Three-D Issue 19: Research collaboration with the BFI explores how film shapes culture and community

Sarita Malik
Brunel University

Earlier in 2012, the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded research exploring the ways in which film shapes audiences’ ideas and values about ‘community’. Part of the Connected Communities research programme, the eight-month project was led by Sarita Malik at Brunel University in collaboration with the British Film Institute. The research focussed on postcolonial Diasporic communities because of their particular historical and socio-cultural relationship to UK screen culture and heritage. Notably, the African-Caribbean, Chinese and South Asian groups that were selected have a pre-existing ‘consultative partner’ arrangement with the BFI.

The project was interested in how these ‘consultative partners’ work with the BFI and how such a major cultural organisation conceptualises and approaches different ‘communities’ in its programme of work. The academic interest hinges on the draw of film itself as a medium that mobilises communities, and the implications this has in a contested multicultural moment.

The Diasporic Film in Communities’ project was explicitly sector-facing, and the research collaboration with the BFI, a key component of the research. Significantly, when thinking about Higher Education institutions collaborate with cultural organisations and decision-makers, the BFI agreed to reflect on the research themes. This resulted in a substantive report titled: A reflection on the Diasporic Film in Communities drafted by David Somerset, Education Curator for Adult Programmes at the BFI. Somerset leads this part of the BFI cultural film programme and his template for working with ‘community partners’ presents a particularly fascinating case-study. The report outlines some of the key strategic and political issues, both historical and current, of programming Diasporic film and working with a range of communities. It also serves as an important record of Diasporic film activity at the BFI in recent years.

The project ended with a research seminar held at the National Film Theatre in September 2012. The event brought together BFI representatives, academics, film programmers and cultural policy-makers. It was chaired by Colin Prescod (Chair of the Institute of Race Relations) who described the seminar as a space in which “social action meets social analysis”. The seminar included presentations from the consultative partners involved in the data collection for the research, namely the BFI African Odysseys consultation group, Filming East and South Asian Cinema Foundation. Each addressed key issues involved in programming film events for Diasporic and other audiences and in working with an organisation that “gives you some credibility” (a phrase used at the seminar by Tony Warner from Black History Walks).

There were also presentations from Richard Paterson (Head of Scholarship and Research at the BFI) who gave an historic overview of the BFI’s “patchwork quilt “approach to addressing diversity. Paterson’s talk spanned the influence of Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel’s early work on Popular Arts (1964) to the BFI’s recently-launched Film Forever Future Plan 2012-17. Anna Kime (Manager of Cultural Film Exhibition & Education Projects at Film London) spoke about Film London’s approach to “cultural diversity” which currently places emphasis on young audiences.

Three main findings have emerged in the research. First, film contributes to strong feelings of cultural and group identity in various shifting local and global contexts. Second, in spite of the differentiated Diasporic social histories explicated in the research process, issues of race, culture and power are pervasive in how the role of Diasporic cinema is discussed across groups. And third, there is a clear discourse of interdependency between cultural organisations and community partners; raising critical dilemmas regarding the politics of cultural programming.

For further information on the ‘Diasporic Film in Communities’ project, please contact Dr Sarita Malik

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