The Independent Film Parliament

By Holly Aylett

robinson-in-space-patrick-keiller.jpgRobinson in Space, 1997

Introducing an initiative to support British film culture

On July 12th 2003, Vertigo and the Cambridge Film Festival summoned both commoners and barons to the first Independent Film Parliament in Cambridge, to debate the state of British Cinema – both what we see and what we produce, whether in fiction, documentary or artists' film. It was independent not only in its execution but also in the sense of the films which it sought to represent – films of risk, of surprise, films which interrogate the communities we are part of, visionary films which takes us beyond the strictures of repetition, stale format and commodification.

The Speaker of the House, former MEP and European activist in film policy, Carole Tongue, opened parliament. A rousing challenge both to government and the UK Film Council was delivered by Liverpool-based director Alex Cox and a proactive European perspective urged by Ian Christie, professor of film and media history at Birkbeck College, London. The House then divided into four committees – development; production; distribution & exhibition; education & training. These were convened by independent professionals to discuss a broad agenda of issues arising from current film policy and to deliver constructive proposals in support of a culturally diverse and regionally based film culture in this country.

The timing is opportune for Parliamentary scrutiny. Locally, Sir Alan Parker's mission statement for UK film policy, delivered to BAFTA on bonfire night last year, has passed almost without comment in spite of its provocative bid to redefine British filmmaking as we know it (see Alex Cox's address, inside front cover). Nationally, the new Communications Act allows for less regulation whilst opening up broadcasting to foreign ownership, and the DCMS Select Committee led by Gerald Kaufman is currently hearing evidence with a view to reporting extensively on the film industry in September.

At a European level, the Television without Frontiers directive is up for review in the European Parliament in October, but UK participation in this and other pan-European initiatives for audio-visual culture, is patchy and without direction (see Ian Christie, facing page). Meanwhile, worldwide there are moves to push forward an International Convention on cultural diversity, sponsored by UNESCO to safeguard the cultural sovereignty of nations facing the encroachment of the World Trade Organisation.

It is rare that what is delivered to our screens is considered in the context of the national and international agendas which our film culture inevitably expresses and rarer still for commentators to give these debates the serious attention they deserve. What appears to be missing is the kind of open-mindedness required for a vibrant and intelligent engagement with the communities and the world we live in. What we have is a government that on the one hand endorses freedom of speech through the European Convention on Human Rights, while on the other denying the crucial role of cultural producers in achieving this. Moreover, while some political independence through devolution has been allowed in Scotland and Wales, in the English regions and in film policy we find a series of more or less unaccountable, private companies receiving significant amounts of public money and claiming the authority to direct all aspects of film culture.

In film and communications policy, debate is often dismissed as dissidence by those who lack the political will and/or confidence to investigate alternatives. This first Independent Film Parliament was one initiative to redress this situation. It was also a unique assembly of writers, cultural analysts, academics, exhibitors, distributors and filmmakers prepared to give up their time and exchange their skills in a rare forum for ideas and debate. It was open to all and many of the principal policy makers were invited to come. It is a poor reflection on our institutions that few felt confident to attend.

However, the records of this Parliament are now summarised in the pages that follow, offering a series of constructive proposals that engage with current policies. They will also be delivered with supporting documents for proper consideration by the UK Film Council, the DCMS select committee, Skillset and other relevant institutions, in the interests of strengthening and safeguarding our diverse film culture.

This Independent Film Parliament calls on the DCMS, UK Film Council and Ofcom to ensure the following:

1. Given that the global playing field for film both in the UK and in Europe is unbalanced, due to US dominance in the market, and in support for films that reflect a diversity of British life and culture, to

  • (re)introduce parafiscal measures for the selective support of UK production and distribution, such as tax allowances and a levy on blank tape and disc sales

  • nationally and locally support to independent cinemas

  • open debate on how to achieve adequate national distribution of British, European and World cinemas

2. Given that this country has consistently showed reluctance to engage with Europe in joint programmes to support regionally based and culturally diverse filmmaking, to develop a coherent framework of policies towards Europe which would include

  • taking an active role in shaping MEDIA 4 and higher level involvement in MEDIA PLUS

  • rejoining the Eurimages programme

  • encouraging participation in Archimedia

  • taking part in Europe’s unique, cultural broadcasting initiative, ARTE

  • strengthening our support for the Television Without Frontiers directive

3. Given that both small and large screen play a crucial role in determining our cultural identity, and given that this government supports freedom of expression, devolution with accountability and the development of citizens’ rights, to

  • commit to openness and accountability in the allocation of public funds for film

  • carry out ongoing monitoring and assessment of UK Film Council performance and outputs with particular regard to the specialist film sector

  • require the UK Film Council to invest at least 30% of its resources in the English regions outside London, whilst recognising and supporting the existence of separate funding arrangements for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

4. Given that there is no specific provision in the Communications Act to ensure investment in feature, drama and creative documentary and given that all television broadcasters are under pressure to reduce investment in and support for feature, drama and creative documentary production, to

  • make provision for consistent levels of investment in British feature, drama and creative documentary production on all UK-licensed TV channels at a level that is appropriate to their nature, size and audience

Holly Aylett is a documentary film-maker and lectures in Film Studies at London Metropolitan University.