ICA Cinema: An Interview with Simon Field

At a time when competition results in more of the same, and the fear of losing an audience prevails over the more complex task of gaining a new one, the ICA Cinema continues to be a cinema that truly fits the overused claim of being innovative and experimental. Simon Field, its director and an editor of Afterimage, sets out his views in an interview with Vertigo.

Vertigo: What are the aims of the ICA Cinema?

Simon Field: Essentially we want to focus on the cinema – and other ‘moving image’ work – that is not known about or given sufficient attention in this country. We’re interested in promoting new film-makers, particularly from new and under-represented film-making cultures. We’re interested too in promoting – by that I mean both screening and creating discussion around – ‘independent film and video-making’ with a focus on original, controversial works that face up to or are relevant to some of the key issues of our time. And of course central to all these is the idea of looking for a cinema that is ‘different’, against the dominant models, trying to say new things in new ways (to put it rather simply). To be at the ‘cutting edge’!

To express that more polemically: the increasing dominance of the Hollywood blockbuster and Hollywood sensibility, the growing uniformity and parochialism of TV and so on means that there is less and less space around us for alternative voices, stories or visions. In the era of consumer choice there is no choice! So the ICA, I hope, provides one of the few screens in this country to concentrate on these alternatives and what’s more it does so across the international spectrum. Personally, I think this represents a continuity with what I was trying to do when we were publishing Afterimage in the 80s.

V: Can you give some concrete examples of what the cinema has done?

SF: Primarily, we screen and distribute so-called ‘art-house’ films from an international range of cinemas. In our main cinema (it has 208 seats), we give these films West-End first-run releases. These may be films from other distributors, but increasingly we have acquired rights through our own distribution company, ICA Projects. After the London opening this means the films circulate nationally – mainly through the RFT circuit of cinemas. We then may release them on video through our new ICA label, and finally they usually screen on TV. All these are ways of getting the work more widely seen.

From time to time we also have special festivals of various sorts in the main cinema, like our ‘British Animation’ week last year, and we host part of the LFF, which is always programmed to complement our own programming interest in independent, Third-World and Southeast Asian cinema.

In our smaller space, the 50-seat Cinematheque, we show work that we don’t think is any less important, but likely to find a smaller audience. We show a range of film, video and artists’ video, ranging from new features to selections of shorter films and videos, that might be arranged thematically – like our recent ‘Bad Girls’ series, or the current William Burroughs tribute. We’ve also focused on gay and lesbian work, which has been one of the most vital areas of independent film-making recently. We also frequently have retrospectives of key figures from the past whose work is rarely publicly screened in London – Rossellini, for instance, or the films of Alexander Kluge. We hope to do a series of Godard’s post-‘74 video work, too.

We also attempt to have regular discussions with film-makers or debates and conferences around particular issues of relevance to both practitioners and the general public. To give you examples, we have had several conferences around Chinese cinema, one on New Queer cinema, a day event called ‘Listening in the Dark’ which was about music and sound in cinema. We’ve got an evolving series called ‘Towards the Aesthetics of the Future’, where we explore the impact of new technologies on ‘moving images’.

V: If you’re not careful you’re going to be called a nostalgic.

SF: Debates and conferences are really important to maintain discussion about the present and the future of independent film-making and what forms it will take. This, at a time when arenas for critical debate about radical cinema and image-making have seriously dwindled away. (Vertigo excepted of course!)

V: So what are the constraints under which you work? – economic or otherwise?

SF: In the current climate, the inevitable shortage of funding does affect the ambition of what we can do. The ICA has to raise some 60% of its budget from box office and sponsorship, and so we do have a responsibility to raise a certain amount at the cinema box office – but then on the other side of the coin, we do want to do programmes within our brief that find as wide an audience as possible.

One constraint is that the film-viewing climate has become much more conservative: as witness to that you have the closing down of a number of rep cinemas in London in the last few years. Those that do rep tend to focus necessarily on recent hits. Also the film-critical climate is much less adventurous: even a magazine like Sight and Sound focuses on the major releases of the day. But more relevant is the fact that it’s hard to get decent press coverage or features on more adventurous and new film-making these days. There is a certain embarrassment in the air about recommending subtitled films. Contrast that with enormous interest (and press coverage) given to international writing or music. I think audiences have become less adventurous as part of that process. Perhaps this situation is not so much of a constraint as a challenge!

V: Do you think then that a certain kind of cinema is dying?

SF: I think that the so-called modernist and intellectually ambitious and challenging cinema as exemplified by those old heroes like Godard, the Straubs and Marker is clearly disappearing from view. When did a new Godard feature open last in London? It was about six years ago – King Lear at the ICA. There is a real problem that they have lost an audience and are no longer considered crucial to cover extensively in the press. That said, Marker is still working brilliantly and one of the best films I saw in Rotterdam was Robert Kramer’s Starting Place. Radical filmmaking is still out there.

I think the practice of showing a wide range of contemporary international cinema – and the cinema of the past – in actual cinemas may be dying away or retracting. On the other hand, the world cinema video boom here could be said to be making a lot of classic cinema, for instance, available in a different way.

I don’t think we can separate off the question of cinema-viewing from all the other ways in which we see films nowadays. Though I am a great believer in the actual cinema experience and the sense of community that it can create when Amber take their films around the local estates or the Rio organise Turkish festivals for the local community. But I think it is impossible to re-build the old cinema-going habit in a general way. The whole delivery system of films has altered. Nevertheless, the cinema opening is crucial for the first profile of films and building up a critical profile and awareness of new cinemas.

To give you an example, I believe that the more modestly scaled release by the ICA over the last decade of all Chen Kaige’s early films plus our support of the Fifth Generation of Chinese film-makers helped create the climate of interest in which Farewell My Concubine could be such a massive success.

V: Recently you staged a day’s debate with Alexander Kluge in which he talked about working in a new TV climate, i.e. cable and satellite – how did that day express itself to you?

SF: It was very emblematic for me in relation to what we are trying to do at the ICA. It was an opportunity to say: ‘Look at these key films from the 60s and 70s, which we think should be seen and known about’, but then also to present a film-maker who has found a space – very significantly in my view and importantly for contemporary film-making – within the space of TV (where after all most of the money for many films comes from these days). It was a very inspiring experience (if a little tinged with nostalgia!) to hear the creative rhetoric and flights of imagination of Kluge himself, but also to see several generations of film-makers here clearly being productively provoked by the discussion, his ideas – and the TV works we showed. I’d like to feel that we can begin to present events that nurture debate among what is now perhaps a rather diffuse community of film- and video-makers.

V: Yes, we could feel that concretely in relationship to Kluge but, for instance, when it comes to what you call ‘the diffuse community of film- and video- makers…’?

SF: Well, to create these debates is also, for instance, to raise the question of what sort of British cinema we have. If we have a British film culture? Industry types bemoan the death of British cinema, independents bemoan Channel 4’s abandonment of its remit. To me, both views are what you called previously, nostal­gic, and don’t really face the fact that we do have a very energetic film culture (though we have to understand that term perhaps in a new way), but it’s diffuse and diverse. It can be in cinemas, but it also can be in a variety of contexts on TV. It ranges from Mike Leigh to Jarman and Sally Potter to Black Audio and Amber to renegade animation like Phil Mulloy, to Arts Council and Channel 4 collaborations on experimental productions and animation and so on.

Of course it’s hard to discern the silhouette of this ‘film culture’. Peter Wollen did a very good job of one version in his selection for our last ICA Biennale ‘Arrows of Desire’.

V: So in the last five years what do you think have been the main achievements that you see the cinema as having made?

SF: In general, I would say, to have maintained a legacy that I inherited from my predecessor. That is, keeping a lot of work on the public screen, a range of independent film and video – from the political to the raw and controversial – that otherwise would probably not be screened in London or in this country. Who else would show things like Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, for instance? A more specific example: to have continued to focus on Southeast Asian cinema, which has been confirmed in the last year or so as including some of the most original contemporary film-makers in world cinema – I’m thinking of Tian Zhuangzhuang (Horse Thief and Blue Kite) from China, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang from Taiwan. During my time at the ICA we have focused on Japan, too, where there is a thriving young cinema, and we’ve ‘discovered’ major film-makers like Shinya Tsukamoto, who made Tetsuo and Takeshi Kitano, who made Sonatine.

I’m pleased we’ve continued to have debates involving film-makers and the general public around subjects as diverse as Chinese cinema, Queer cinema, animation, sound and cinema, new technologies. And I hope we’ll continue to have these and that they’ll encourage interest in the new cinemas we show. But I also hope they’ll feed back into the vitality of our own independent film-making culture and community. To that end I hope we’ll have more debates like the Kluge one, and others more specifically focused on the British situation. In other words, if your readers support us, we’ll try and support them!

"Yet the tendencies to monopoly, to incorporation and to agency or outpost production in terms of the dominant centre have been so strong that only relatively brief periods of fully independent production, and then more often than not in “national” terms, have escaped them. At the same time, as in the related case of twentieth-century theatre, it has been almost wholly in these comparatively independent centres that work of real value has been done. What has been lost, in the whole process, is not so much the consciously modernist work, which can find a not uncongenial place at the margins, but the fully autonomous development of native popular cultures, which keep showing their strength whenever there is even a half-chance, but which have been denied any mature expression and growth by the pressures and prestige of a skilfully homogenized and falsely universal cinema: popular “cinema” rather than popular films." – Raymond Williams, British Film History: New Perspectives (1983)