When the lights go down

Posted by in May's Magazine

As Kurosawa may have claimed, the best place to start is not always at the beginning. But let’s be simplistic and do just that, with cold hard facts. In July 2010 word slipped out that the UK Film Council was to be shut down, possibly the highest profile organisation to be axed by the newly formed UK coalition government. The key shock was that it was not downsized, amended or re-moulded, it was simply placed on death row for a planned 2012 execution. The UKFC was set up in 2000 and has been responsible, amongst other things, for funding film in this country. Without input from this and other funding organisations we might not have seen a recent harvest from such world-class Scottish based filmmakers as Lynn Ramsay, David MacKenzie and Andrea Arnold.

Defining a nation
So, this is obviously a financial amputation for UK film, but let’s look specifically at Scotland and how strong the lifeblood in its film industry runs. Scottish Screen, which also had responsibilities for assistance, education and funding for Scottish filmmakers has vanished within the confusing Creative Scotland (their role is still an unanswered question in most quarters). Is this simply a government fist closing around its pounds and pennies? We are suffering recession, so is film as important as food and paying the bills? We cannot eat film or feed children on it. Is film, as part of Scotland’s cultural identity, as vital as the welfare of those within its borders?



Some I spoke to in the industry did elevate cinema to almost that lofty level. These comments were sincere and came not from selfishness, but from a truthful belief in the power and importance of film. Award winning filmmaker Mark Cousins expressed a feeling that film helped define nations and the people within them.

Gregory’s Girl captured what it was like to be alive in Cumbernauld in the 80s” a permanent marker of a time and place then, a significant testament. Mark worries less about funding and more about those holding the purse strings having an understanding both of film and of Scotland as a devolved nation, one with individual geographical characters: “As long as they understand the nation and regions and that London is not the centre of the universe…the decisions have to be made by the right people who know Scottish film culture.

Mark sees this as an opportunistic time for a Scottish film industry that currently boasts a batch of filmmakers at the very top of their game. His concern is that a funding gulf could herald a lost generation while existing talent look elsewhere to nurture their creativity. Films will not stop being made, but if funding is not distributed correctly then true talent will wither or lie undiscovered.

A measure of success
If Government funding is not being used to push Scottish film forward then what will? Private donations and corporate investment are one possible solution. The issue here is that while some will fund purely as altruistic lovers of the arts, many will put money forward with a more mercantile mindset and place return on investment above cultural and artistic significance.

Pressure for profit would change the landscape of Scottish film considerably, Hallam Foe and Young Adam were not designed to have their makers bathing in banknotes, they are works of art. To push Peter Mullan into reforming his masterpiece Orphans as a commercial cash cow, would have deprived the nation of a true depiction of brotherhood and family in modern Glasgow (I imagine Mullan would have given an unprintable answer anyway and we would have been deprived of any vision whatsoever). The possible positive flipside is that there will be a need for a level of financial viability. A degree of commercialism underlines the necessity to entertain. However, take it to the extreme and we are left in a hellish purgatory of franchises and sequels.

A lost generation
One possible effect of funding cuts could be that this potential lost generation of filmmakers actually move underground, producing films with guerrilla techniques and punk ethics, bringing a whole new freshness to Scottish cinema. A romantic notion perhaps but Hannah McGill, previous Creative Director of the EIFF told me: “I would say that a spirit of free enterprising in filmmaking – self-financing rather than sitting around waiting for a grant has produced a much healthier low-budget indie scene in the States than we have here.”

There are of course the logistics of available and affordable equipment, (although CMI are doing good work here) but as Hannah succinctly states “Artists produce art, whatever the circumstances.” I would never compare Hannah to Michael Winner, but he took a slightly similar view and basically said – stop your whinging and find your own finance. Without Michael’s approach we would never have the dubious pleasure of Death Wish 4 on late night cable channels.

A creative producer
Eddie Dick, Producer of Outcast and high-level productions such as True North and Carla’s Song simplified his role magnificently by stating: “I put the lights on and then when everybody’s left the building I switch them off again.”

The diversity of his function struck me as extensive, preparing final audits, procuring film certificates and raising finance; all followed bringing the original script to a workable stage. When asked for comparison with other nations output he remarked: “Well, we’re underfunded (…) Denmark, which is similar in terms of culture, psyche and population produces five times more films annually than we do. Ireland produces between two and three times more. The problem that creates for us is that every film that might be defined as Scottish comes under greater scrutiny than it should and the expectation of success both culturally and financially, is higher.”

A performers view
It is not only those making films that will be affected by changes to Scotland’s quantity and quality of film. Actress Hanna Stanbridge made her breakthrough performance in the aforementioned Outcast – a Celtic urban horror showing Edinburgh as it’s never been seen before – with veteran James Nesbitt. The grime, grit and sense of foreboding is exceptional, and I saw an actress with a real future – harder to realise in a cash strapped industry. Hanna admitted to a gossip culture of alarm within the acting community, normally shielded from budgetary concerns.

There are times though when these issues can slip through and affect the performance. “If you feel the pressure (…) that affects the quality of acting and you think, why are we not making a film to the best of our abilities? It’s not theatre, film is forever, somebody could watch it 100 years from now.” It’s like posing for a photo and finding you’ve blinked.

A possible ray of light…
…Is Creative Scotland, an amalgamation of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council – ‘It’s our job to help creativity shine at home and abroad’. It is still in its infancy and we await results with baited breath. We are told that they will lobby for a percentage of the funding being taken from the UKFC to be used specifically in Scotland.

The UKFC’s abrupt execution is now being questioned – for cost saving ability – by the National Audit Office. Although this seems unlikely to bring about a stay of execution as Jeremy Hunt, the man responsible for the cuts in funding, is too busy opening doors for the Murdoch empire. So, to end on an uncharacteristically pessimistic note from Hannah McGill: “Suffice to say that I would not advise any filmmaker to expect any public body to fund his or her film anytime soon – any more than I would advise a painter to await funding for an exhibition or a fashion designer to expect a collection to be bankrolled.” It would seem that our artists are all alone for now.

One response to “When the lights go down”

  1. Gus says:

    Cracking piece, thoroughly researched, not always the case these days. More from Mr Bett please.

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