The Exclusion Zone

Like anyone with a stake in the culture game I’ve heard the plea; Who will think of the poor _____? (fill the blanks yourselves). On social media that plea is loudest among the theatre lobby, followed by live music – and rightly so. Seven months into Covid-19 those who believe the arts are a luxury are waking up to the fact that while bread might keep you alive, circuses are an incentive to not kill yourself.

Curiously silent on the matter of its imminent demise is the film/TV sector which arguably has done more than most to keep the population a) at home and b) sane. However the people who make film and TV are mostly freelancers in an already precarious field and unfairly excluded from the UK Government’s furlough scheme.

Another victim of coronavirus is film exhibition, following the closures of Cineworld and Picturehouse Cinemas and the partial shutdown of the Odeon and Vue chains in the UK. This is the result of a perfect storm: a lack of blockbusters, companies floated on implausible levels of debt, dwindling audiences and streaming platforms firmly embedded in the production game, saving a trip to the pictures. I admit when cinemas reopened recently I didn’t rush to join the queue, partly for health reasons but mainly because I’m watching films for BIFA for their 2020 awards (postponed until next year) so I’m privileged to have access to films destined for release.

Plainly coronavirus isn’t going away. Like most people, my mood is low, due less to the privations of Covid-19 than an overwhelming urge to quit the only thing I can and want to do – make films. In a world where not much makes sense, this warrants further scrutiny. In taking an inventory, however, I realise it’s not me but my country that’s wanting.

There’s perhaps no greater indicator of the futility of being a Scottish filmmaker than last week’s announcement of BAFTA Scotland’s 2020 nominations. With the exception of short films and animation (bundled as one) there are NO film categories, not a single prize for actors, writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, production designers or those working in other craft and technical roles.

Was there an outcry among my peers? If there was, I never heard it. Indeed I was the first to raise it on social media. Where Scottish film is concerned the story usually goes like this: no one is entitled to a film career in a small country so one needs to be flexible and prepared to work across platforms – as if to assume there’s TV and games jobs going begging when in fact they don’t exist. So it bears repeating that Iceland makes more films than Scotland. Ireland makes more films than Scotland. Belgium makes more films than Scotland. I could go on.

There were films made in Scotland in the last year or so and not just Hollywood movies renting our scenery, shaking the public money tree and enjoying UK tax breaks. These were films made by a few determined locals under the radar of public funders and broadcasters. That they chose not to submit to BAFTA Scotland is complicated. When I asked the question on Twitter the answers included: a lack of confidence, of being ‘too outside the system’ to be counted and a reluctance to compete with high-profile TV dramas where categories are split into ‘factual’ and ‘fiction’ – terms firmly associated with TV.

Like its Welsh counterpart, BAFTA Scotland is a branch office. There’s no such thing as BAFTA England, just a central London address, 195 Piccadilly. Its annual film awards ceremony has long been less a celebration of UK film than a poor cousin to the Academy Awards and a promotional platform for studios based in England and Wales to attract US producers already lured by the exchange rate, public subsidy and generous tax breaks.

Over the last 30 years more than 20 of the BAFTA Best Film awards have gone to a US title. In that same period (1990-2020) only one film, directed and produced by (non-Scotland based) Scots won BAFTA’s Best British Film, namely The Last King of Scotland (2006), reported to have spent only three days shooting in Scotland.

In the great bin fire of 2020 there are more pressing issues than a nation’s lack of film culture. Yet for over 30 years and in spite of every rational view I hold, I still care about who gets to tell stories about my country. What I don’t care about are people who believe making mediocre films but with less money than Hollywood is the solution. Or producers who receive public subsidy in order to fail at what they’ve failed at for generations. Or broadcasters who sit on their hands rather than invest in talent. Or for Screen Scotland to commission yet more consultants to review the sector when the findings of the 2014 Film Sector review were never implemented.

If operating in the backwoods of UK film is hard enough, in tandem the BFI and BAFTA have developed policies that impact directly on how films get made and by whom. This is worrying because the role of enabler has morphed into arbitrator and where once an aspiring writer/director could be eased into the industry, the BFI now determines the types of films and talent that merit backing while BAFTA decides the type of films and talent worthy of their awards.

This isn’t an argument for the status quo. When groups remain woefully under-represented in film and TV clearly things need to change. In law ‘protected characteristics’ include one’s race, age, sexual orientation and disability among others. Yet under the BAFTA/BFI guidelines my current film, Tilo IRL would fail to meet their criteria and that in order to succeed I would be compelled to write a screenplay with the requisite degree of diversity then hire a cast and crew with a 50:50 gender balance, 20% ethnic minority, 10% LGBTQ+ etc.

In fairness BAFTA claims – in principle – to include those from lower socio-economic groups and from outside London while in practice poor folk from the sticks don’t have a great track record as filmmakers. Aspiration has a lot to answer for. It lets institutions off the hook for zero effort. In all the talk of equality, class – the low kind – is not a protected characteristic in law yet it’s among the most common and pernicious forms of discrimination. If you don’t believe me, I refer you to the ‘fuck a prole’ episode at Durham University.

For the purposes of watching films as a BIFA voter, last month I was obliged to undertake Unconscious Bias training in which I pointed out how the issue of class was conspicuously absent from the discussion. Which begs a question – should a white, working-class, provincial, hetero, slightly disabled, late middle-aged female be excluded by funding and awards bodies because her work fails to meet a diversity quota? And if so, on what grounds?

Years ago in London, a BAME woman, now an established and high-profile director, once gave me a lift. We were both working at the BFI Production Board on separate projects. Remarking on ‘positive discrimination’, she confided how she falsely declared herself a lesbian in a funding application because she felt it enhanced her prospects. We both laughed at her calculation, of how a shift in sexual orientation made her a shoo-in over her gender or race.

Does it matter? If greater inclusivity made for better movies I’d be delighted but revolutions don’t start in palaces. To impose diversity on films for the sake of reputational virtue is counter to the truth and how the world really operates. It’s also tokenistic and – frankly – due to a Londoncentric blind spot and blunt arithmetic, sets targets that are impossible to meet. In the UK’s furthest-flung regions, minorities with the requisite skills tend to be in short supply.

Excluded or not, my own filmmaking offers a form of expression that may be modest but there’s no imperative to chase a profit. This I do on my own thin dime. It’s not that I don’t want a payday – as a WASPI woman I could certainly use one. Meanwhile I count my blessings that despite coronavirus I’ve shot several scenes for Tilo that don’t involve social distancing because I do it alone.

Will I succeed? Writing these words on a dreich October afternoon, I’ve no idea. All I know is if I don’t tell my own truth in this film, the audience – should I ever be so lucky – will find me out. That’s not to say it’s not a struggle. I’m still recovering from last year’s injury and writing a screenplay that goes to the darkest places. All of that AND make it entertaining? I deserve a BAFTA for even trying.

The above image is of an abandoned factory where I recently shot a sequence for the film. Standing there, I felt like an extra in the Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s quite an amazing location. Even Tilo was impressed.

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