vital to the sector’s ability to build up an infrastructure. The question now is: without this continuity, without this infrastructure, will there be any organisations left which are capable of making one-off projects which are distinctly different from other Channel 4 programmes?

Amber Films

Amber was formed by a group of film and photography students in London in 1968; a year later they moved to the North East. Their intention was to work collectively and to produce documents of working-class life, an intention which has remained remarkably constant throughout their considerable development.

Amber’s range of productions has included feature films, documentaries, short soap operas and animation. For many years they also ran a remarkable photographic gallery. Never regarding their production work as being divorced from its distribution and exhibition, they have continually experimented with ways of creating new audiences within the community using both the cinema that they own and other means. One of the most important aspects of their working method is the building up of close relationships with local communities; this allows the film-makers to enter local lives on a long-term basis, and fives their films a profound and moving authenticity which goes beyond mere ‘realism’.

The idea for Seacoal, for example, one of Amber’s most impressive features, stemmed from a desire to record the way of life of a group of seacoalers on the Northumbrian cast. They began by buying a caravan on the seacoalers’ site. Chris Killip, a photographer working with Amber at that time, moved in and began a photographic portrait of the community. During this period Amber began to develop a relationship with the seacoalers, and to think about the most effective way of telling their particular story. The result was a remarkable synthesis of documentary and drama, blending epic images of nature with intimate scenes of social and working life, mingling actors and seacoalers, and integrating scripted scenes with improvised sequences.

More recently, Amber has formed close links with the community of North Shields, where they bought and ran a pub as part of the all-important task of integrating themselves within the local community. They also acquired an old town mission, which they have converted for studio work, drama improvisations and workshops involving film-makers, actors and local people. It was from their base in North Shields that evolved their film set amongst the town’s trawlermen and their families: In Fading Light. As part of their preparation for this film, Amber bought a working trawler. The actors who played the crew in the film were trained by local trawlermen.

In 1989 Amber won the prestigious BFI Independent Achievement Award. Their features were making their mark abroad, winning prizes at festivals and attracting large audiences in countries where they were distributed. In the UK, however, they had to rest content with showings on Channel 4, since no distributor showed any interest in taking them on. Nothing daunted, they began work on their next feature, Dream On. Again, its origins lie in Amber’s close relationship with the community of North Shields: in particular, through the women’s darts team that plays at Amber’s pub and a women’s writing group on the Meadowell estate. The project grew collaboratively, with input from Amber, the case, the women’s darts team, the writing group – in fact from all of those in the production in one way or another. Once again, what emerges from this deep-rooted relationship with the community in which the film is set is a sense of lived reality, of day-to-day experience, that is now almost completely absent from most British films, with the honourable exception of Ken Loach’s Riff Raff.

But what distinguishes Dream On both from Loach’s work and from previous Amber films is its excursion into realms of fantasy, imagination and subjective experience in its portrayal of the personal dramas surrounding its three main characters: Julie, Rita and Kathy. On top of this, the film also blends comic and tragic element, and yet the whole edifice hangs together remarkably effectively as a form of home-grown ‘magical realism’ which, in typical Amber fashion, suggest that however harsh the reality, people can not only survive by sticking together, but can even change their lives if they really want to do so.

Once again, however, the film faces a lack of interest from distributors and exhibitors alike. This time Amber decided to approach the exhibitors themselves, directly...