The State of Independence

EYEBLAZE #4 THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
September 7, 2012
One+One Godard Giveway
September 11, 2012
By James Marcus Tucker
September sees the 32nd Cambridge Film Festival at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. One+One’s Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais will be there representing their new film Savage Witches – screening as part of the Microcinema strand. There will be more about the film in our next issue of the journal this Autumn.
In 2010, One+One was at the festival to launch our 5th issue of the journal, and held a debate around the issue of “independent cinema” with Irish filmmaker Sean Garland (Nokotaheart), British Filmmakers Ron Peck (Nighthawks & Cross-Channel) and Jason King (Bad Company), artist/filmmaker Sarah Turner (Ecology & Perestroika) and Daniel Fawcett who was screening his first released feature Dirt at the festival.
At the time, it had only recently been announced that the UKFC was to be closed. Who was to take over the role of allocating state funding for film production and distribution was still unclear. We now know that the BFI has taken over this role which at first glance, seems to included some much welcome funding for film education and training. More details are forthcoming. I wrote a short piece about the concept of state funding of film in my recent article The View From Here in issue 8 of the journal. No matter how necessary state funding of culture and film is (particularly in the area of distribution; aiding smaller, “specialist” or artist films to find an audience in towns and villages with limited independent facilities), truly independent artists need – in my opinion – to resist the tick-box reliance on producers/bureaucrats  – the self-proclaimed “guardians of culture”, whether they be capitalists or state representatives. Such a view is stated eloquently by Daniel Fawcett in the debate below. As he says, “they don’t deserve our energy and money doesn’t deserve our energy either.”
Generally, each of the filmmakers had interesting things to say about the current state of the UK film industry and the notion of independent cinema. The debate was also a great introduction to the filmmakers present, and a revealing insight into what drives them.
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James Marcus Tucker: Why did you become a filmmaker?
Ron Peck:  I grew up at a time when there were so many very exciting manifestations of cinema.  I mean when I was 14 or 15 there was still new films by directors like Antonioni, Fellini and Godard.  There were a lot of independent American films, and there were emerging new forms of distribution, so cinema was the medium.  It was a medium about which everyone interested in the arts was engaged.  I grew up in a time when notions of cinema were expanding. And that was where I really wanted to work and felt I could work.
Daniel Fawcett: Before I started making films I was a painter and my approach to filmmaking is probably quite similar in that my drives are quite personal and I use film as a tool for personal exploration of ideas and situations in my own life. One of the reasons I enjoy film so much is the sense of community and the feeling of family that you get when you are working with other people. I do see filmmaking as an exploration…the finished film is more of a presentation of the document of what was discovered on the journey rather than an exact pre-planned thing.   I am willing to risk making what might be considered a bad film in order to have a pure process.
Sean Garland: Pure storytelling, just the love of pure storytelling. I used to write a lot of short stories when I was a kid. And I painted a lot of narrative type pictures and I was always trying to tell a story and then there is always just the love of cinema. I was constantly in the cinema as a kid so you kind of know already what you want to do before you’re 15 or 16 as you spend most of your time sitting in the dark watching films.
Sarah Turner: I was more interested in the cultural diversity that was embodied in a particular type of politically radical cinema. I trained as an artist and that’s my background.  I have to say that was very gender driven, it was a pretty male dominated context and in the 70’s and 80’s – that was when the whole generation of women came through…so there was the influence of feminism but also all kinds of radical theory – in particular queer culture that moved in the Filmmakers Co-op at the point I was around that scene.
Jason King: I think similar to Sean really, storytelling. My background before I moved in to cinema was singing in a band and I was always writing and I gradually moved in to making films. My aim has been to show something you have seen before but in a new way.  It appeals to me that you can take something and tilt your head slightly and show it again – so I guess that’s what leads me on I suppose.
James Marcus Tucker: In reference to independence, One+One is really committed to exploring what that actually means – the term “independence”.  Independent from what, independent from whom?  So for you Daniel, what does that term mean, what does it embody?
Daniel Fawcett: I think independence is something that gets thrown around with filmmakers – I think a lot of filmmakers call themselves independent just because they haven’t got funding.  I don’t think that’s true independence necessarily.  Well that’s one type of independence, but a lot of these filmmakers that call themselves independent are only so financially, not in their thinking and their process.  I don’t think they are really embracing the opportunity that they have there.  A lot of these filmmakers, really, are making films with the industry in mind, as sort of calling cards into the industry which I think is such a shame because I think that we are in a position now with filmmaking where films can be made without money and they can be made independently.
Sarah Turner: Transformation and challenge and innovation…they are linked, and certainly the emotionally transformative process of working with people which is not to do with a financial transaction, but is to do with some absolute desire of creative realisation on every single level; and people who are enfranchised by that trust. When people are enfranchised by that trust, it is transformative and people do beautiful things and make beautiful work in that context.  The other thing I wanted to say about this idea of independence is that it needs to be re-examined.  Aesthetic is a brand.  Independence is a brand.  It’s a brand of a particular calling-card culture.  I mean Sundance Film Festival calls itself a celebration of independent film but of course it is a celebration of people getting their features to be distributed by companies like Miramax.  It’s not a celebration of thought and difference.
Ron Peck: I was giving thought to this rather difficult word ‘independent’ in a way, because in some respects Stanley Kubrick worked as an independent, and I looked again at a film called Zabriskie Point (image, above).  Now if that isn’t independent I don’t know what is, but it was made within MGM for huge amounts of money.  Somehow Antonioni could work for MGM and produce something unlike anything I have ever seen made in America.  I also thought maybe this term “independent filmmaker” is particularly important in a British context.   I’m not sure, I may be wrong but I don’t think of Italian independent film or French independent film in the same way and I think it’s because those countries and other European countries especially have, and it’s an awkward term, an art cinema, and I’m not sure this country ever did in the terms it was understood in France or Italy or Germany.  And I think with digital technology, in a way, say as Derek Jarman’s work on Super8 opened up an area of working with a different level of technology for serious work (and got it shown in big cinemas), I think digital technology makes it possible to work much more individually, much simpler.
Jason King: I see independence as a tag really and I try to avoid it.  I’m just doing my thing and trying to make a film how I know, and trying to experiment and do something different.  I don’t know how comfortable I feel being tagged with the label “independent filmmaker” as I’m not sure if I am an independent filmmaker. I’m not sure what I am really.  I’m somebody experimenting and entertaining people and that’s it really.
Sean Garland: Very similar, just a reiteration.  I don’t like the term independent. I don’t know what it means anymore because, like Ron said, that whole landscape is changing with digital technology.  I mean, everything has become so organic and instinctive, you can view your footage minutes after you shoot it.  It’s a very exciting time at the moment.  There are a lot of people who say it’s not, and I think I heard the comment yesterday in a film we watched that all we can do is go back to the masterpieces and re-churn out those images and ideas.  But I don’t believe that.  I actually think now…I know they are difficult to find sometimes, but I think now filmmaking is more interesting and exciting than it has ever been.
James Marcus Tucker: Obviously we are aware of what’s happening with the UK Film Council.  So I would like to know your thoughts on not necessarily what will happen – although that would be interesting too – but what you as filmmakers would like to see, in a perfect world.  Any new avenues that could open up or perhaps new ways of working, new processes that could be explored in the changing landscape of British cinema after the UK Film Council.
Sarah Turner: I feel very ambivalent about the Film Council generally.  Whilst a big part of me feels like congratulating their demise, another part of me feels that it is very unhelpful to do that at the moment, because we have to be quite careful and quite rigorous about defending and arguing for support for a form of production.  I think the Film Council spent far too much money on basically subsidising the British industry to become a facilities house for Hollywood.  You know sadly we are living in the UK and it’s a more commodified form of entertainment and also that notion is always collapsed together as if…entertainment is unquestionably used…is it entertaining? No-one ever asks or un-picks what entertaining means.  My idea of an entertaining film is one by Marguerite Duras or Derek Jarman – a film that troubles and challenges me, or moves me and that’s my idea of entertainment.
Ron Peck: I think when the Film Council was created, other places closed down to make way for it and it kind of coincided with changes inside television. Television used to be a place you could go to for certain slots for support of different kinds of work.  I don’t know really what can replace that.  I am intrigued by how it’s possible in France, for example, for such a much wider range of film making to be possible.  I think it’s because there is a blanket subsidy of all film making so each filmmaker is more liberated – has more reward back, has more help. I asked one French filmmaker where he went for funding for development and he said he didn’t need to go anywhere because he got money back from every single television showing and cinema ticket sold.  So I think that’s a way of empowering a filmmaker to make his or her own decisions and stand or fall on those decisions.
Jason King: Yeah I agree with everything people have said…these crazy films with obscene amounts of money, they should stop that and make lots of films for a million pounds instead of insane amounts.  We should increase the appetite of audiences to watch British films and distribution sorted where cinemas will give priorities to us as British filmmakers – like what they do in Denmark and France and let’s make sure that 50% of our films here are British films.
Sean Garland: I just find that no one takes risks – funders don’t take risks, they need those little safety boxes, they need to get you in for that interview and there’s not enough risks.  It’s also like they need the template.  I have just found that throughout the years I have stopped asking for funds because I don’t seem to tick those boxes, and for someone that wants to reach those audiences that I was talking about earlier – it’s a quandary.
Daniel Fawcett: I think the relationship between the people with the money and the creative people always has been a difficult one and I think it always will be.  I don’t think that is ever going to change because the motivations for each party are completely different. We can talk about what they should and shouldn’t be doing but I think the best thing we can do as filmmakers is minimize the amount of energy that we are giving to them – they don’t deserve our energy and money doesn’t deserve our energy either. I would like to say that I could envision a funding body that would give money to risk-taking projects and creative projects but I am not going to hold out for it. I think that the best thing we can do is put our energy in to things that are more worth while.
James Mackay (From Audience): I remember when I was young and I started off making films, I remember that there was something that happened with these organizations – like British Screen, the Arts Council and the British Film Institute – which was called trust. You went and talked to them, and they listened to you, you didn’t tick any boxes, you didn’t have to justify commercial gain, they treated it as if you were a serious filmmaker, you had proven that’s what you were doing and that’s what you are capable of doing, and they would support you and there was a sense of trust. That’s completely lacking now, they start off with this position which is hostile to the filmmaker.
Ron Peck: I think you are absolutely right – the word ‘trust’.  It seems to me that even with some of the film schemes for low budget or short films, the sheer number of hoops the filmmaker is expected to go through; mentoring sessions – at least four or five levels of those, I mean there is no trust and it seems to me that if you don’t trust the filmmaker, don’t give them the money.  The kinds of funds a place like the Film Council has had access to for production, when I think how much more widely that could have been spent, how many more things could have been done.  Now that there is a line being drawn under the Film Council, I think it will be interesting to see how film journalists and historians will look back at what was accomplished in those ten or twelve years, compared to what was accomplished by, say, the British Film Institute with , I don’t know, 5% of the funding.
James Marcus Tucker:  I find the issue of exhibition on television interesting as well. Ron you said about Channel 4 being so supportive once. I wonder, why has it changed?  They were showing these independent films on television and this was, for me, where I would see it in the eighties or nineties. Would Sarah’s film Perestroika have been on in the nineties and if not now, why not?
Audience Member: Reality TV is cheaper.
Audience Member: The cultural landscape has completely changed and television doesn’t represent the cultural division.
Sarah Turner: Channel Four was enormously important in the independent sector.  Extremely diverse forums came together and lobbied for the inception of Channel Four who radically influenced the channel’s programming and then of course the channel utterly changed the landscape for those filmmakers and their lives, but also those younger generations who had access to that work on terrestrial television. And now there are many websites where you can download many experimental films and see them. The only thing I think is different from doing that is that there was that experience, which again is why cinema is so important.  That we have this emotional and cultural collective experience and we’re transformed by that collective experience.  Something also about television, you couldn’t constantly download it from BBC iplayer or whatever. It was something that was absolutely of that time and of that moment and generated whole networks of discussion. The internet, as valuable as it is, has lead to increasing atomization of our social and cultural infrastructure. And that is really problematic. So television is becoming irrelevant. I know my students don’t watch television at all, and if you are interested in cultural cinema, why would you watch television?   Channel Four does not show anything that doesn’t have English as a first language. They won’t show films with subtitles now before midnight, whereas you used to watch incredibly radical stuff in quite early evening.