Transatlantic Drift

By Holly Aylett

sankofa-haile-gerima.jpgSankofa, 1993

Britain and the UNESCO Convention for Cultural Diversity

In June this year the British Government signed up to the final draft document for the UNESCO Convention for Cultural Diversity. Few will have ever heard of it since neither the government, nor the press it seems, are interested in publicising the fact. Likewise the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, DCMS, and the UK Film Council have been lying low on the issue, hoping perhaps that it will go away before October when the Convention is due to be ratified.

What is at stake is the freedom of nation states to develop independent policy to sustain their cultural industries. The Convention recognises that cultural works – books, films, plays etc - have a dual nature, cultural and economic, and as vectors of meaning and cultural identity should not be regarded as any other merchandise, for sale and exploitation in the global marketplace.

This is not just a technicality for the audiovisual industry. For the United States, the dominant player, the audiovisual sector is the second biggest exporter after aeronautics and is the only sector with a positive balance of trade with all countries in the world. Something worth fighting for but, from the point of view of film culture in this country, it is also worth defending against.

Statistics can be used to show that Britain’s film industry is now the third biggest in the world and a prime destination for inward investment. This success story was heralded by James Purnell, new Minister for the Creative Industries, in a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research in June this year. But what is the relation of this economic success to the vibrancy and breadth of our film culture?

A further look at the statistics provided by the UK Film Council for 2004 shows that last year domestic production fell from 44 films to 27, where domestic is taken to be films made by a UK production company shot wholly or partly in the UK. In 1997, the year when the government set up the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, UK production had been at a record high, and 84 domestic productions were registered.

In terms of what UK audiences could see in 2004, beyond American features and American co-productions, the rest of the world share of the market in UK and Ireland was just 2.7%, a figure which betrays the failure of film policy to encourage interest and understanding in the stories of what goes on beyond our shores.

Last year also saw the consolidation of companies operating in the exhibition sector and a series of momentous deals which changed the landscape of UK exhibition. In August 2004, Terra Firma acquired both the Odeon and UCI cinema circuits for a total of 580 million pounds, acquiring a 35% share of the market. Then in December Cineworld UK, controlled by the Blackstone Group, a huge private investment firm, took over UGC’s cinema operations in the UK and the control of 408 screens in 42 cinemas. Up until the takeover, UGC had demonstrated the best record for the range of films exhibited by a multiplex chain.

As a result of the mergers, the property and management of our cinemas is now largely in the hands of venture capitalists with no commitment to exhibition strategies beyond the imperative of capitalising on the upward curve in business (cinema admissions are growing), cutting costs and delivering profit margins. Terra Firma bought into landfill sites and waste recycling with the same considerations. What this is likely to deliver in cultural terms is more of the same. Mainstream, cinema (largely American) will continue to thrive, while independent and foreign cinema, requiring special strategies to build an audience, will suffer. Unless, of course, there is some policy intervention.

The UK Government is in an invidious position. In its drive to build jobs and manufacturing and to ensure that Britain competes for its share of the estimated 60 billion dollar, global film industry, its aims to attract inward investors to come and make their films over here. Since the biggest client by far is the United States, it is keen to keep good relations although the global dominance of our chosen partner is evidently not in the interest of the majority of countries signing up to the UNESCO Convention.

In her speech to an Institute of Public Policy Research/Arts Council seminar on 7th March 2005, Tessa Jowell stressed why there should be more intervention in support of the arts:

“The danger we face is a gradual homogenisation of culture. The rich mixing of cultures which has always marked Europe could be replaced by a market driven, bland, one size fits all arts scene which benefits no-one except the accountants… Government spending can keep innovation alive and it can ensure that the public have a real diversity of art to choose from.”

With regard to the Convention for Diversity, Britain has been transatlantically adrift in these arguments. However, in June this year, at the risk of being the only one of 24 European Community member states not to vote in favour, and this during the year of the UK Presidency, the government signed up. India, China and Australia, equally equivocal up to now, have also come aboard leaving the United States and Japan (under whose leadership the US was brought back into UNESCO), on the outside.

There will be fierce politicking between now and October, when the Convention will be presented to the 33rd Session of UNESCO for ratification. The United States is particularly concerned because the Convention is not subordinate to other international agreements on trade, and will therefore affect the current negotiations at the World Trade Organisation. It has issued a statement accusing UNESCO of exceeding its mandate and intervening in matters of trade. However, if the United States’ lobby is unsuccessful, the Convention will be ratified this autumn and a process set in motion which will eventually deliver a global instrument with the necessary, legal frameworks to affirm cultural values and cultural policy for the long term.

Holly Aylett is co-editor of Vertigo, a senior lecturer in film studies at London Met and Director of the Independent Film Parliament.

Note: A longer version of this article will appear in The Journal for British Cinema and Television.