As the London Film Festival drew to a close newspapers abounded with reports of a resounding success; a triumph for British film and a celebration of a vibrant British Film Industry. The films, and big name appearances by George Clooney and others, developed the media frenzy desired its organisers, the BFI. For two weeks the world media spotlight was focussed on British Film. Thanks to the wide selection of British films available, and well received works by some great British directors, among them The Scouting Book For Boys, Ivul and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, British film - far from wilting under the limelight - bathed in the sweet glow of success. Had the festival included some more of the great British films to have been released this year, like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank or Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga then British Film really would have shone brightly.
Behind closed doors, however, those in the industry, far from looking to emulate this success next year, are wondering where their next meal is going to come from. From Britain’s bright young things to established masters UK director’s are having huge difficulties getting projects funded. As one producer put it simply: “there is no money.” The films shown at this year’s LFF represent the peak of a wave, the culmination of a decade of investment brought largely through government subsidy. National Lottery money channelled to aspiring British film-makers by the UK Film Council has been the greatest source of funding for UK film makers over the last ten years. Together with Film4, and to a lesser extent BBC Films, they have enabled this ‘British Boom.’ With the diversion of lottery funding to the Olympics and cash flow problems at Channel 4, coupled with the recession, this money has all but disappeared.
But did British Film ever really experience boomtime? British film grossed $4bn worldwide in 2008 and John Woodward, CEO of the UK Film Council, argues “that’s a phenomenal achievement and is a measure of UK film’s vital contribution to the wider economy. Maintaining that level of commercial success is essential – encouraging inward investment, securing jobs, and boosting Britain’s reputation as a world leader in cultural excellence.”
Film, along with other British creative industries, has been one of the few economic sectors to have bucked the downward trend, in what otherwise has been a gloomy period for the British economy.
In 2007 a record seven British made films appeared in the domestic box office top ten. However, the extent to which these films are British is often somewhat debatable. Can we really call Harry Potter a British film? Made by an American studio, with American money, an American screenwriter and an international list of directors, it may have been filmed here and have British actors, but is this a British film? Sadly, I think not. Again, this is the case for scores of other ‘British films’, often produced on home soil by American studios merely wishing to cut costs.
British film making expertise has been lucrative for the American studios and investors who have profited from this wealth of talent. This skill base has been largely developed through British independent film making. Most people in British film got into the industry to make new and interesting British films yet ,for some reason they end up working on the new James Bond, or the latest Jane Austen adaptation targeted for an American audience. Why? Well, they pay the gas bill.
So what about real British film, by British directors, actually relevant to British people and the reason most people got into the industry? Films like Somerstown, Red Road or Hunger, films that could not have been produced anywhere else in the world, brilliant films, but most importantly films that reflect us. Well, nobody went to see them. Nearly all were subsidised and most lost money. Have you even heard of them? Probably not.
This article was prompted by the horde of blank looks I encountered when I attempted to find friends to accompany me to see Fish Tank. The film is one of the best I’ve seen all year (not just British), winning the Jury Prize at Cannes and being championed in almost every review. Nobody had even heard of it, but, crucially, they all thoroughly enjoyed it.
This is the problem: great British films are being made all the time, and those who see them agree they are often exceptional, yet nobody hears about them and nobody ever sees them. In this recession, when the fate of real British film hangs in the balance we need to act now! If we don’t start supporting our film-makers now, the closest thing to a real British character on our screens will be Albus Dumbledore.
But is British film really worth saving? I’ve heard French cinema is a lot sexier, and Hollywood films have more explosions...what’s so great about British film? We see our houses, our streets, our cities - our lives reflected on screen and with them a deep sense of identification. At its best, British film can connect with us in a way no cinema form no other country can.
Film reflects modern Britain in a way no other medium seems capable of doing fast enough to keep pace. British directors are constantly taking on new issues or probing the goods and ills of our society, constantly asking what it means to be British. Unlike the BNP and Daily Mail’s image of an ideal Britain frozen somewhere between the end of the Second World War and the arrival of the Windrush, films like Secrets & Lies or East Is East depict the rich, ethnically and culturally mixed society we have become.
Within British film’s appetite to tackle the issues of today, our unique sense of humour is omnipresent, and this makes looking at ourselves a treat. I challenge anyone who could replicate the specific breed of dark humour found in The Full Monty or the self deprecating comic genius of some of the exchanges in Fish Tank. We also use this self deprecating lens to look back at our often troubling past. This helps films like Billy Elliott or This Is England make reopening old wounds and asking tough questions feel like reconnecting with a lost part of ourselves.
British films can also help us escape, like Slumdog Millionaire or Shaun of the Dead, and they can also seize upon our darkest fears like 28 Days Later but for some reason, I always find that at its best British film has an effect on me that no other cinema can. We can do better than merely consuming the cultural crumbs America drops from its table.
British film isn’t always perfect (I’d be the last person to defend Donkey Punch) but there are a horde of immensely talented British film makers making incredible British films right now, from horror to documentary to comedy. British film provides the most exciting cinema anywhere in the world right now. This vibrant energy has been recognised by critics, audiences and awards worldwide, from Cannes to the Oscars, the only people yet to take notice are the British public. That’s where The Boar’s British Film Campaign comes in. Over the coming academic year we’re going to be making a big effort to make sure British film gets the audience it deserves. We’ll be reviewing all the exciting new British films over the coming year, reviving recent classics and getting you acquainted with our best directors.
British Film is a vital part of our culture, reflecting who we are more accurately than any other art form today. Go out and see for yourselves, and by the end of the year we promise you’ll have learnt to love British cinema, the films will will speak for themselves.
Nothing can prepare you for Hunger. Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s directorial debut is quite simply the most powerful British film I’ve ever seen. Dealing with one of the most troubling events of the Northern Irish conflict, Bobby Sands’ 1981 prison hunger strike that eventually resulted in his death, this was always going to be a harrowing film.
Steve McQueen’s developed sense of aesthetic allows him to create a number of images of real beauty that stand out amongst all the brutality, the graphic depictions of starvation and the attacks on prisoners by riot police. One such scene involves a prison officer walking outside to have a cigarette in the snow. The image is hauntingly beautiful and arrests the senses. The suffocating feeling the film manages to convey so effectively is for a moment relieved. This calming cigarette break is one of the few moments when we are shown anything outside the walls of the prison and intersperses two chilling beatings of IRA prisoners at the hands of the Loyalist guards. The viewer’s much needed gulp of air is followed by a sickening realisation that this luxury was never afforded to those who really lived through the hell of Belfast’s infamous Maze prison.
The conditions displayed are undoubtedly hellish, and violence is almost omnipresent yet at no point is this violence ever stylised, glorified or glamourised. Never do we feel violence is an end in itself, as we do in films like Antichrist that seem to revel in violence for little more reason than creating a sense of shock amongst its audience. Hunger is a film far too mature to resort to depicting violence for violence’s sake.
McQueen attacks his subject matter with the sensibilities of an artist, not a polemicist. Hunger is a film remarkably detached from politics. When politics appear they are not engaged in a cheap argument, the only real purpose they serve is to attempt to try to understand how human beings can be made to inflict such suffering on one-another.
Politics aren’t what we remember from the film, what we remember are its human aspects. This is largely down to McQueen’s mastery in direction, and he produces in his cast some phenomenal performances. Michael Fassbender is truly incredible as Sands. The scene in which he justifies himself to a priest before beginning the hunger strike is one of the most intense ever committed to celluloid. It is all the more striking because all it comprises is one single tortuously long shot.
Hunger is an artfully crafted film thats technical aspects deserve high praise, yet, rightly, this never interferes with the telling of the story. McQueen distills a potentially explosive issue down into its human elements. This careful dissection of one of the darker moments of British history, and its dealing with such a sensitive topic shows a remarkable maturity that is hard to find anywhere else in cinema.
The film is an illustration of what film can achieve, and why we need British film; never could a film like this have been made anywhere else. It prompts a uncomfortable look at ourselves that would be almost impossible for an outsider. In order to understand who we are we need to be constantly engaging with ourselves and with our past, Hunger proves the most powerful tool we have to attempt this is British Film.
Mike Leigh is the master of British Film's great tradition: social realism. Anyone fighting to suppress a yawn at that less than exciting label would be forgiven, but Leigh proves it can be produce some great stories.
With the precision of a surgeon Leigh peels back the layers to discover the fascinating domestic lives of those who inhabit our small island. The Britain revealed is at once complex, dysfunctional and charming but a more accurate depiction of modern British life would be hard to find. And it also happens to be a great film, winning the Palme D'Or and nominated for five Oscars.
The film revolves around Hortense Cumberbach, a black optmometrist who after the death of her adoptive parents begins a search for her birth parents. The discovery of her own family comes as a huge shock, not least because her mother is white, but also a nervous wreck, whose personality couldn't differ more from the stylish and composed Hortense.
Secrets & Lies shows there's more to being British than the BNP, we're now a racially and culturally mixed society, all interrelated to one-another. One big family, albeit a somewhat dysfucntional one. But what's more British than that?