Thursday, 11 July 2013
The Politics of exclusion in regional film production
It seems to me that most Freelancers suffer the sporadic income and lack of financial security just to maintain working in a job which they love. Given half a chance many of them continue to perfect their skills by creating, producing and show-casing small projects of their own. It’s an expanding area of un-monitored talent development. Never have there been more filmmaking schemes, independent projects, online competitions and local, theme or skill based film festivals. A freelancer can waste a lot of time and money wading through the potential opportunities, and a surreptitious sub-industry is growing-up in the area of training, script editing and the mentoring of these aspiration talents and this in turn, is providing a different kind of work for the senior freelancer.
Over the years I’ve inadvertently become an expert in rejection letters from just this kind of opportunity; here is the perfect example of how an organisation can promote itself and its own virtues over the applicant, while leaving the very person they should be encouraging dispirited and deflated. Who has not received a letter like this; I’m sorry your submission wasn’t successful. We had a very high standard of applicant this year. Now what could be more crushing than that? All this statement serves to do apart from elevate the status of the Festival, Competition, Event, etc. is to propel the said applicant into a deep state of self-doubt. Generally speaking entry fees to festivals are not cheap and applications are time-consuming, so it’s easy to see why after a few futile attempts a filmmaker will give up all expectations of a festival and maybe even withdraw from contributing to it at all.
There are not many ways to successfully promote yourself as an independent filmmaker at a ground roots level. It’s not as I imagined it would be, in a rural community such as Cornwall; a case of the proving of ones self within a locality. Unfortunately it seems that success is more often gained by a vicious and persistent attempt to remove any viable competition, by means of controlling the exposure available to that competition. Thereby establishing and maintaining the illusion that the status quo is fit for purpose and ‘good enough’, when in actual fact people are generally un-aware that they may have other options open to them, because it has been orchestrated so. I’m pretty sure that similar ‘gate-keepers’ exist in other regions and perhaps in other areas of life, but in an effort to grasp hold of this ethereal subject material. I am sticking to my own life experience in the hope that it will help you to find your own stories mirrored in objective clarity, from between these lines.
For filmmakers in Cornwall the greatest local opportunity for the exposure of their talent to the community at large comes in the form of the Cornwall Film Festival. For several years now there has been a persistent discontent felt amongst a large faction of the festivals contributors. Complaints range from films shown in the wrong aspect ratio, credits being cut off and screenings clashing with major events in the scheduling or being scheduled into an un-popular and poorly attended slot. These may seem like minor complaints and on first inspection could be passed off as a general disregard on the part of the organisation. But on closer inspection one finds that programming has been consistently biased towards a select group of individuals, you could find for example that it’s your direct competition which is standing in judgement over you in the selection jury. Are they really going to give you an advantage, when giving you that advantage, may mean that they lose the advantage which they have currently secured for themselves?
Both my feature Documentaries; The Many Romances with Rosemarie and Remembering Rosemarie where shown at Cornwall Film Festival and considering the length of the films running times at a full hour and a half, this is an achievement in its own right. Unfortunately when The Many Romances With Rosemarie was screened in 2011, it clashed with one of the Festivals most popular events and so only drew a crowd of around 20 individuals. Similarly in 2012; Remembering Rosemarie was beautifully screened in cinematic perfection at the Phoenix Cinema in Newquay to an audience of about four. I guess most people would choose to omit the truth and state that these screenings were a great success. But I feel this ‘cover-up’ culture is damaging to the festival experience and leaves no room for improvement. Those placed in a position of trust and who have taken public monies to promote and distribute films locally, on the understanding that they are in some way benefiting or promoting the local community, really do need to ensure that they are doing so fairly and across the board.
A person usually participates in the festival structure because they have a genuine interest in films, their own or those of others. Okay active participants at a local film festival level can sometimes be thin on the ground and someone who works on a particular film may also be involved in the screening or promoting of that same film at the local festival event, even when it has been entered into competition. But this is no excuse what so ever for prioritising the screenings of publically funded productions over other speculative applicants who arguably are already at a disadvantage as they have had to produce their work with no financial assistance awarded in the first place.
Public funders beware; your responsibility is high. For as you select one to be at an advantage, so too do you place another at a disadvantage. Do you think I exaggerate? Consider this; it’s un-arguably in the interest of funding bodies to be seen to do a good job of initial selection, ideally of a worthy and reliable candidate. Achieving public backing alone will often open the doors to several other organisations or institutions, which are dependant upon similar resources and so a mutually agreeable, promotional situation develops where by one party promoting or endorsing the other is deemed beneficial to both. There is far too much of this ‘mutual endorsement’ going on currently in Arts and Media funding. If you are un-funded and have produced something of quality, then you can literally become a threat to those who’ve taken public cash or private investment and produced a similar or lesser result with more support. No-one wants to look bad; not those that have produced and certainly not those that have invested. The victim of this situation is the speculative filmmaker, who now will have an even greater struggle gaining any promotional support as their success appears to benefit no one other than themselves.
Those persons who are excluded from the privileges of these selective promotions often believe themselves to be in an isolated situation and are usually un-aware that a similar fate may have also befallen their contemporaries. Sometimes the speculative applicant, having gone into production off their own back, will have competed for the same funding budget, as another funded and promoted film, which is screening at the same event. Un-funded filmmaking is not as daft as it sounds, when you consider the amount of time already invested in the creative preparation and the funding application. There is also the real possibility that the creative idea once out there, may serve to inspire someone else who is then convinced that it or something very similar to it was born of their own making. So at a certain point in the filmmaking process, a no budget production just becomes the logical way to protect your own interests, and it also offers the potential for attracting external investment on this production or the next. Damned if you do but doubly damned if you don’t. At least if you have a film you have dated evidence of your work. Without it, Plagiarism has a free reign.
At some point in time the National and International market beckons to the regional independent filmmaker. When this happens in Cornwall we have a special place to go, it’s called The Celtic Media Festival and it’s an award ceremony and media celebration showcasing the Film, Television and Radio broadcast work of the Celtic language countries; Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. It’s special because it celebrates our indigenous Celtic culture, but also because it offers wider career opportunities to talent as it finally reaches a larger professional platform. Arguably this is especially valuable to the smaller Celtic regions like Cornwall, as they can benefit from networking with the larger nations which have more established media industries.
How-ever it seems to me that the problems encountered at a local level are often repeated at a National and International level, with the same reliance on the few familiar faces, and the same persistence of an elite selection that closely guard their own interests by excluding the competition where-ever possible. I do not suggest that this is necessarily a conscious behaviour on the part of the excluder; more often than not I think the motivation is simply one of plain greed ‘playing it safe’, ignorance or opportunism and the success of this exclusion, in turn then serves to preserve or even to advance the corrupt establishment even further.
Both my Documentaries were entered into the Celtic Media festival; The Many Romances with Rosemarie in 2012 and Remembering Rosemarie in 2013. Neither film reached the international jury as at the time of submission they could be voted out of the competition by a local jury consisting of just three persons. Thereby ensuring that they never had a chance to reach the wider exposure which I so desired. Cornwall is a small place and the selection of the jurors at this time was questionable, as it was made solely upon the recommendations from the Cornish Rep Denzil Monk. To rub salt into the wound, when I approached Catriona Logan the festival producer, she informed me that all the film submissions from Cornwall, for both those years could have gone through to the international Jury selection, so it seems to me that it's not so much a local jury selection process but a suppression process.
Since then I’m glad to say, the Cornish Filmmakers Alliance (a group which I am acting secretary) has effected a positive change by requesting that the Cornish Jury at the Celtic Media Festival be increased to six and by so doing we are merely adopting the standards of the larger Celtic nations who already employ this method. Jury selection has yet to be addressed and while these changes are positive, they come too late for me, my films have been successfully suppressed and nothing changes that. Individual filmmakers are seemingly invisible and literally un-accounted for and in some cases; perhaps conveniently un-accountable to. If this situation continues, they may go-under financially, emotionally or have their creative ideas capitalised upon by less scrupulous, more affluent or ambitious candidates.
The fragmentation of industry, cuts in funding and the rise of small scale independents seems to be set to stay. So institutions awarding funding cannot be allowed to just settle for good enough by falling back on the familiar, they must work harder to seek out and support real talent and not just those capable of reducing their own workload by supplying a generically correct application form. I’m not suggesting that there is such thing as a Black-list when it comes to public funding, but that there is most definitely a White list and that ultimately it amounts to the same thing. This is a disease of these anti-talent times we are living in and we must expose it for what it is, wherever we find it.