Sunday, 7 June 2009

[198] New Wave or Old Guard? Film & Festivals Feature

Yesterday, I went to see Helen, the debut feature from writer-director-producer duo Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, with my good friend, aspiring playwright and veritable wit Nick Moran. Helen is a left-field, art-y film - very brilliant and uncommercial in its way - and received funding through various local and national bodies, from Art Council England, to Birmingham City Council.

It reminded me about my recent feature from Film and Festivals Magazine, titled 'New Wave or Old Guard?', where I discussed the current 'wave' of British film (which has probably been in residence for 20 or more years now), and track this cultivation of talent to certain funding bodies, whose role it is to support upcoming talent and innovative pictures. I'll post it up below; elements of the feature were Cannes-specific, but I think that the main thrust is still relevant (especially as Fish Tank, a film supported by the UK Film Council, won the Prix du Jury).

To see the article in its fully-edited glory, click here.


'When we started out, we had no stars, we had no power or muscle. We didn't have enough money, really, to do what we wanted to do. But what we had was a script that inspired mad love in everyone who read it... Most of all, we had passion and we had belief and our film shows that if you have those two things, truly anything is possible'

An inauspicious sort of acceptance speech for a Best Picture Oscar from producer Christian Colson, but Slumdog Millionaire, which caused a stir at the 81st Academy Awards, is a brilliant representation of the humble beginnings of many projects in the current wave of British cinema. Indeed, along with Best Documentary Feature winner Man on Wire, this year saw a veritable coup of the Academy Awards by UK-produced films.

Unlike much larger film industries, such as Hollywood, the British film industry releases fewer pictures every year, with a specific focus on smaller, independently-minded productions. British films have gone through various phases, giving birth to many stereotypes on the international stage, but in the last decade, the country has produced a selection of quality films that have excelled both in critical and popular terms.

Slumdog Millionaire, produced by Celador and Film4, is a prime example of one such film which, without relying on tentpole stars or other traditional blockbuster trademarks, managed to innovate, educate and capture the world's attention in equal amounts. Integral to this success is the UK system of funding for these projects, giving freedom for innovation and support for achieving potential. Institutions and production companies such as the UK Film Council, BBC Films and Film4 currently co-produce or co-finance many award-winning films each year, with other recent successes being Notes on a Scandal, Woody Allen's Match Point and In Bruges.

The UK has been home to a thriving industry that is almost as old as the medium itself, with major focal points and successes over the years, from the films of the Arthur Rank organisation to the comedies of Ealing Studios. Also, British film has over the years challenged Hollywood in scale and polish, with the widescreen epics of David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Quai) and Powell and Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes). To this day, there are still huge British film franchises, such as the James Bond series, and the Harry Potter series, which are still largely produced in the UK, even if they are mostly Hollywood-funded.

However, the tradition for financing smaller British-produced films started in the 1980s, when production companies like Handmade Films and the then newly-created Channel 4 Films (now Film4) started putting trust in younger, more radical filmmakers. Handmade Films was first set up by ex-Beatles musician George Harrison and his business partner Denis O'Brien to help produce the controversial Monty Python biblical comedy The Life of Brian, but eventually moved towards funding and producing films from up-and-coming writers and directors, resulting in independent and cult film landmarks such as Terry Gilliam's early solo directorial project Time Bandits, Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I, and Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa. Likewise, Channel 4 Films, set up by the commercial television station, funded or co-produced key films in the early careers of Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting), Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette) and Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Dead Man's Shoes).

More recently, in 2000, the Labour government set up the UK Film Council, an agency that focused on the funding, promotion, support and distribution of film in the UK. Sustained by National Lottery Fund money, the Council operates three separate funds, which together invest around £17 million into the development and production of British films - supporting both commercial and outside-of-the-mainstream films, as well as cultivating new talent.

Due to the current economic climate, there are worries that these funding bodies will find their budgets restricted, and that filmmaking in general will suffer. Indeed, Tessa Ross, head of Film and Drama for Channel 4, told the London Times in October last year, that it would be the 'mid-range movie' - like Slumdog Millionaire - which would be in danger and require the most protection. John Woodward, Chief Executive Officer of the UK Film Council, recently commented on the production statistics for late 2008 and early 2009, and explored similar territory - focusing on the system allowing UK-based productions to apply for tax relief benefits:

"As regards the big US studio financed films... the 2nd half of this year is looking good and we fully expect a serious bounce back... What I'm much more concerned about right now is the drop in UK independent production starts - by which I mean co-productions. And this is largely a function of the one flaw in the otherwise excellent film tax credit which disincentivises co-productions by focusing tax relief only on production spending made on the ground in the UK."

Even though many films funded through these bodies have been honoured with Academy Awards over the years, a crucial proportion of them were first screened, appreciated and lauded on the international film festival circuit - indeed, Slumdog Millionaire premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, and Man on Wire won both the the Jury Prize and Audience Award in the World Cinema: Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival. This artier, less mainstream side of British film has been typified by its focus on character, as well as British history, society and identity, with often great success.

The Cannes Film Festival is one such festival that has celebrated British film over the years - with certain filmmakers developing an auteuristic standing for themselves off the back of their festival hits. Ken Loach and Mike Leigh in particular are two filmmakers who have developed an acclaimed relationship with Cannes, with both working on projects that have won the Camera d'Or prize (The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Secrets and Lies respectively). Furthermore, two Loach-directed films have been awarded the Jury Prize (Hidden Agenda and Raining Stones), whereas Leigh won the Best Director Award in 1993 for Naked, and has directed prize winning performances from Brenda Blethyn (in Secrets and Lies) and David Thewlis (in Naked).

Coming hot on the heels of UK cinema's success at the Academy Awards earlier this year, as well as the Camera d'Or win for Steve McQueen's Hunger last year, eyes will be focused on the country's contributions to the programme at Cannes later this month.

Screening a are four UK-produced films, all featuring the talents of established filmmakers. Two films received significant funding from the UK Film Council and BBC Films: Bright Star, written and directed by previous Palme d'Or winner, New Zealand's Jane Campion (for The Piano), tells of a love affair between 19th Century Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish); Fish Tank, the second film from director Andrea Arnold, whose debut Red Road won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2006, stars Michael Fassbender and tells the story of a 15-year-old girl coming to terms with her mother's new boyfriend.

Also competing is the new Ken Loach film Looking For Eric, in which a fanatic Manchester United supporter receives life lessons and guidance from football icon Eric Cantona, as well as the latest project from Terry Gilliam, a fantasy picture called The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which has already garnered headlines and attention for featuring one of the final recorded performances of actor Heath Ledger.

Screening alongside these in-competition contemporary pictures are a selection of classic British films from the archives of distributor Park Circus, who will be showing such films as Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, and Basil Dearden's radical 1961 film Victim. These choice cuts not only affirm the strong tradition of UK cinema, but provide useful context in which to better appreciate the industry's recent embracing of inspiring, passionate filmmaking.

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