Most of us know the saying, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ This came to mind recently as I pondered the question: when is a feature film not a feature film? Recently the BFI launched its Filmography, a website describing itself as ‘a complete history of UK feature film.’
I was first alerted to the BFI Filmography when my fellow filmmaker and writer, Mark Cousins, took to social media, noting how he felt the list was incomplete. In a tweet he commented, “Also missing from the list is May Miles Thomas.” Being human I try – and often fail – to have grace. No sooner had I confirmed that my work is missing from this ‘official’ record than I decided to contact the person responsible: Stephen McConnachie, the BFI’s Head of Data. My query was simple: with four narrative features to my credit why am I – and my films – excluded?
And if I’m not on the list, how many others are overlooked? Another filmmaker cited by Mark Cousins is the acclaimed producer, Leslie Hills. With several feature titles to her name at least she appears in the Filmography albeit as a ‘consultant’ active only in 2008, an oversight that falls woefully short of her output. I could list many others but that’s to miss the point: why, when every UK feature film is already listed on IMDB and the British Council Film database, does the BFI Filmography need to exist at all? Unless, as I believe, there’s an agenda at work.
I stress here I’m not motivated by a need for acceptance or personal recognition. For years I’ve made films on my own terms and will continue to do so. Rather, my concern is that by declaring itself the arbiter of UK Film the BFI arrogates to itself the right to decide what is and isn’t ‘legitimate.’ Moreover, for the BFI to describe its Filmography as ‘a complete history’ is at best misleading because it denies the existence of many filmmakers and films that may lack institutional and industry endorsement but nonetheless have merit. At worst, their claim is a kind of inverse take on Entartente Kunst where, rather than flag up unwanted or undesirable works, they seek to bury them.
By cleaving to an orthodoxy wrapped around cherry-picked criteria the BFI has forged a cinematic canon akin to that of literature, i.e. by adopting a model based on an elitist agenda of ‘value and validity.’ Thankfully the promotion of works of the dead, pale, male and stale is largely discredited on the grounds of blatant bias so it’s disappointing to find that in the 21st century the BFI has opted for such a regressive paradigm.
After a couple of ‘thanks for your interest’ emails in early October I received a 1950-word response from Stephen McConnachie, a slice of cut-and-paste boilerplate that suggests I’m not the only person to challenge the Filmography. While acknowledging the errors and omissions of the list, he reiterates its criteria for inclusion: ‘Britishness’, ‘Feature-length’, ‘Film as work type’ – i.e. was the film intended as a work of cinema – and, perhaps most disputable, ‘Cinema Release.’
For me the definition of ‘cinema release’ is problematic. First, because today a release can mean anything from a Hollywood blockbuster on serial multiplex screens to an indie showing for two days at a single London arthouse. It can also mean a launch on any online platform, a major cultural shift that the BFI fails to address. Second, to quote Stephen McConnachie again, films are listed “using robust, complete data sources in order to avoid selectiveness: The British Film Catalogue, vol. 1: The Fiction Film 1895–1994, by Denis Gifford, Monthly Film Bulletin, 1934-1991 (BFI), Sight and Sound magazine, 1932- present day (BFI) and The Film Distributors Association website, Launching Films.”
Again this tricky word ‘complete’ appears and again I ask – by whose definition? It seems to me these data sources, in particular the FDA’s website, prioritise commercial films screened theatrically over other feature-length works. I would also assert that the FDA’s website reflects an entirely different imperative. Distributors necessarily exclude films unlikely to attract exhibitors whose MO is to turn a profit. To their credit the BFI readily admits to this commercial bias. According to Stephen McConnachie –
“Well, we had to use a complete, defensible data source across the timeline, where a ‘document of record’ function was implicit or explicit in the data capture model. Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound aimed to achieve that document of record for films released to UK cinemas, and as the S&S completeness has reduced in recent years, we looked to the FDA database as an equivalent document of record. In combination, it is hoped that these datasets achieve completeness in terms of films released for commercial viewing in cinemas in the UK.”
In other words, the ‘completeness’ of these datasets applies only in the context of commercial features. In all other instances completeness cannot be proven.
For an informed take I turn to Stephen Follows whose blog is an invaluable source. In a post titled, ‘How many British Films secure theatrical distribution?‘ he offers a compelling analysis where, he also asserts, theatrical release is a method of identifying ‘proper’ films. In it, I find sobering statistics. 48.9% of sub-£1m UK features don’t achieve a theatrical release. Worse, this figure falls through the floor for films made on budgets of less than £150K, of which 80.9% never reach cinemas. For those in the middle of that range, the £150-500K budget films, 52.7% also fail to secure a release. It’s clear then that over 50% of ALL sub £1m budget features made in the UK don’t get released theatrically. Most significantly, of those budgeted at over £1m, 38.1% don’t get a release either. In the context of the BFI Filmography, the majority of UK features are ineligible for inclusion.
So what does this mean? Given the above figures, it seems the BFI Filmography is an unreliable source of information when it comes to identifying UK feature films. Of course, the primary data source of any film rests with its makers and production companies. Personally I can’t afford Derek Gifford’s catalogues (£310 on Amazon) so I’ve no idea whether my four features are listed. What I do know is that my films exist. What I also know – irony of ironies – is that my (multi award-winning) debut feature, ‘One Life Stand‘ is listed on the BFI’s own website. Yet for reasons unknown it – and I – are missing from the Filmography.
In adopting its criteria, the BFI excludes UK films screened at festivals, film societies and on all internet platforms. It’s telling in Stephen McConnachie’s response that, “It is also clear that by excluding these sets, we potentially exclude important works by women filmmakers, BAME filmmakers, and documentary makers or artists who are arguably underrepresented in mainstream, commercial distribution models.” Coming from a publicly-funded institution that prides itself on inclusiveness this is, if not hypocritical, one hell of an oversight and one I hope they will address in the future.
At this point any rational person might raise their hands and say, “Fair enough, I accept your frame of reference” before bowing to the BFI’s Catalogue Raisonné of UK Feature Films. Not me, and certainly not while I and many filmmakers find themselves edited out of the story of UK film. What’s depressing too is the short trajectory in which filmmakers travel from ‘emerging’ to ‘never was’ because the road’s too hard. The BFI’s policy for its Filmography only makes it harder.
Personally I’ve never felt discriminated against for my gender. My regional working class provenance and – increasingly – my age is a different matter. What kind of UK film culture will exist in years to come when the only films deemed worthy of cataloging are those made by young(ish) middle-class males from a corner of southern England? In what universe is, say, ‘Attack the Block’ more noteworthy than the late Sandra Lahire’s Silvia Plath trilogy? Or my own ‘Voyageuse’? Or any of my other films, films that all meet at least three out of four of the BFI’s stated criteria?
Still, I’m grateful to Stephen McConnachie for taking the time to reply in such detail and for offering to call me to discuss the issue further. I even forgive him for assuming I’m based in London. Responding, I gave him my number and guess what? Two months later I’m still waiting on that call.
For anyone who has made it this far, thank you for reading. I’ll sign off with a quote from the late English film critic, Leslie Halliwell, whose partial, often tetchy annual film guide once famously described Andrei Tarkovsky as ‘an obscure Russian filmmaker.’ Best not get above myself then…
The above image is of me and my kit, on a break from shooting a sequence for “Voyageuse” at Orford Ness, Suffolk in August 2015. After a chance meeting, the site’s photographer-in-residence kindly granted me access to its restricted areas.