That is indeed the question on my mind at the moment. In nearly 30 years of regularly trying to get film funding from the British Film Institute (BFI), and for a period while it existed, the UK Film Council, I have never received a penny. Even during the 1980s and part of the 1990s, I was invited in to meet a number of the heads of production – and indeed, I know and am still in touch with a couple of them – and I never succeeded in getting any support. And here I am again, wodering whether to apply, yet again, for funding for my new film The Raven On The Jetty. To apply, or not to apply, that is the question!
It could be that my proposals and ideas over the years were rubbish, or in the competitive context, simply not up to scratch. This could indeed be the case for a number of my proposals which, in retrospect, I am glad got no further. However, for the projects that did go ahead and that I managed to get made – somehow – I have received sufficient feedback from television broadcasts, cinema screenings, Q&As, festival screenings, online feedback, students and academic peers and so on to know that at some point during those 30 years, someone within the BFI should have picked up on something that I was trying to make. Even if just once.
My suspicion is that there are patterns at work and that these patterns are much more interesting to contemplate.
When I look at the application guidelines, I see a wall. This wall is made up of sentences around certain self-evident clichés: ‘quality’, ‘talent’, ‘freshness’, ‘vision’, ‘dynamic’. The wall is also made up of processes that seem to exclude: the application form, the type of questions being asked and the style and language being sought. While designed to extract key information about a project, it ultimately favours those who know how to sell themselves and their project in a language that those assessing can relate to. Fair enough, perhaps, but having sat on many funding selection panels, festival juries, academic peer review assessments and job application panels, I know that judgements are made on the basis of the values and tastes of those who make decisions. We can envelop these underlying values and tastes in very sophisticated language in a pretence that there is some notion of objectivity. But these decisions are always subjective and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. (However, this is why I have always believed that it is essential for a nation that wishes to truly reflect its diversity and plurality to decentralise decision making processes around funding. Instead, what we have in England is effectively a quasi government department with a very centralised approach to supporting independent film.) But what if you do not fit into this paradigm? What if your values and tastes are different? What if your background and experience means that you have different priorities or a different understanding of what constitutes the ‘spirit of our time’?
So, I find myself asking: who are these people behind this wall? What are their values? On what basis do they really make decisions? Are my values represented somewhere amongst that group of people?
I recently completed a book chapter for a Canadian book coming out in 2013 with the title: ‘The Meaning of Independence – Independent Filmmaking Around The World’. My chapter is entitled: ‘Dependencies and Independence in British Independent Film’. In this chapter, I build on a personal experience of more than 20 years of working as an independent filmmaker in England to explore, from a highly personal perspective, the relationship between the independent filmmaker and the institutions established to foster independence. In my experience, to get access to formal funding and outlets in England in particular is directly related to one’s relationship to highly centralised institutions and policy:
‘What is the effect of such a heavy concentration of gatekeeping on the independence of independent filmmakers? This would require a closer textual analysis of key works, but there is a lingering sense that while the exploration of the film form has been relatively diverse, a traditional perspective on content around class and heritage still dominates the subject matter of films supported. In Eyes of the Beholder, I argue, in the context of the UKFC development of screenplays, that the UK films that audiences eventually see on the screen do not reflect the quality and diversity of the available talent across the nation, but is a direct reflection of the values and aspirations of the gatekeepers who select, commission and steer the development and production of the works. The values and aesthetic appreciation of various ethnic and cultural minorities, for example, are not seen on the British screen, nor are the spiritual and religious interests that occupy many people’s thoughts, or certain perspectives on a number of moral dilemmas that challenge the values of the media-political elite.’
In the case of The Raven On The Jetty, I have my doubts about its fit into this paradigm. My racial and cultural mix, my character, and the way that I consequently see the world around me, is not one that I have seen in films funded by the BFI or its predecessor, the UK Film Council. I find myself drawn to films from other countries to see my values reflected. From talking to fellow filmmakers and discussing my films in various contexts, I know that I am not alone. We have just about enough money from private investors to make The Raven On The Jetty on a shoe string micro budget. Though additional finance would enable us to do a number of additional things, in particular with wages and salaries, and, importantly, with distribution and exhibition, we can nevertheless make a cracking film. Do we want to curtail the amazing freedom that we have?
The whole reason why communities have artists in their midst is that these artists, through their unique perspective and vision, throw fresh light on the communities in which they live. Many of these artists will not speak the language of those few who select, may not have the same priorities and may also have minority perspectives which actually represent the hidden voices we need to hear.
I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw in a Toronto newspaper many years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of it, so suffice to describe the image. A group of 4 middled aged men sit around the end of an oval shaped board room table. They are dressed in black suits, black ties and each sports a black handle-bar moustache and slickly combed black hair. They are facing a middle aged man sitting alone at the other end of the table who, exactly like them, is dressed in a black suit, black ties, sports a black handle-bar moustache and has slickly combed black hair. One of the five at one end says to to the lone man at the other end: “Quite frankly, Harry, we like the look of you”.
Now, I must get back to work. To apply, or not to apply…