University of the West of England, Bristol
The past few years have seen a groundswell in the production of overtly political film culture in Britain, which is now home to variety of organisations and groups dedicated to making, distributing, exhibiting, and researching films that are explicitly aligned with the radical left. On Monday 23rd September a meeting took place at the MayDay Rooms, a new venue for radical histories and communities on London’s Fleet Street (https://maydayrooms.org/), to discuss the possibility of establishing a UK-wide ‘Radical Film Network’ (RFN). What follows is a brief account of the genesis of that meeting and a report of its outcomes, one of which was the conception of the network itself.
The nearest historical reference point for the RFN in Britain is the Independent Filmmakers Association (IFA), established in 1974 to represent the interests of those working in ‘independent’ film at that time. Between 1974 and 1990, the IFA (or IFVPA, as it was later known) achieved much both as a forum for debate on a variety of issues in film theory and as a pressure group. It was the IFA, for instance, that was largely responsible for the Independent Film and Video department at Channel 4 – which broadcast some of the most politically and aesthetically radical work ever shown on television anywhere in the world – and for the Workshop Agreement (1984) between Channel 4, the film workers’ union (ACTT) and the British Film Institute (BFI) which secured unionised wages for those recognised as conforming to ‘workshop’ practises (ACTT, 1984). Like the IFA itself, the Workshop Agreement was controversial and often criticised (see Lovell (1990) and replies by Stoneman (1992 and 2005), for instance), but such structural, financial and institutional support for oppositional filmmaking was an unprecedented achievement that has not been replicated since.
The history of the IFA – and much of the rest of British radical film culture since the Second World War – is documented in Margaret Dickinson’s book, Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film in Britain, 1945-90 (1999). That book was in large part the inspiration for my doctoral thesis, The Political Avant-garde: Oppositional Documentary in Britain since 1990 (2013). Researching the two decades that have passed since the period covered in the earlier book, it became abundantly clear that Britain’s contemporary oppositional film culture was alive and kicking, albeit no longer broadcast on Channel 4 or funded by the BFI. Today, radical film is more often exhibited by activist or community groups in cafes, pubs and squats than on television or in cinemas. With that in mind, myself and some colleagues and students at the University of the West of England founded the Bristol Radical Film Festival (2012- ), joining the litany of other organisations which, in the face of a mainstream audio-visual culture that refuses to engage with the political, economic and environmental crises we currently face, are developing the alternative themselves.
In this context, a national network connecting these organisations together seemed an obvious next step towards making this radical film culture sustainable. Having considered the idea for some time in Bristol, the notion of a network met with overwhelming support at the radical film symposium in Sheffield, ‘A Time for Intervention’, organised by Steve Sprung in June 2013. In the numerous exchanges following that event the initial plan to hold a small, informal conversation (prior to any kind of public invitation or launch event) quickly grew to a meeting of over twenty individuals. Needless to say this was hardly representative of radical film culture overall. Given the intention to include as many people from outside London as possible, achieve a roughly equal mix of men and women, and combine ex-IFA members such as Margaret Dickinson, Alan Fountain, Sylvia Harvey, Chris Reeves and so on, with those more recently involved in political film culture – all the while keeping within the limits of the time and space available – this was perhaps unsurprising. Nevertheless, even with these constraints attendees were present from Bristol, Bath, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Sheffield and Worcester, with apologies from those that could not make it from Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Swansea.
The meeting itself began with an overview of those organisations that the network is intended to support. Subsequent discussion then fell broadly into two camps: from political and philosophical questions about the nature and identity of the network to practical concerns regarding its organisation and what it would be and do. With regards to the former, it was agreed that the network’s alignment with the political left was a key part of its existence and as such should be at the fore of its identity. Socialism and anarchism were mentioned as key ideological reference points and capitalism and the ‘neoliberal turn’ (Harvey, 2005) identified as a common enemy, but ‘radical’ was decided on as the most suitable adjective. Though itself not unproblematic, ‘radical’ can refer to aesthetics as much as politics, and is both indicative of a political position that is far to the left of Labour at the same time as it is inclusive of the range of political affiliations that entails. In any case, interrogating the concept of radicalism was mentioned as part of what the RFN might do, just as the IFA explored and critiqued the notion of ‘independence’.
In terms of the practical aspects of the network, a number of ideas were agreed upon as key areas for development, with working groups assigned to each. These included a website and mailing list, as well as a digitalisation and distribution centre that would make films available for screenings. Given the large number of organisations showing political films in Britain, to some extent an exhibition network already exists. Placing these organisations in touch with one another and coordinating screenings and tours for particular programmes of films and speakers was identified as a useful way of lightening the workload of exhibitors and expanding the audience for the films they show. A working group was also assigned to investigate potential sources of funding for these projects and for the network as a whole.
While financial support would of course be extremely useful, it was also agreed that the network should aim to be dependent neither on funders nor any other individuals or groups in the network, but would instead share the organisational labour as much as possible. After all, the aim is to contribute to the sustainability of radical film culture, not hinder it by adding to the workload of those already involved.
Finally, it was agreed that an annual event should be held to bring together those that the network exists to support. The first of these will be a launch event late next year. In the meantime, subsequent discussions on the network’s development will be taking place at the Liverpool Radical Film Festival (https://www.liverpoolraddocfilmfest.org.uk/) and the Worcestershire Film Festival (https://worcestershirefilmfestival.co.uk/) on November 16th and 17th respectively. T
he next organisational meeting was scheduled to take place during the Bristol Radical Film Festival (https://bristolradicalfilm.org.uk/), on Saturday 8th March 2014. What the network will look like at that time depends to a large extent on those who are involved. Anyone wishing to get in touch should contact Steve Presence at email@example.com.