Close Up on a Field without Definition

By David Curtis, Gary Thomas and William Raban


A discussion between David Curtis, former Film and Video Officer at the Arts Council, Gary Thomas, Artists’ Film and Video Officer at the Arts Council, and William Raban from Vertigo’s editorial board.

William Raban: From the beginning of Channel 4 in 1982, the Independent Film & Video Department played a key role in supporting cultural film production. The increasing pressures of commercialisation have rendered Channel 4’s formative radical agenda indistinguishable from the rest of British broadcasting. The British Film Institute Production Board was also a mainstay, supporting a diverse and radical film culture until its closure in 2000. Likewise, the sheer breadth of work funded under the umbrella of Artists’ Film & Video made the Arts Council a key player. But since the recent restructuring, and in the new era of the Film Council, how will a diverse, experimental film culture be sustained?

Gary Thomas: The Arts Council’s film responsibilities are for large-scale lottery-funded capital projects, over a hundred thousand pounds, and for film and video as a branch of Visual Art’s practice... The funding of individual projects has been delegated to the Regional Arts Boards (RABs). So this shows the split. The Arts Council retains national responsibilities whilst the RABs fund regional projects.

David Curtis: The establishment of the Regional Investment Fund makes it quite clear that the Film Council wants to set up its own mechanisms for dealing with film in the regions. It is unhappy with the idea of continuing to route its funding through the RABs. London has always been an exception because the London Film and Video Development Agency was set up when the British Film Institute took their money out of London. The British Film Institute later took their money out of Southwest Arts and set up an agency there as well. You could say that these were models for what the Film Council wants to do elsewhere but they have gone further. They don’t see film, and that includes cinema exhibition and so on, as purely a cultural issue. Their main concern is the film industry. They aim to set up a consortium of interests that represent whatever there is of the industry in each region – television, independents etc – and I think they have realised that education is also a very important part of that portfolio. The RABs will be part of that consortium but the Film Council wants to ensure the development of a business plan for each region with a strong emphasis on the viability of the cinema industry. They have challenged each region to come up with a business plan and to say who will be responsible for delivering it. The RABs can pitch for that responsibility but they won’t necessarily get it. This means that they are likely to lose their film commissioning role, although the Film Council will still have to talk with the RAB’s because any lottery money under a hundred thousand has been delegated by the Arts Council to the RABs. These plans are all part of that Blairite empowerment of the regions of which we shall see much more if there is a second Labour term.

WR: In 1997, the new Labour Government produced the Bigger Picture Report, the blueprint for setting up the Film Council. Keith Griffiths and Marc Karlin led a campaign to ensure that it included a fund dedicated to cultural film production. The Alpha Fund did figure in the report but there was no reference to cultural production. Instead it was seen as a fund for new and aspiring filmmakers to make short films as calling cards for the industry, to provide “a nursery slope where aspiring filmmakers could learn their craft”.

parliament-jane-and-louise-wilson.jpgParliament, Jane and Louise Wilson, courtesy of The Lisson Gallery

GT: I am sure the Film Council has an understanding of cultural film and experimental work but it is not its expressed policy to support it.

DC: I would modify that. I think that Marc Karlin and Keith Griffiths were both very influential in terms of informing John Woodward about the importance of that sector, and the size of the New Cinema Fund is more substantial than it might have been if those arguments hadn’t been made… However, I do share the general sense of disappointment that the Karlin/Griffiths legacy has not translated into a visible commitment through a cultural impresario. That said, John Woodward has cut out a lot of the old bureaucracy – like production boards – in favour of an executive hands-on control that will empower whomsoever has the job of running the funds.

WR: But which makes it difficult for minority voices to be heard?

DC: The regional money will be delegated and it will be a substantial increase on what they currently have for production. So there is an interesting job there for whoever is appointed to negotiate for those funds, and to make sure they are used to do genuinely interesting things rather than simply the nursery slope stuff.

GT: The prospects for regional money are good because I think regional people spend money largely on interesting projects.

WR: I saw that Andrew Kotting’s new film This Filthy Earth has some Film Council money attached to it. 

GT: It is one thing for the Film Council to support one kind of Andrew Kotting film or a John Maybury Love Is The Devil, but both the Arts Council and the Film Council need to think about how people get into that position. John Maybury got there because he made ambitious, challenging, experimental work funded by us and by Channel 4, which showed and won prizes around the world.

WR: The British Film Institute Production Board was sometimes criticised for being conservative in its funding decisions. In the current climate, what they actually achieved seems quite radical. Take a film like Patrick Keiller’s London, which couldn’t have a fully mapped out script because of the very nature of the film – I am wondering how the Film Council might treat similar, speculative ventures?

DC: When I am feeling optimistic – nature abhors a vacuum – there isn’t all that straight cinema talent bursting to come through, sitting there frustrated. How many more Danny Cannons can they find, frankly? What we are good at, is producing the rather quirky people at the edge of the industry like Andrew Kotting, Sally Potter, Peter Greenaway and a lot of people who we recognise as artists interested in making longer form pieces and so on. Positively, the money is there, multi-channel TV is desperate for product which cinemas are not. If the right companies put things forward then I think they will get supported.

WR: Can you see that support extending to documentary, experimental and animated films?

DC: Animation is much harder simply because Channel 4 has carried animation so much together with BBC2 in Bristol. Channel 4 is clearly heading in a more conventional direction and animation of the conventional sort is so expensive to deal with.

WR: All these changes have come at a time of intense commercial pressure and the Film Council seems only to talk about the industry and films which have the potential to reach large audiences.

GT: Reaching an audience is important to both the Arts Council and the Film Council and perhaps we need to define what the audience is and to recognise that there are different kinds of audiences in significant numbers. Something like Jane and Louise Wilson’s Parliament commission for the Serpentine Gallery which was funded through Lottery Film at the Arts Council, will have reached a far wider audience than quite a number of Lottery-funded feature films and will make its money back.

derek-jarmans-garden-howard-sooley.jpgDerek Jarman’s Garden by Howard Sooley

DC: I think that is absolutely right and it extends beyond what we would simply see as film and video into that whole digital arena which I am much more interested in, particularly in the regional context – that whole area of overlap between still image and moving image where there is a huge amount of talent and where there is a great deal of interest at the grass roots. There are lots of different ways of reaching audiences with that material and the Film Council and the Arts Council together should be working on a joint strategy to make sure that that huge sector which has people making commercials and web-animation is included. The Film Council seems blissfully unaware of it at the moment. When they talk of digital, they talk about digital post-production for feature films and digital delivery to cinemas.

WR: Do you feel that the Film Council has a viable distribution strategy for the work it is producing?

DC: I think they view the two things very separately. The film franchises set up with lottery money were supposed to link production with distribution and exhibition so that the consortia that came forward had to include all those elements, but until very recently, when the Film Council extracted itself from the British Film Institute, they were fully intending to leave exhibition behind. Production was the only thing the Film Council was going to do, on its own, and that is so bizarre. How can you plan for production and not have a distribution plan to go alongside it? If you are talking about educating an audience for new kinds of film, you also need a strategy that embraces exhibition of old films and culturally diverse films. That is how you build an audience, by having an holistic approach to exhibition and the Film Council just didn’t have it.

WR: And that could include film installations in galleries. For instance, take Chris Marker at the Beaconsfield Gallery. His films have an undeniable place in the cinema, but the Film Council might be less inclined to acknowledge his installation works.

DC: Chantal Akerman and Sokurov at the Frith Street Gallery are both further examples.

GT: Once you show it in a gallery you are on much safer ground because then you are definitely the Arts Council’s responsibility.

WR: The question here is not just the new divisions that will shape this sector. It is also a question of who is responsible for policy making so that we can have a lobbying voice that can influence these changes.

GT: It is important to realise that British Film Institute Production Board was not only a policy maker but also an advocate for independent, innovative film-making. An advocate in the same way that I like to think that we are part of the sector and not just a funding organisation. I think the Film Council is representing another sector. It is another thing.

DC: The recent Film Council document, Film in England, was the product of going to literally every region in England, holding public meetings with very strong invitation lists representing diverse media interests. It is still a bland policy document but you have to give them credit for actually doing the consultation.... 

GT: What we are talking about is the stuff that happens in between hard core artists’ film and video and mainstream commercial cinema and there is a question as to whose responsibility that is.

WR: We don’t have an adequate definition for that kind of work. “Cultural film production” needs to be rethought as a term.

DC: Well, it is a lot of different things and you won’t get a single definition because it is people working politically, ethnic minorities and people working in areas of technical boundary – half-still images, half-moving images with bits of text. There won’t ever be a collective noun that describes the lot of them. You have to recognise that it is a plural field. As I said in my leaving speech, it is exactly that area of overlap where real creative people are working and it is up to the Arts Council and the Film Council to make sure that overlap is positive, not marginalised and not an iron curtain which would be incredibly counter-productive, throwing away a really interesting area.

David Curtis is currently working to set up an artists’ film and video study collection at Central St Martin’s College of Art. William Raban is a film-maker and Senior Lecturer in Film at the London College of Printing.