Waving, Drowning or Back Crawl?

By Janet Harbord

jubilee-derek-jarman.jpgJubilee, dir. by Derek Jarman, 1977

Working out (with) British film policy

What does ‘national’ cinema mean in an age of globalisation, and why is British film culture shying away from the compelling questions of our time? In a particularly candid opening to the first public statement of the Film Council’s aims and objectives, Chair Alan Parker confides, ‘Sometimes with the UK film industry it’s hard to know if we’re waving or drowning’. Certainly many filmmakers and commentators have voiced a sinking feeling in response to the Film Council’s openly commercial remit and unbending strategy to produce fewer, but larger, budget films than in the recent past. For sure, the prospect of ‘rescuing’ the film industry is a task of monumental proportions. ‘We cannot claim to have all the answers’‚ the same document states defensively[1]. Yet the requirements of any revision of policy and structure are surely not to pluck magical solutions from a hat, but to invigorate wider debate. This would mean a discussion of what place film has in social and cultural life, what kinds of film we want to see, and perhaps the most pressing issue, what notion of a ‘national’ cinema is pertinent to Britain in the twenty-first century.

Whilst Britishness and Britain are seemingly knowable concepts in policy documents and press reports, the definition of the nation itself is in crisis. Under globalisation, the role of the nation state is fundamentally weakened as a political and economic authority. In tandem with the transmigration of peoples within the global arena, the constitution of national populations is far from clear. The success of a Labour government at the beginning of the twenty-first century is rooted in its acceptance that globalisation is here to stay, and that governments must work with it. New Labour has built its Jerusalem on the principles of the Third Way. Derived from the work of sociologist Anthony Giddens, the third way attempts to leap-frog the Socialist-Capitalist binary and propel us into an age of state-managed (or stage-managed) benevolent business. The private sphere is increasingly entrusted with the responsibilities of the public sector, but overseen by government-mandated institutions. The Film Council is a case in point.

last-of-england-derek-jarman.jpgThe Last of England dir. by Derek Jarman, 1987

Yet globalisation represents a more fundamental challenge to the old polarities of state subsidy versus the free market in two ways which are particularly pertinent to film. First, there is no longer an inside and outside to the nation state; multinational businesses traverse the nation, monopolising the circuits and thus content of ‘local’ (read ‘national’) cultures. Given that the UK is the most heavily multiplexed country in Europe, this particular aspect of globalisation is keenly felt. Second, the constitution of the population, and thus its audiences, has fundamentally changed. Since the ethnic and cultural mix is greater than ever, the term ‘national’ in relation to film can only be used with an awareness of this significant transformation. These twin aspects of globalisation pose two prescient questions for policy: what imaginary audience is film made for, and second, what access to culturally diverse and formally challenging films do we have?

To take the first of these questions, that of who British film is for, policy documents and recent films serve as key indicators of this imagined audience. With the many references in Film Council reports to cultural diversity, we might expect the perceived audience for film to be broad, eclectic, wide-ranging. Yet there is a real sense in which cultural diversity is but the candy-icing on the structural cake, an additional decoration rather than a main ingredient.

britannia-hospital-lindsay-anderson.jpgBritannia Hospital dir. by Lindsay Anderson, 1982

Analysing the crisis in the film industry, the Film Council locates the structure as the paramount problem. In Britain the industry is product-led and fragmented, comparing unfavourably to the distribution-led, integrated American model. Thus, the centralisation of resources within the Film Council represents the end of a cottage industry of national production. In its place, the bigger and better concept of fewer films is installed. Crucially the commercial health of the industry is tied to the success of film as an export product, and it is here that the question of who film is for becomes more complicated.

As if national identity were not complex enough, it now comes refracted through tourist images of Britishness made for others. And with the opening of a British marketing office in Los Angeles, the identity of those others is a little clearer. It might be argued that an identifiable export market doesn’t really affect the content of film, that this is all but anti-American propaganda. Yet some of the largest productions of recent years bear testimony to the lubrication of the Anglo-American relationship. In Notting Hill (dir. Roger Michell 1999) only a non-national audience would find the opening description of the London location as a relative dump remotely palatable (to say nothing of the film’s white-out). To emphasise the ‘special’ transatlantic relationship, the whole film centres around the romance of a ‘humble’ English boy and an American star.

robinson-in-space-patrick-keiller.jpgRobinson in Space dir. by Patrick Keiller, 1997 

Similarly, Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman 2001) loads on the intertextual ironies of Anglo-American relations with a trowel. In this film parodying the class divisions of an old England with knowing caricature, a central joke is the placing of an American director within its story line. Over dinner the director describes the plot of a recent film but stops short of the punchline for fear of ruining the viewer’s experience. Maggie Smith, embodying the acerbic wit of the English aristocracy, replies tartly that he shouldn’t worry as we’ll never watch the film. The irony of course is that we cannot escape American films. It’s a further irony that this British film is directed by a famous American, and, while our sides are splitting, that what we produce here as ‘British’ happens to conform to a caricatured American idea of Englishness from the distant past. No stop it, really, it’s too much. Or just enough to show that content clearly is connected to the destined market of a film, and irony, it would seem, our winning export.

If this heavily ironized treatment of the past tells us that, in Marshall McLuhan’s words, we accelerate into the future with one eye on the rear-view mirror, it is also true to say that the film industry, and the government, are haunted by their recent histories. As New Labour scrambles to escape the mantle of a socialist agenda and an ‘old style’ commitment to the public subsidy of culture for its own intrinsic merit rather than as a state industry, we are left in an ideological vacuum, simply running from rather than steering toward a goal. Similarly British film is haunted by its legacy of social realism, or what many commentators regard conversely as its most successful era of production. Recast as miserablism, the complexity of films which created worlds dealing with conflict and dissent is replaced with the current simplicity of comedy. Arguably the Full Monty (dir. Peter Cattaneo 1997) cast the mould of the transformation from complex to comic, but it has certainly taken root along with the demand from policy makers for clearly identifiable genre films. And as Ken Loach noted this year at Cannes, there is nothing more backward looking than the genre film; yesterday’s leftovers reheated into popcorn-sized snacks.

Is this what the Film Council means by a necessary shift from a product-led, fragmented industry to a distribution-led, integrated structure? And does this happy-clappy film culture best represent the desires and demands of contemporary British audiences? A recent survey commissioned by the BFI on the tastes and habits of Asian and Afro-Carribean British audiences would suggest not[2]. The research reports that mainstream product is criticised for its caricatured representation of Asian and black cultures, with the comedy East is East (dir. Damien O’Donnell 1999) singled out for its offensive retro-parody of Asian identities. ‘It ain’t ’alf funny, Mum’ with a postmodern spin. Genre films may appear to provide a seamless route from writers to producers to distributors, but the tastes of audiences are not so easily classified.

comrades-bill-douglas.jpgComrades dir. by Bill Douglas, 1986

If the question of who British films are for leads towards a caricatured sense of audiences and a caricatured film culture, what is there to say of the other question posed by globalisation, that of the access we have to films? As other contributors note in this publication, the current distribution and exhibition monopoly tells a very different story of the ‘failure’ of British films at the box office. Unless the government is able to deal with situations of cartel, there is little that policy can actually do. The Film Council’s recent consultation on specialised exhibition and distribution strategy, A Better Picture (2002), is laudable in its desire to extend access to film, but in practice it represents a tinkering at the edges. For whilst specialised distribution deserves to receive subsidy for its provision of a wider menu of film, the cultural perception of the art house is rooted in Britain’s rich heritage of class and ethnic alienation. Certainly these networks need continued support, but ‘other’ films need also to circulate beyond this, in the multiplexes and Odeons that permeate city centres and peripheries. This is more likely to happen if the ‘product’, the film itself, is rated for its own merits rather than its imitative qualities. The direction of film policy at present puts the proverbial cart before the horse: if film is commercially successful, so the thinking goes, then the remit of cultural diversity can follow in its path. A more strategic formulation would be to create a vibrant, culturally diverse cinema which audiences, an increasingly fragmented and eclectic body, want to see. The film product is indeed the horse that draws us after it, but in the current formulation of British film we’re presented with something of a lame nag. The vision is intellectually and culturally tame – to give audiences what they want, which is what they already have, which is in fact the homogeneous culture created by multinational monopoly. To pin our hopes on an integrated industry with familiar product is not the way forward; conversely, it’s the product that generates word of mouth and attracts attention. Films that are characterised by controversy, relevance, innovation, imaginary qualities that generate debate and interest, that reflect back to us the pressing questions of our time, these are films that draw audiences. Policy should be the place for thinking about and facilitating a visionary cinema, which is not about imitation (genre) or the past (parody) but the difficulty of thinking the present.

There are few British films that engage with a sense of national identity as the crucial and compelling question that it is. Perhaps the British Film Institute-backed Beautiful People (dir. Jasmin Dizdar 1999) or The Last Resort (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski 2000) have been the most memorable recent explorations of such encounters. Yet, cultural diversity also embraces the idea of contemporary Britain as a mix of peoples who do not necessarily share the same imaginary landscapes or stories and whose concept of home will vary. Film Four’s recent backing of Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior (2001) is an exemplary recognition of this; a British film located in a mythological India of the past and in Hindi. It is a timely reminder that the British imaginary is no longer confined to dodgy gangster flicks or Anglo-American Rom Coms.

Film is not an atomised unit of entertainment, hermetically sealed from the broader political culture, or an industry like any other. If it were, we might as well forget subsidy of any kind. Film culture, in its widest sense as an arena of debate, review and provocation, actively shapes the horizons of what the ‘national’ currently means. In a Europe fortressed against the flow of migration – itself the result of interconnected global politics of military assault and economic exploitation – and torn asunder by extremist views on the constitution of the nation, one would expect film cultures based on definitions of the nation state to engage with this. Closer still, in Britain the government explores ‘Blue Skies’ strategies of employing the military to police borders and expel migrants, and brings in an oath of citizenship contra to any sense of cultural diversity. Realistically, film culture is not created in a separate world, but forged within this dissonant context. Ideally, it can help positively to determine a sense of the ‘national’ in all of its complex formation. In a climate in which national identity is debated more vitally in relation to football than film, there is certainly work to be done. To resign ourselves to a circumscribed national cinema of ironic and comic entertainment is surely the hand wave of a drowning man.


[1]. Alan Parker, foreword in Towards a Sustainable UK Film Industry, Film Council, May 2000.
[2]. Black and Asian Film Research, by SSMR, London; BFI, 2000.

Janet Harbord is a lecturer in Film Studies at Goldsmiths and is author of Film Cultures (Sage 2002).