Volume 3 - Issue 7 - Celebrating the Visionary

By Holly Aylett and Gareth Evans

What is saved in the cinema when it achieves art is a spontaneous continuity with all mankind. It is not an art of the princes or of the bourgeoisie. It is popular and vagrant. In the sky of the cinema, people learn what they might have been and discover what belongs to them apart from their single lives. Its essential subject – in our century of disappearances – is the soul, to which it offers a global refuge. This, I believe, is the key to its longing and its appeal. – John Berger, from Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye

Vertigo launched in 1993 with support from Channel Four’s Cultural Fund, a legacy of the channel’s radical incarnation as a publishing house for independent production. The broadcasting map had been transformed in the 1980s when new production companies, including the regional film workshops, could bid for funding to extend the range of what it was possible to see and hear on television. Vertigo’s first editorial group involved many filmmakers alongside writers and academics, creators who had experienced the transformation of what was possible between the ’80s and ’90s, and who, with the new publication, aimed “not just to interrupt the flow of images with memory and history, but also to illumine what the present decade promises – the flowering of that independent work” (Marc Karlin, from the Editorial, Vol. 1, Issue 1).

However, the political environment was hostile. The opening editorial gave an inventory of upheavals challenging British film and television culture: the withdrawal of virtually all forms of state aid to and support for the film industry; the war of attrition against the BBC by the Thatcher Government and its allies in the press; the Broadcasting Act, resulting in the turning-upside-down of ITV and a debilitating state of uncertainty at Channel 4; creeping censorship and the imposition of the Obscene Publications Act on television; and the launch of Sky and the BSkyB debacle, both rewards for “Rupert Murdoch’s unstinting devotion to the Thatcher cause”. It was a time marked by a complete change of language even though few necessarily changed their political allegiances. Instead we were being internally reconstructed by changes in policy which sought to extend the values of market economics deep into our culture, imposing a conservative government’s economy with the truth.

Vertigo was committed to a cinema which was willing to confront these new realities, to engage its audience in dialogue about their own experience rather than conforming to the supposed needs of the market. The first volume included articles on the locally informed productions of regional workshops such as Amber Films (see the obituary of Murray Martin); the marginalised genius of great filmmakers such as Michael Powell, “a European filmmaker whose misfortune it was to be British” (John Ellis, Issue 3), the unexpected appearance of films such as Patrick Keiller’s London, into commercial cinema spaces; and the disappearance of great drama such as Trevor Griffiths’ elegy for Nye Bevan, Food for Ravens, made almost invisible at the margins of BBC’s latest night-time slots.

This was filmmaking rooted in the unpredictable idioms of local contexts and history, closely observed, and transformed by adventurous narrative approaches and the search for dynamic ways of expression. Overall, however, a lack of confidence in the power of British productions in general to attract audiences dogged policy makers and funders, and all the more in the so-called cultural sector. On the industry side, one of the working parties under the film committee, co-chaired by Chris Smith and PolyGram’s Stewart Till and which preceded the setting up of the UK Film Council in 2000, looked in detail at the issue of exhibition and market share.

The aim was to raise the cinema box office enjoyed by British films from 4.2% to 20%. At the time, in 1995, less than half of the British films made in that year had even found a distributor, let alone an exhibitor, and these were the larger feature productions. Some 10 years later, in 2006, according to the UKFC’s latest figures, the situation looks much more optimistic, with British films taking 19% of the box office. Yet these figures largely reflect the popularity of the Bond, Bean and Potter franchises. They do include films such as Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, but much of the diversity of production from the cultural sector remains out of sight of both monitoring and funding.

Most of the work produced in this country which we have written about in Vertigo – artists’ film and video, documentary and experimental film - would never enter such industry statistics, with the exception of a very few crossover features. The Government remains largely indifferent to films which fail to appear on the radar of economic return, phenomena which fall into the so-called cultural sector. In so being, policy makers set a dominant mainstream against a cultural ‘ghetto’.

This is symptomatic of something much deeper – a national tendency to overlook the role played by film in generating ideas, understanding, the production of meaning and a sense of identity. On the ground it is reflected in the lack of support given to the regional centres of excellence engaged in exhibition, education, and distribution and responsible both for widening audience taste and the range of films in circulation. It is also reproduced in the difficulty of arriving at definitions of public value for film without resort to quantitative criteria, and the exclusion today of all but a very few films from the sights of the Arts Council of England.

Vertigo’s advocacy for the value of this so-called cultural or public sector has remained constant, although the language over the years has shifted, and with it the emphasis of our editorial. When Vertigo relaunched in 2001, the Film Council had been set up to centralise the delivery of Government policy and the distribution of funds in an attempt to deliver The Bigger Picture and to develop the proverbial British industry. The landscape had also changed. Many independent cinemas had closed down or been radically ‘re-aligned’, including key venues in London such as the Electric, Everyman, Plaza, Parkway and Scala; and there was a minefield of communications systems, including new technologies for distribution and exhibition, for independent filmmakers to negotiate.

Indeed, the very concept of cinema itself had become problematic. It recalled the era of the cinematheque, now overtaken by television and new distribution platforms, including music channels and the web, and it couldn’t incorporate the increasing amount of installation work being produced for the galleries. Even the notion of independence no longer seemed to encompass the creative community Vertigo was representing, although the sense of being in a parallel, oppositional or alternative relationship to the mainstream has persisted. Independence, in the sense of independently-minded creativity, along with innovation and internationalism are still celebrated in the inverted “i” of Vertigo’s masthead.

After the events of 11th September 2001, the potential for film and the wider moving image to transport audiences to worlds beyond the preferred English language versions gave a new imperative to Vertigo to explore international contexts and the elusive landscapes of cultural diversity. Labellings familiar from the era of multiculturalism which centred around simplistic delineations of ethnicity and colour had to be transcended with a vision which was less monotoned. Equally, the boundaries for national cinema were being challenged by the diasporas within as well as without, and international filmmakers had entered the scene who didn’t fit any simple national archetype: “great tributaries of cultural influence have streamed in even before the first frame is shot” (editorial, Vol. 2, Issue 3). In spite of the difficulty of seeing the range of these films beyond the festival circuit, (figures for the release of films in the ‘rest of the world’ category hover precariously between 2 and 6 %), Vertigo is committed to informing readers of some of these most challenging narratives and to keeping the reader engaged in international contexts as a witness to the events of tomorrow.

The engineers of film policy at the beginning of the millennium had rather a different take on internationalism. Sir Alan Parker, then Chair of the UKFC, called on ‘Baftans’ (5.11.2000) to abandon forever the “‘little England’ vision of a UK industry comprised of small British film companies delivering parochial British films”, in favour of competing for a slice of the $60 billion world film market, by trading skills, training, facilities if not home-grown film production. It was a vision more attuned to the lure of inward investment and the needs of the Department of Trade and Industry than any sense of the role played by film and filmmakers in building community. The clash between industrial and cultural perspectives had never seemed stronger.

Vertigo became one of the partners in the Independent Film Parliament, an assembly set up to advocate the needs and views of those committed to the production and circulation of film in the so-called cultural sector. The first Parliament called for para-fiscal measures to support the film industry, an increased relationship with Europe to support regionally based and culturally diverse filmmaking, and a raft of proposals to support the production and circulation of film in recognition of the role played by both small and large screens in determining cultural identity. It was a challenge to a Government which on the one hand endorsed freedom of speech through the European Convention on Human Rights while on the other denying the crucial role of cultural producers in achieving this.

Vertigo has never subscribed to the value of film or moving image as a simple commodity. It has sought rather to transgress conceptual boundaries which seek to define the cultural from the commercial, the mainstream from the experimental: definitions coined to support the constantly moving interests of the utilitarian goals they serve. In the inventory of challenges we face today – continuing attacks on the BBC; the ferocious lobby of the Telecoms; the struggles for control of multi-platform, digital delivery systems - the political will to stand by the ethos of public service and to insist on public values in the defence of cultural works is critical. Vertigo’s contribution will continue in print, online and in its live events and screenings, giving space and, it is hoped, some small oxygen to all those writers, artists and film-makers who enable the ongoing realisation of a personal and collective cinema, as described so potently by John Berger above.