For the Common Wealth

By Holly Aylett

alexandras-project-rolf-de-heer.jpgAlexandra's Project, 2003

Perspectives from the third Commonwealth Film Festival, Manchester, 2004

The Commonwealth Film Festival launched in 2002 when the Commonwealth Games came to Manchester. From these somewhat opportunistic beginnings it has developed as a successful exhibition platform for international cinema, but the question still hangs over it – what is the significance of the connection to the Commonwealth? This colonial instrument of administration (and control) has evolved today into a voluntary association of 53 members, which potentially links about 1.7 billion people, almost a third of humanity. Delegates from some of these countries acknowledged a shared history, organisational systems in common and the persistence of the English language, but how was this relevant to the specificity of film culture? The question has been equally problematic for its joint directors, Michael Burke and Michael Fox, both well-established names in national and regional circuits. In these so-called post-colonial times, they have found the association as much of a burden as a benefit. The Commonwealth has given no direct financial support, although this year the Secretariat hosted the press launch in London, attracting film dignitaries of the status of Sir Richard Attenborough. So what is in the name, and how best to release its potential to support the film community?

When he became Secretary General in August 2000, Don McKinnon enthusiastically endorsed the contemporary relevance of the Commonwealth. “Everyone still sees themselves as part of a very large family organisation,” he said, “where you are familiar with all the others in the group – from the biggest to the smallest, from the poorest to the very wealthiest in the world.”

This suggests more than a simple question of family loyalty. Smaller nations have a great deal to gain from their more powerful, and sometimes most dissenting cousins. With relatives who can claim permanent membership of the Security Council, and others playing major roles in reshaping the future for world trade through the World Trade Organisation, the family often offers the best chance to get your voice heard, however marginally. Just as importantly, given current plans to ‘liberalise’ access to communications and service industries, it can also provide vital assistance in defence of national, cultural identities.


The Commonwealth is also well placed to take advantage of today’s global communications revolution and to promote the exchange of ideas, experience and advocacy expressed in film and moving image work. However, this remains a very underdeveloped area. In Something in Common, a paper for festival delegates, Ladi Ladebo, the London-based Nigerian filmmaker, wrote that officials are rather cynical about the potential for arts and cultural matters. If they listened, they might learn from the focus of the grassroots organisation within their midst, the Commonwealth People’s Forum:

“The focus on global democracy, global economics, international law, inter-governmental arrangements and other global programmes has yet to lead humanity towards sustainability, because individuals at the grassroots are not made part of the process. To be more precise, the focus on Commonwealth arts and cultures is not as prominent as it should be. People’s needs and aspirations are not automatically fulfilled because of increased commerce among member states of the Association. The arts do not recognize maps, being the expression of shared human experiences; while culture is a tool for uniting and breaking down artificial geographical boundaries.”

Ladebo goes on to say, more generally, that when popular culture is recognised, it is often those forms driven by the economic orientation of the private sector rather than forms which aim to penetrate what Ladebo calls ‘the emotional, intellectual and spiritual depths of human, cultural needs.’

falling-angels-scott-smith.jpgFalling Angels, 2003

This deeper searching informed the range and quality of films shown at the Commonwealth Film Festival – over 250 from 71 countries. Just as important, and impressive, are the pioneering intitiatives to bring new audiences to international cinema. Community ambassadors have been targeted, there is outreach to DVD and video rental shops, liaisons with schools and community projects – all part of the endeavour to micro-market the stories carried by these ‘unknown’ films. In Oldham, a town once known for the manufacturing of cotton from the colonies, there was a screening of an Indian film, The Battle of the Sharecroppers, part of a day event involving debate with the Deputy High Commissioner of India and a cross-generational audience from the Bangladeshi community. At the 16-screen AMC multiplex, stranded in the consumer-space of a large, shopping centre, the management had been tempted to programme a Sri Lankan film, encouraging an audience normally locked out of the multiplex by its mono-focal obsession with blockbusters, and a failure to grasp the fundamental irrelevance of the worlds of Spiderman or Matrix Revolutions to many people’s lives.

Mathieu Ravier, the Programme Director, searches for films through which audiences will recognize themselves, sourcing from an open call for submissions,(assisted by agencies such as film schools and the British Council), direct invitation and from unsolicited material. “I have nothing against American films per se,” he noted. “It’s just that you can see them everywhere. The Commonwealth Film Festival exists because Hollywood has a film festival coming out of the multiplexes the other fifty one weeks of the year.”

on-the-corner-nathaniel-geary.jpgOn the Corner, 2003

He selects on the basis of perceived quality, representation of the range of Commonwealth cultures, and subcultures – this year a special focus on gay cinema – and voices which have not been heard. Ravier combines a passion for cinema with a nomadic history, having worked in film in Canada, Australia, Tokyo and Hong Kong. He comes from France, where cinema is still considered by government to be an effective tool through which to communicate ideas. National cinema culture is sustained, not least through the use of quotas for indigenous production which, contrary to popular suspicion, are designed to support free trade and diversity in a market which is otherwise completely distorted by the power of the American majors.

The significance of film, in a world experiencing the impact of globalisation on diversity and grassroots cultural agendas, recurred in the Festival panels – on Commonwealth Identity, Cultural Diversity and Global Distribution. Paradoxically, given the aims of the association, the reality faced by most Commonwealth member states is one of difficulty in exchange, and the invisibility of the range of experience to be shared. Cinema from Africa rarely reaches India, but what about screen access for Indians, beyond Bollywood, to their own regional cinema produced in some thirty nine languages and dialects? Or indeed, access to the cinema of the diasporas, which are vital communities within host nations.

emperors-wife-julien-vrebos.jpgThe Emperor's Wife, 2003 

Given the tendency towards homogenisation, the marginalisation of work which is not commercially proven, and the impulse to address the narrowest economic remit for ‘popular culture’, national and international institutions have a crucial role in structuring what it is possible to produce and the films which audiences can see.

It is a challenge that Commonwealth member state governments all face, to greater or lesser degrees, and one which is informing different strategies for the promotion of diversity. In Britain, the terms used to embrace these issues have shape-shifted through different political agendas: from multi-culturalism in the eighties, cultural diversity in the nineties, to today’s even broader concept of inclusion.

In a Vertigo debate, Versions of Diversity, Marcia Williams, Head of Diversity at the UK Film Council, outlined ways to deliver mind-shifts within institutions by introducing criteria to direct and assess best practice into every departmental initiative, thereby mainstreaming the agendas. The Anglophone approach is pragmatic, offering laudable models for positive action. In the precision of its target-driven language, however, the wider significance was lost. The macrocosmic perspective was offered by Francophone partners in Quebec. Colin Hicks, Director of Cultural Services for the Quebec Government in London (see p36), spoke of intra-culturalism, and ways of keeping open channels of exchange when ‘sleeping with the elephant’.

battle-of-sharecroppers-saidul-anam-tutul.jpgThe Battle of the Sharecroppers, 2003

In this perspective, people from the diasporas within Quebec must negotiate with the Quebecois; the latter must negotiate with the Canadians, and the Canadians must lie with the largest elephant, America. Like the Quebecois, most of us lie with an elephant and from within its shadow the challenge is how to create a space, and not just a space, but a space which is open to radical change.

These perspectives on diversity bring an important challenge to today’s Commonwealth which, however ambitious it already is, should lie right at the centre of its rationale. A more pro-active role, using cultural platforms, and film in particular, could reinforce its members’ cultural identity and sustain diversity within the family. It could explore ways to use its institutions to assist in building alternative distribution networks. One of these might be through the existing Commonwealth Museums network, as suggested by Ladi Ladebo. Alternatively – and perhaps additionally – it could repeat the success of the Commonwealth Film Festival, using Manchester as the model for a series of local film gatherings. This would nurture new partnerships from the grassroots, create open spaces for exchange, and develop new constituencies for films and their stories, which international audiences might never otherwise have the chance to experience.

Holly Aylett is a writer and documentary filmmaker. She lectures in Film Studies at London Metropolitan University and chaired the Vertigo Debate at the Festival.