Outside my window the rowan across the street is in full autumn pomp, a flame in the dreichness. Next month migrating waxwings will land as they do every year to steal its fruits. This scene, of nature in balance is reassuring, especially when I can’t bear to hear the news: Gaza, Ukraine, Government corruption, culture and gender wars, mass surveillance, poverty and, most frightening, the bitter whirlwind about to be reaped as a consequence of climate change.
With world events so bleak and overwhelming, I cling to small things: the rowan tree, the wildfowl in my local park, music, cooking, writing, photography and making small forward steps on my Tilo film. I also have the welcome distraction of watching films submitted to the 2023 British Independent Film Awards – aka BIFA. This is my fourth year as a voter in what’s arguably the most interesting category. It’s also a chance to bring my critical skills to the table and help decide the winner.
Films are hard-won. In over 20 years only one of my five feature films was externally funded. One could argue that my third film was made possible through an award but for the fact the funders – the then Scottish Arts Council – prevented me from making a film on the grounds that, alongside architects, my work was ‘too commercial’. It’s a long story not worth the retelling, suffice to say the patrons changed the rules.
This year BIFA changed their rules too. Previously known as the Raindance Discovery Award, the category I vote in was rebranded as the Raindance Maverick Award. This, the most indie and possibly purest in spirit, comprised of films previously seen as original, risk-taking, made on low budgets and with little or no distribution or institutional support. Under the new rules, the category now accepts films with budgets up to £1 million. Low in some quarters maybe, but hardly a maverick budget. Moreover, with a cinema release and/or distribution no longer a bar to entry, BIFA has opened its door to films backed by bigger players with enough PR clout to overshadow smaller and, arguably, worthier films.
Watching the 39 entries – the highest number in four years – I discern little that’s maverick in terms of content, performance, editorial and narrative structure. There’s an absence of that elusive factor – aura, the ineffable quality I’ve spent decades trying to master. Why, I wonder, was it decided to change the name from Discovery to Maverick? The very word conjures an image: that of a lawless outsider hellbent on breaking with convention. Very few of the 39 films came close.
I’ve been labelled Maverick many times, not least at the Gala screening of my second feature, Solid Air at the Edinburgh International Film Festival when introduced as such by the festival’s artistic director, Shane Danielsen, himself a feisty but passionate soul who paid me the great courtesy of coming to my flat to watch the film rather than delegating the task. Away from the red carpet nonsense, perhaps I should have stated that, far from maverick, the film was funded by several sources and had a major distributor on board – hardly a get-it-up-you to the industry, I thought but didn’t say. Instead I let it go, grace being my default mode in public.
I digress. This year’s BIFA entries also included information about production and marketing budgets, numbers of diverse cast and crew and other data that could be construed as commercially sensitive or could perhaps prejudice one’s chances. It occurs to me that had I submitted the budget or cast and crew details for Voyageuse in 2018, most likely the film would have been rejected since, perception being everything, no one would believe a film of such quality and originality (I say modestly) was possible.
Another depressing feature of the revamped Maverick category – as I told my fellow voters – is that it now feels like the slush pile for undercooked films of all stripes, regardless of budget or provenance. One film, a documentary by a well-established director and budgeted at almost £700,000, centres on a single protagonist. Largely self-shot by the subject, it has few locations, interviewees or legal sensitivities. Its stakes are vanishingly low. I could go on, pointing out structural and editorial flaws, lack of aesthetic originality or the courage to challenge lazy assumptions, that it’s overlong but… life really is too short. I voted it as ‘Not a Contender’ yet it squats on the longlist, robbing someone else of a chance when it might well make the shortlist for Best Documentary.
Among the dramas on offer there was the usual ‘low on budget, high on ambition but never the twain will meet etc.’ films. During the first Zoom gathering of our voting group, one particular film, so-so realised but with an original idea at its core, was criticised by a fellow voter as ‘not dealing with the mental health issues it raises.’ At which I couldn’t resist weighing in, pointing out that it’s not the role of the film, nor its makers to offer therapy to him nor an audience.
During the other Zoom meetings with my voting peers, I took my cue from one of my favourite directors, Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward, Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly and most recently, Blonde) who, when questioned about the latter, a beautifully realised adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, said “It’s a demanding movie. If the audience doesn’t like it, that’s the fucking audience’s problem. It’s not running for public office.”
The point of the exercise, I felt, was that each film should be judged on its own merits before being pitted against others. When it came to choosing the longlist, I’m satisfied I and my fellow voters had thoughtful discussions and fair decisions were made. My choices were taken on board and I even made an early prediction of this year’s winner, which I’m not at liberty to name (yet) but I’m glad it’s on the longlist. Time will tell.
Already I ask myself – will I do this again next year? When films backed by the BBC, the BFI, Film Four and sundry regional and national funders, made on six and seven-figure budgets, with sales and (subsidised) distribution plus (subsidised) PR and marketing attached then what’s the point? Indeed, what’s independent about backing a cartel? This year I felt I watched a bunch of films whose producers hedged their bets, knowing their efforts were perhaps not good enough to make it as Best UK or International Feature or Best Documentary – and so tossed it in the Maverick category just in case.
I may be cynical but the industry, such as it is, seems to set great store by awards. Of course I’d be lying if I said gongs hold no interest for me but I know how to manage my expectations, usually by strangling them and dumping them on the side of the road. BIFA needs to support a new category for feature films of all types made on budgets of less than, say, £100K by truly independent, determined and committed filmmakers. Otherwise they risk excluding the true mavericks who, like me, do it for the love of it and always for the right reasons. The BIFA 2023 shortlist will be announced shortly and the ceremony takes place on December 3rd in London. Where else, I ask? Don’t get me started…
The image is of me on a screen onstage at the BIFA ceremony in 2018, when I won the Raindance Discovery Award, the only film that year with a single person attached to its making. This was Elemental Film’s second BIFA, the first won in 2000 for Best Achievement in Production for One Life Stand. My husband, Owen Thomas, the film’s executive producer (and entire sound department), collected it at the Cafe Royale, London while I sat with my mother in the ICU at the Southern General Hospital. She survived on that occasion but sadly died while I was in post-production with Solid Air, only weeks before it screened at the EIFF.
POSTSCRIPT – By coincidence, hours after posting this blog, BIFA announced its final nominees today – 2/11/23 – and I’m pleased to say my favourite film is listed among them. Let’s see.