What Are We For?

By Robert Chilcott

on-the-black-mill-andrew-grieve.jpgOn the Black Mill, dir. by Andrew Grieve, 1987

A Journey in search of that elusive creature, Welsh Cinema

Take a cursory glance at any page of the Western Mail, and in even the minor articles, the words ‘Wales’ or ‘Welsh’ are printed, asserted, screamed. Prior to the mid-90s release of House of America, director Marc Evans and writer Ed Thomas both claimed a weariness and futility regarding ‘state of the nation’ debates about the problem of a Welsh identity, and rightly so. However, films as recent as Very Annie-Mary, Happy Now, and even Patrick Jones’ interminable play Everything Must Go continue to indulge in a pantomime Welshness that suggests these debates are still needed, unfortunately more than ever. From a critical standpoint, the notion of a ‘National Cinema’ whose content is flag-waving, whether sincere or ironic, is irksome, problematic, and, like a Nuremberg rally, quite distasteful. A parochial cinema is no cinema at all.

human-traffic-justin-kerrigan.jpgHuman Traffic, dir. by Justin Kerrigan, 1999

With this in mind, we asked six key industry players about the current state of filmmaking in Wales. Behind the green and pleasant landscapes, beneath the romanticised, exportable rural, it would seem that a thirst for debate, for criticism, is welcomed, even desired. In the devolution era we now clearly have some degree of independence, though has anyone yet decided what exactly we should do with it?

Clive Myer is Director of the International Film School Wales (IFSW) and sits on the lottery panel at the Arts Council of Wales (ACW).
Gethin While is Media Development Manager at IFSW.
Angharad Jones is the Commissioning Editor of Drama at S4C.
Fizzy Oppe is Development Producer at Fiction Factory.
Ynyr Williams is a producer and runs Salem Films.
Anneli Jones is Film Officer at ACW and Lottery Manager at Sgrîn.

Robert Chilcott: Is there such a thing as a ‘Welsh Cinema’, and, if so, what are its recurrent themes?

Angharad Jones: Certainly, in the Welsh language there is a tradition of filmmaking, for television mainly. Themes, on the whole, have perhaps tended to be nostalgic and melancholy, always looking back – period pieces, biopics, history lessons – but that is changing.

Gethin While: I suppose there is a Welsh cinema, even if the medium is more televisual than cinematic. There’s an imperative to your income, especially from state broadcasters who have to be seen not to be totally parasitic with regards to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), or the licence payer, to do the costume dramas and the chocolate boxy things, which don’t necessarily work in terms of critical acclaim, but typically recoup because they get a good B market in the States and other English speaking countries. I think, however, that Welsh cinema is not Welsh in the sense that it is exposed to the population. The bulk of our cinematic production is not seen by anybody. It might be shown on TV, because that’s the prime medium of transmission. But in terms of theatrical distribution, apart from some incidental festivals, it barely penetrates the satellite-TV council house residents of Gurnos, whose culture is much more Anglo-American or international in that respect, and who don’t consume any Welsh cultural product.

Fizzy Oppe: The problem for me is that I don’t think there’s anyone in those positions of power who have any definition of what a Welsh film should be. “Successful, well-written scripts,” the most nebulous category in the entire world. What does it mean? So yes, the definition of a Welsh film would be useful, even if it was something to rally against. Things like “a good script” or “a good production package” or a commercial distributor on board – what does that mean? You get £2000 and you go to Cannes and you can do this, that and the other... Rancid Aluminium absolutely proves that you can meet the right people, and with a certain kind of fashionable idea... It’s not rocket science to put together a feature film of £1.8 million.

very-annie-mary-sara-sugarman-1.jpgVery Annie-Mary, dir. by Sara Sugarman, 2000 

RC: Should Welsh films aggressively promote a ‘Made in Wales’ branding, or should that be a secondary, or even lesser?

Anneli Jones: I think there are marketing possibilities with that, but I think we need to be making the films first. I really sincerely believe that the ultimate ‘Welsh film’ is going to be the good film, and the good film means it is set somewhere, and you remember where it was set, but it’s universal, and it travels.

GW: Well, the sheep, the leeks, the rugby shirts, the clapperboards... I think you can be ironic about hackneyed cultural clichés and symbols only when you’ve got to the stage where the other version of your identity – the chic, internationalist, global, confident, implicit rather than explicit branding, has established itself. And I don’t think we’ve managed to do that yet. There’ve been lots of branding initiatives, like the classic one “Wales: Land of Passion” which is a bit silly really. We’re not sitting in the Piazza de Navona snogging over a glass of Chianti at the moment. With most Welsh films, their primary consideration is the local TV audience, and the content will be treated in such a specific local way that it won’t appeal to other audiences. The broadcasters want the viewing figures in Wales, and it’s a secondary consideration about whether it will appeal to anybody else. I think also that the films themselves are not descriptive of the bulk of the Welsh population – there’s a society there that’s not being covered, which is emblematic of cultural development in Wales, and the area that should be most cultivated. I suppose you’ve got the remit for preserving the Welsh language, and most of these areas are not Welsh-speaking. In terms of film, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg.

FO: Nobody is taking about content, nobody’s talking about what we want to make films about, what we should be making films about or what kind of audiences we would like to appeal to. If you want to watch second run television, come to Wales. Whenever there’s been anything vaguely successful on British television, then a cry goes out that we’ve got to do something like it in Wales. We seem to be completely and utterly incapable of original thinking. You can blame the producers or the writers or the talent for that, obviously you do have to blame them for it, but also you have to blame those people for saying, or dictating, what they have to spend money on. These people are as answerable as we the producers are. I also think the reason that there are so few great directors in Wales is that they don’t get to direct enough. That’s the problem. They certainly don’t become good from directing television.

RC: Recently a lot more money has been put into script development – is this process a positive one, does it work, how does it work? Is there a danger that creating script committees leads to less risk and more formula-laden films that adhere to DIY scriptwriting books and cynically pander to a supposed ‘mainstream’ audience? Are there too many short film schemes? Would the money be better spent on film education?

very-annie-mary-sara-sugarman-2.jpgVery Annie-Mary, dir. by Sara Sugarman, 2000

ANGJ: There is a danger in formula stuff and too many committees, just as there is in a writer/director who is not interested in the collaborative nature of filmmaking. I think it’s a good idea to spend money on film education as well as script development. A writer should not only have feedback from script doctors and good producers, but experienced actors and directors as well.

GW: It’d be lovely to have a country full of writer/directors who did all of their own redrafting and scratching of bums and heads. It is, unfortunately, an industrial nostrum that you have to have innumerable drafts of a script to get it right, and the catch is, of course, that the funders themselves are very nosey as far as scripts are concerned.

With film education, there’s a lot more work needed both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, to give people the critical armoury to edit their own scripts, and also to manage the process to their own advantage when ‘experts’ are called in. You would think there would be a Darwinian outcome, that the less successful the committee-produced films are, the fewer would be made, because obviously there’s no audience return. But that isn’t the case. Bad money is driving out good in this instance. And because, I suppose, public response is immaterial, they don’t give a fan-doodle about what Mrs Jones in Abertysswg thinks about the film, because, you know, she’s probably not going to see it, will never have the opportunity to see it. So there’s a degree of arrogance involved in these filmmaking committees, because at the end of the day the public is not benefiting from the investment.

Ynyr Williams: Their take is that they want to do this properly, they want to give people the experience of how it’s done in the real world and the pressure that brings. That you’ll have 25,000 questions a day to sort out, and it’s not just “let’s do this now, let’s get in there” – it’s not that guerrilla thing. If others want to do that they can – and people still do, it happens all over the place – but what they want is a structured industry and set of criteria. And I think perhaps we’ve been too spoon-fed here... I think anarchy is always interesting.

very-annie-mary-sara-sugarman-3.jpgVery Annie-Mary, dir. by Sara Sugarman, 2000 

Clive Myer: Film is an institution. As soon as it becomes a marketable product, you’re talking about institutions and about the industry being filled mostly with middle-men, not with the filmmaker at one end and the audience at the other. They play, it seems to me, a small role, and it’s dearly in need of research and investigation as to what that space in-between is and what the roles are. It’s all up for grabs. If budgets reduce, then all those middle roles have to diminish, and I’m sure other productive areas of work will arise from it. Otherwise we’re in danger of becoming just like the miners or the steel-working in Wales. You can build up an industry which in ten years time will just collapse. You’ll have an infrastructure with no-one wanting to buy it.

RC: Why did Very Annie-Mary fail? (or, is the process of viewing 12 different rough cuts, making extraneous notes, ordering re-shoots and test screenings simply the indulgence of a self-satisfied agenda that ultimately doesn’t work and is detrimental to the film itself?)

GW: It’s the committee process again – with Very Annie-Mary you had extremely clichéd representations of Welshness which were veering towards The Englishman Who Went up a Hill..., It was going for the middlebrow audience to start off with, and the singing, and the campness of valley people, which is true to a certain extent, came across as too crude. It was almost like a children’s film, in that there was no depth, and that everything, everyone was carrying a placard saying ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. I suppose it was just too much. It’s a bit like Happy Now – the ensemble thing with lots of ‘Welshness’, sheep and people with six fingers living in the side of a mountain.

YW: I’m not sure if it was pandering to that Welsh thing, or whether it was extremely careful. But that could mean it failed, because I’m not sure. I’ve only seen it once. Perhaps Sara Sugarman didn’t know where its audience was, or perhaps she was kind of pandering to that one person, the mid-Atlantic ex-pat Welsh guy, who had this kind of perceived recollection of what Wales used to be like.

boy-soldier-karl-francis.jpgBoy Soldier, dir. by Karl Francis, 1986

ANNJ: It’s a difficult juggling act because I work for The Arts Council of Wales. Arts Council ­­– this to me suggests we should be doing a certain type of thing, and that could be very high art, experimental films, or ‘beautiful’ films. I see how people can think “What’s the ACW doing meddling around with commercial films?” It makes things difficult, that the Lottery film pot, for years, has been the only one. So when something like Very Annie-Mary comes along, from Dragon Pictures, with Sara Sugarman, who claims to have a Welsh connection, or whatever, but there is apparently an affection…, who’s produced this script, with her great love of Wales, from London, about something that’s set here, and it’s ready to go, and it’s got the packaging – there is an element that says well, because of our commitment to the Welsh film industry, this is going to bring in X hundred thousand pounds worth of value, and work for a crew. All these things play a part, and some people really love this project. I think maybe it’s a victim of being the only film. 12 cuts? It’s certainly not an ideal way to make a film. There’s something wrong with that development process.

CM: But that was whose influence on the filmmaker? It speaks for itself, doesn’t it, that if you’re doing any kind of test screening, it means your eye is on the commercial ball more than anything else, because that’s simply to service apparent audience requirements. I doubt whether Ken Loach would get involved with a process like that. It’s a question of how much power the filmmaker has. It might be necessary to discuss two different sorts of contracts with these funding bodies, where this kind of pressure is not necessarily placed on what we should perhaps call cultural films. And if we can discuss and argue for two different ways of seeing the world, then we should argue for two different ways of contracting to the world as well, and therefore all these issues could be discussed at funding level. And should be.

RC: Twin Town was called “the Welsh Trainspotting”. Darklands “the Welsh Wicker Man”; Happy Now “the Welsh Twin Peaks”. Is this simply a lazy and unimaginative marketing technique, or is it more symptomatic of the low self-confidence inherent in the ‘National Identity’, the lack of a self-belief in being able to find its own original voice?

GW: It is a lazy marketing technique. They’re looking for a Hollywood barometer, a yardstick, so that when they try to sell it, distribute it, the sales agents have something to grab hold of. But you’re right about the lack of belief in an original voice, and it’s sad, because I don’t think many of the creators of these films saw them as being derivative. There is a paranoia that these things will not be palatable, particularly in England where there’s a pervasive contempt for Welsh culture, largely to do with a lack of exposure through the education system. English people don’t know anything about Wales. They know more about Scotland, or even Estonia after the Eurovision, whereas the Welsh know everything about the English. So the Welsh really know what they think the English want, and the English have so little basic knowledge about what Wales is that they’ll dismiss it as too difficult. Wales is the cultural whipping boy of England, because the English have insecurities vis-à-vis continental culture, and the French film industry in particular.

YW: I think it’s both. I get seriously worried if someone comes to me and says this is my new film, it’s half Kagemusha, a bit of Jumanji, and it’s got a bit of Don’t Look Now and Shrek. Perhaps we’re always trying to compare ourselves with somebody else, and I don’t think we should. I’m fed up with comparisons – I can’t be anything else apart from a Welsh guy and I’ve got plenty of self-belief, because the only thing I can give you is my voice, or the voice of whomever I work with.

CM: They were calling a lot of films Trainspotting. It wasn’t just Twin Town, it was House of America, it was Human Traffic.

hedd-wynn-paul-turner.jpgHedd Wynn, dir. by Paul Turner, 1992

ANNJ: Because not many films are made in Wales, there’s a tendency for such and such a film to be called the Welsh blah. There’s no doubt about it, we’re not entrepreneurs, generally speaking, and I’m not sure we have a talent for selling ourselves – inherently it’s something I find very difficult to do, and I’m sure a million other people do, but those are skills that can be acquired. I think the difficulty is gaining self-confidence without becoming belligerent, which in itself can be turned around and leads back to your aggressive promotion of ‘Made in Wales’, which is something one wants to avoid. I think it’s something that will grow as we make more films. You can’t get away from it – on a global filmmaking stage, we are infants. Babies. Maybe it’s a phase we have to go through, in that people don’t expect us to make films.

RC: Is Human Traffic progressive in as much as, although set and shot in Cardiff, its principal cast is national and it does not feel the need to identify or promote Cardiff in every scene – i.e. it could be set anywhere. Is this a step forward, or simply due to the fact that much of its budget came from outside Wales, therefore it needed no tourist board promotion or endorsement?

FO: It’s mad. At the Happy Now discussion (Focus on Film, November 2001), the chair of the panel was the guy from the Barmouth Film commission, talking about how nicely behaved these people had been in Barmouth and how much money they’d spent in Barmouth and how great it was to see Barmouth on the screen.

CM: I think there is a healthy aspect within Human Traffic which says “I’m a Welsh filmmaker but I have the right to make my films about anything and anywhere in the world and I’m going to use whoever I want to in my films.” You don’t want an imperialism of Welshness demanding that everything has to have the formulaic sense of national identity. Those attitudes are not coming from the filmmakers, not even from the funding bodies. They’re coming from where the funding bodies themselves get their money: the DCMS.

GW: Human Traffic didn’t have a sign saying Cardiff International Arena in the top frame. Irish Screen supported it, I don’t know if it got any Welsh funding, except the DM Davies award, which was in kind anyway, from Fuji. I agree, it could have been anywhere. It wasn’t hammering home the ‘Cardiff in Bloom’ festival. The irony is of course that Human Traffic came just after the Welsh super-groups had taken off, and it experienced the same vogue. It was produced by someone with a very strong original voice and was dismissive of apparatchiks and official promotion of culture, just as, I suppose, the Manics and Catatonia were, to a lesser extent, but it has since been hijacked as a totem of progress and success, by these very bodies that didn’t provide support at the outset. That always seems to be the case really. Welsh actors, interestingly, are subject to the same phenomenon. By their very being, they’re used to push things on – emblematic of a potential future because they’re successful. But they’re hardly doing any work in Wales.

YW: The worst thing we can ever do is think that we’re going to do a film for the Welsh Tourist Board. Branding is nothing to do with filmmakers. I think we can be ourselves without making big statements We should be telling our own stories.

Robert Chilcott is a freelance writer and film-maker.