A Lasting Light

By Pat McCarthy

like-father-amber-3.jpgLike Father dir. by Amber, 2001

The remarkable productions and unique approach of cinema collective Amber continue to make a difference

Amber came together in London in 1968, the original members moving to the North East of England the following year. There was no regional funding at the time and limited independent access to television and the film industry. Although the odds on survival were slim, we have produced 15 documentary films, three animations and nine feature films, the latest of which, Like Father, was released to critical acclaim in June 2001. Thus far, Like Father has been shown at 18 Art house venues, screened at 14 international film festivals, broadcast on BBC4 and SBS in Australia and opens theatrically in Germany on September 12th 2002. This is about average for the first year of our films but they seem to have a long shelf life, and continue to be active long after their original release.

We have always been driven by cultural rather than commercial concerns, and have never sought to be part of the mainstream of the industry. Our agenda has been concerned with establishing film as an ‘art’ form that has particular relevance to working-class people, and breaking through the cultural snobbery that sees film as somehow inferior to other art forms such as theatre, music, ballet and painting. We have campaigned for public funding of a filmmaking that is dedicated to the representation of regional cultures, and for the establishment of an alternative cultural film production, distribution and exhibition network; a national cinema that reflects and explores our national identity and regional filmmaking that reflects its diversities.

We want a theatrical life for our work and the maximum audience possible, but if conventional distribution had been our only means of access, we would have withered away years ago. We have survived because we have developed a limited but vibrant network. We own a small cinema. We screen films in workingmen’s clubs and community venues. Our work has attracted many admirers throughout the art house and film society circuits in the UK and Europe and is popular at festivals, our main marketing platform for international sales. We are proud of the audiences we attract for television screenings at home and abroad, of the use of our work in education and of the sales of videos through our web site.

like-father-amber-1.jpgLike Father dir. by Amber, 2001 

There is a much wider base to our filmmaking than is often assumed, but we do constantly return to issues of identity and community in working-class lives, examining how the sense and experience of them are stretched, fractured and eroded. We use film to give people a voice and we show our work where people can discuss it. Since we strongly believe that a film does not come to life until it meets its audience, distribution and exhibition are integrated elements in the long process inherent in our approach. The UK’s current exhibition structure means that we may never attract huge audiences. Our films, honest to the experience of the people in the community with whom we work, are not deemed to be the fare that would attract audiences.

There is more than an element of the self-fulfilling prophecy to councils of despair that inform the UK’s distribution policies. The industry has no confidence in its home-grown product and no vision to generate alternative ways of experiencing cinema. It is a disgrace that US films represent 94% of the box office total in Britain, while 70% of British films receive limited or no theatrical release. The merit of these films, or of the structures that finance them, is not the point. Our woeful expectation of British films builds failure into the process, begging the simple question: why do we continue to spend public money on production, when we do not have the capacity for distribution?

The industry needs to establish an appropriate balance between production, marketing and exhibition. Unless we create and control exhibition space and allocate sufficient resources into promoting the indigenous product, there will never be an opportunity to test home-grown production, broaden the public appetite for film and develop a culturally appropriate way of delivering films to UK audiences. We have a responsibility when spending public money to get these structures right. Which other industry would expect public investment in a product it was unable to distribute?

like-father-amber-2.jpgLike Father dir. by Amber, 2001 

It is easy to knock the Film Council, but it is the government and its advisers who carry the responsibility for the legal framework established for the distribution of Lottery finance to the film industry. This framework distances film from art, culture and education – legitimate areas for investment of public money – and sets it in a commercial context complete with ludicrous, ‘toytown’ ambitions of competition with the American industry, while figures from 2000 tell us that only six out of 250 Lottery funded films recouped their costs. Is anyone going to be brave enough to rewrite the framework, so that film takes its rightful place among the established art forms, before the pressure created by accusations of wasting public money leads to the withdrawal of Lottery funding?

The new technical revolution that enables transmission of film by satellite via projects like CyberCinema creates new opportunities for providing a greater range of films to more people throughout Europe. These should be exciting times but the industry needs to be bold enough to reap maximum advantage from the opportunities available and to establish control over exhibition. If it does, there is potential for creating venues around the diversity of local needs, building markets around dialogue with the audience and developing programmes of genuine variety. These possibilities are in our grasp, the timing is perfect and what does the Film Council propose? Subsidies to American-owned multiplexes that offer to give over a screen to non-American product. Where is the motivation for success? Who sells the hot dogs? Who expropriates profits? As a working vision of the future, it is up there with the privatisation of the railways.

Cinema feeds our cultural dreams. Why are we so willing to abandon any creative engagement with this reality? Cinema can draw on all of this wonderful world we live in. Why are we so content to abandon our part of it? Amber has always found ways forward, no matter how hostile the climate. Every year it gets a little bit more hostile, but you can’t help dreaming.

Pat McCarthy is a member of Amber. amber-online.com" target="_blank">www.amber-online.com