An interesting, probably inflammatory question has been posed by two filmmakers and a Kickstarter page. The British Film Industry: Elitist, Deluded or Dormant? is actually the name of the documentary, an unwieldy if certainly attention-grabbing choice. Directors Robin Dutta and Vinod Mahindru have assembled quite the star-studded list of filmmakers and film professionals, and are raising money to turn it into a finished feature. Ben Kingsley is the name they’ve put at the top of their page, but there is also testimony from Stephen Frears, Ken Loach, and Alan Parker. Presumably these important figures and the rest of the long list of interview subjects have a lot of very challenging opinions. Dutta and Mahindru, after all, claim this is a film that “Great Britain does not want you to see!”
So what is it that they are actually saying? What’s killing British cinema and who are these elitists running it? It’s not exactly easy to tell, which is fair. They’d probably like everyone to help them finish the film in order to find out. Their biggest concerns seem to the difficulty of getting funding for a project, and the difficulty of getting it into theaters across the UK. Beyond that, the trailer mentions nepotism, the wasting of millions of pounds of public money, and even lines of cocaine being done presumably by industry executives who should be saving the British film industry instead. The claim is even made that there official policy to prevent the revival of British cinema.
Now, the proof of these assertions presumably lies in the interview footage, which we won’t get to see until the film is completed. Fair enough. That being said, this raises some interesting questions. For starters, the trailer seems relatively convinced that no good movies are made in Britain anymore. Not as compared to the 2000s, before the end of the UK Film Council, but as compared to the 1970s and 1980s. The glory days mentioned in the trailer include such British productions as Alien, Superman and Star Wars. This is a documentary dipped in the nostalgia of a giant British film industry, with studios that could compete with American blockbusters. Technically, that aspect of the decline is true.
But the notion that the lack of a gigantic industry bolstered by giant productions has made British cinema dormant? That’s ridiculous. Take a look at The King’s Speech. Full disclosure: I do not like The King’s Speech. I think it is a mediocre attempt at historical “heritage cinema,” as they call it in the UK, and its good performances do not outweigh its shoddy direction. However, it won four Oscars, including Best Picture. It was made on a budget of $15 million, and its worldwide gross is in excess of $414 million. That’s quite the success, and hardly a sign that British cinema has fallen on impossibly hard times.
Yet the financial success of individual British films is not the only troubling omission here. At no point is there a mention of the fantastic decade independent cinema has had in the UK when it comes to consistent quality. Perhaps this is because Dutta and Mahindru don’t actually like the critically acclaimed films that the Brits have been putting out since the turn of the millennium, but I’d like to take a minute and lay out the case in their stead.
It’s actually hard to frame this as a concise argument, because the strength of British cinema of the 21st century is in its diversity. That alone puts a bit of a wrench into the argument that the industry is flawed for any single reason, as well. There’s the Midlands stuff, the gritty and occasionally hyper-masculine work of Shane Meadows (This Is England, Dead Man’s Shoes). Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson is in a similar vein. Jumping off from Meadows, there are also the contributions of Peter Mullan and more recently Paddy Considine. Tyrannosaur is extraordinary.
Then there are the documentary filmmakers, many of whom bounce back and forth between fiction and non-fiction cinema. Asif Kapadia (The Warrior, Senna), James Marsh (Man on Wire, Shadow Dancer) and Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) all come to mind. There’s also a neat strain of horror which remains strong, led by such disturbed luminaries as Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers), Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) and Neil Marshall (The Descent). Comedy is also a wide, diverse genre in the UK, with recent hits from Michael Winterbottom (The Trip), Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) and Chris Morris (Four Lions).
So there’s plenty. Those are just wider trends, too. I could keep naming films individually that don’t quite fit (Weekend, Moon) though I won’t. But if you’ve noticed something missing from the above paragraphs, that’s because it’s also missing from the long list of interview subjects in this Kickstarter project. Many of the best filmmakers currently working in the United Kingdom are women. Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), and Sally Potter (Ginger and Rosa), to name a few. This is an awkward and embarrassing oversight, and maybe something indicative of the kind of arguments that the resulting documentary would make.
Of course, none of their movies above are anything like the big-budget triumphs of the old British film industry. They are smaller films, made for less money and oftentimes end up making less money as well. But shouldn’t quality be part of the discussion? Great Britain is no longer the second biggest film industry in the world, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be. Every year British films find themselves on the Top Ten lists of critics the world over. The success of these films and their directors, artistically, should at least be mentioned in any take-down of an entire industry. And meanwhile, the rest of us can go back to watching the overwhelming number of excellent 21st century British films.