Innovation and Feature Films
So does Channel 4′s interest and involvement in an initiative like Northern Film & Media’s The Artist’s Cut represent evidence of a renewed enthusiasm on the part of the channel for artists’ film? This is undoubtedly too bold or premature a claim to make at this early stage but there are hopeful (if small) indicators to give optimism (green shoots?) Recently Channel 4, in association with Film London’s Artists’ Moving Image Network, gave a commission to the winner of the Jarman Award (and to three further artists) a commission for C4’s short-form arts strand, Random Acts. A total of 25 artists have also been commissioned and curated by FACT (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, in Liverpool) and Jacqui Davies (of Channel 4) for the strand of artist-led three minute films, the new series of which was recently launched at the Liverpool Biennial. Less heartening is the fact that the two films generated as a result of The Artist’s Cut have not been offered a broadcast slot by Channel 4, despite their accessibility and freshness. It seems like a wasted opportunity not to screen the work which the channel has been involved in commissioning. This state of affairs appears to be a result of a lack of ‘joined-up thinking’ in the Channel 4 departments responsible for arts, creative diversity and film, rather than any ideological objection to artist’s film.
But what is also interesting is the support from Film4 (both historical and recent) for independent or avant-garde work, and its affinity with the BFI in this area, which has resulted in many co-productions over the years (and a certain amount of cross-over between Channel 4 staff and membership of the BFI Production Board). I have chosen to emphasise this aspect both because it has not received a great deal of attention, and because I do not have the space to consider here the historical role of the UK Film Council and the Arts Council in supporting such work.
At the risk of crudely simplifying a very complex institutional narrative, several different strands of C4′s multifaceted Independent Film and Video Department – which had been responsible for support artist’s moving image throughout the 1980s – were essential ‘hived off’ to the Documentaries Department (the documentary and current affairs strand) and FilmFour Lab (the low-budget and experimental filmmaking and drama strand) in the late 1990s. At this time BFI Production, under Ben Gibson, was concentrating on funding both experimental work and films that reflected contemporary social issues and that were accessible and plot-driven such as Stella Does Tricks (1996), Under The Skin (1997) and Beautiful People (1999). The FilmFour Lab took a broadly similar approach, supporting challenging work such as (artist) Andrew Kötting’s This Filthy Earth and Dom Rotheroe’s My Brother Tom (both 2001), as well as more mainstream fare like Large (2000) and Jump Tomorrow (2001).[i]
The FilmFour Lab was restricted due to the small size of its budget as the low-budget arm of Film4, but perhaps more importantly its raison d’être and existence became hard to define and justify given that Film4 were increasingly prepared to take back work that pushed boundaries. Tessa Ross, appointed as Controller of Film4 in 2004, played a key role in the success of Warp Films’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), which demonstrated both that imaginative work that could be done on a low budget, and that this could yield both critical and commercial success.
Despite the phasing out of the FilmFour Lab, the fact that key Film4 personnel later moved over to Warp Films, in the form of Robin Gutch (previously Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video and Peter Carlton, Senior Commissioning Executive at Film4) strengthened the creative relationship between the two organizations. This relationship has been responsible for a number of impressive productions, including recent films such as Four Lions (2010), Submarine (2010), Kill List (2011), Tyrannosaur (2011), and Berberian Sound Studio (2012). It could also be said that the core concept of the FilmFour Lab has arguably now been partially reinstated, in the form of digital low-budget arm Film4.0, introduced last year under Anna Higgs.
The current commitment on the part of Ross, Senior Commissioning Executive Katherine Butler and their colleagues at Film4 to original and innovative work is strongly evident, and in September Film4 had a record 7 productions at the Toronto International Film Festival – Sightseers, Seven Psychopaths, Hyde Park on Hudson, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Berberian Sound Studio, On the Road and Everyday. Ben Walters (writing recently for The Guardian) has suggested that Film4 is at the forefront of a bold new wave of British filmmaking, with many of the British titles characterised by aesthetic/cinematic confidence, genre-bending and disturbing, ambivalent subject matter.
In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4′s Today programme to mark the publication of the BFI’s 5-year plan, the Director of the BFI’s Film Fund Ben Roberts singled out the black comedy Sightseers (funded by the BFI and Film4) as an example of the kind of film – original and avoiding clichés – that he would like to see more of. The BFI’s ‘Film Forever’ plan promises a UK-wide network for the discovery and growth of new talent and what Roberts terms ‘wild creativity’, with the BFI collaborating with Creative England to recruit a number of experienced development executives based at cultural hubs outside London to scout for the best new writers, directors and artists.
Given these aims perhaps the example of The Artist’s Cut can be replicated on a wider scale, across the country. At the same time we need a historical perspective, to prevail over the short-termism induced by current pressures and problems. We can then judge whether such initiatives have the potential to be rolled out further, in order to support creative work and build small and localized agglomerations in regional cities, as the (grant-aided) film and video workshops did at their (mid-80s) peak. In an interview for our project Warp Films MD Robin Gutch praised the work of his former colleague at Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department Jess Search at the Britdoc Foundation (which Search founded with the financial support of C4):
Jess in a magnificent way reinvented the Independent Film & Video approach with BritDocs for a new era, and very successfully, and in a funny kind of way it’s almost going right back to the workshop [model] where they’re…funding as opposed to commissioning. That enabling and supporting is tied into the Channel to some extent, but actually for this day and age it’s a far smarter, more productive way of doing it. So in the end, the legacy, if you like, lives on…it has a model of supporting a lot of people…like Alan [Fountain] used to do, a bit of money supporting a lot of people to go and make films. And actually you can do that with a [small] organization that’s not an internal department servicing a broadcaster…[ii]
Inevitably the workshop movement was a ‘product’ (or should that be process?) of its time (horses for courses). But the creative space and independence the workshops afforded undoubtedly nurtured talent, especially black British filmmakers (for example, the artists and filmmakers Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah, as mentioned previously). Nowadays an aspiring filmmaker is far more likely to join a script workshop than anything remote resembling a film workshop. But perhaps we should not ‘write off’ either type of workshop, but instead write about them.