Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down!

By Michael Dampier

‘It’s as if they were telling me that my movie doesn’t exist!’ Film-maker Charles Teton’s plaintive protest raises a disturbing fear.

Did Sight & Sound discriminate against a new British film?

Dark Summer is an independently produced and financed British feature film, shot in Liverpool. In November 1993 it was screened at the 37th. London Film Festival. Presenting it in the Programme Booklet, Festival Director Sheila Whitaker praised it thus: ‘Another fine example of independent film-making in the regions providing a portrait of life outside the metropolis.’ Since then, Dark Summer has been an official selection at a further nine film festivals, twice in competition. Film-maker Charles Teton has been hailed as one ‘to watch out for in the future’ (Variety) and as ‘one of the up and coming film-makers of the new generation’ (Moving Pictures, BBC 2)

As an institution the BFI seems to be supportive of Charles Teton. He tells me that Ben Gibson, Head of Production, is looking forward to seeing his next script, and that Wilf Stevenson, Director of the BFI, responded positively to Dark Summer.

Sight and Sound, which is supported by the BFI has advertised a comprehensive reviewing policy: ‘Full credits, a synopsis and an in-depth review for every feature film released in London.’

Perhaps one of Charles Teton’s greatest achievements was to obtain UK distribution for Dark Summer. The enterprising and innovative Robins Cinema chain booked it at its cinemas throughout the country, and for screenings at the BFI’s Regional Film Theatres in areas where the Robins chain is not active. Not surprisingly, everybody expected a review in Sight and Sound preferably to coincide with the film’s opening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End.

Nothing doing!

Not surprisingly, Charles Teton was puzzled. He wrote to Philip Dodd, the Editor of Sight and Sound, to find out why his film was not being reviewed.

No reply.

He then sent a copy of his letter to Wilf Stevenson, and received a response which, despite its sympathetic tone, contains an analysis of what it means for a film to be ‘in distribution’ which reads as if it had been dictated by Humpty Dumpty: ‘When I use a word... it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.’ (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass):

‘As it happens, Sight and Sound’s reviewing policies are currently under review, but at present are to cover any film “in distribution”. This is not to be decided by adding up the number of venues at which the film is screened, nor is it a matter of being distributed by one of the majors. Clearly, at any moment there are a great number of films circulating in Britain, in addition to those “in distribution”. There are films which play around an ever-increasing number of film festivals; there are the ICA Projects, which are different from the films the ICA distributes; there are films screened by exhibitors (say the Prince Charles and its chain); Institutes such as the Goethe screen films and organise tours around the country; the National Film Theatre does likewise. In addition, there are re-releases of films that were inadequately documented on their original release.’

Despite the confused and misleading account of BFI policy in Wilf’s letter one is left with the hope that the attitude to Dark Summer is the result of some squabble within the BFI, some lunatic outburst of inter-departmental pique. The alternative, a Sight and Sound reviewing policy which excludes films like Dark Summer, is too chilling, too ominous for British independent film-makers and distributors.

Stop Press: ‘Happy Ending!’

On 10 November, Charles Teton telephoned to say that he’d learnt that Sight and Sound now planned to run a review of Dark Summer!

Nice and Tidy!
It’s a rule I learnt in school!
Get your money every Friday,
Happy endings are the rule!Bertolt Brecht/Marc Blitzstein,The Threepenny Opera

Vertigo has absolutely no pretensions to a comprehensive reviewing policy. However, by this time we had decided that someone would have to do Sight and Sound’s job for them, so we prepared our own review of Charles Teton’s film. As our cultural and critical agenda is radically different from that of Sight and Sound, we have decided this may still be of some interest to our readers.

– Editorial Board