Political film culture in Britain and elsewhere has expanded dramatically in recent years as access to digital technologies have meshed with socio-political, economic and environmental contexts marked by crisis and discontent. Since the turn of the millennium, those radical film organisations in Britain that remained from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s (such as Amber, Leeds Animation Workshop, the London Socialist Film Coop and Exploding Cinema) have been joined by a litany of others dedicated to the production, distribution and exhibition of films broadly aligned with the politics of the radical left. I co-founded one of those more recent organisations in 2011 when, while researching my PhD on contemporary British political film culture, I became frustrated with the lack of a dedicated exhibition platform in Bristol for the work I was researching. Organised with some colleagues, students and alumni at the University of the West of England, the first Bristol Radical Film Festival took place in February 2012 and was a big success. With almost every event sold out and enthusiastic audiences keen for more of the same, we decided to do it again the following year, and the festival has become an annual event.
Organising the festival and researching radical British film culture left me well aware that the Bristol Radical Film Festival was, of course, far from the only organisation doing this kind of film work. These include other exhibition groups such Manchester Film Coop or the Star and Shadow in Newcastle; production collectives such as the artists organisation No.w.here and the video-activist newsreel, Reel News; and distributors such as Cinenova or visionOntv. Having interviewed most of these organisations for my PhD, I was also aware that many of them were either not aware of or not communicating with others. Since, like us in Bristol, almost all of these organisations operated with very few or no resources, it was clear that this new wave of political film culture, fledgling and fragmented as it was, would benefit from some kind of infrastructural support network. Among other things, for example, such a network could facilitate communication and collaboration among those of us involved, help spread the costs and labour of our work, develop distribution and exhibition circuits and explore sources of funding. Perhaps most importantly, it could contribute to the long-term visibility and sustainability of radical film culture overall.
With these things in mind, in September 2013 I convened a meeting of representatives from across radical film culture in the UK, and together we formed the Radical Film Network (RFN). A few months later I secured a post in the Centre for Moving Image Research at the University of the West of England which, over the last year, has in part enabled me to build the foundations of what has become an international network for radical film culture, with affiliated organisations based in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Ireland, Jordan, Palestine, Mexico, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, and the USA. In the remainder of this article, I want to briefly situate the RFN in the history of radical film networks and outline its development so far, touching along the way on some of the practical and conceptual challenges we face in the lead-up to the RFN’s inaugural conference in Birmingham in 2015.
Developing network support for radical film culture is hardly a novel idea, either in Britain or elsewhere. In the UK in the 1920s and 30s, those involved in the workers’ film movement recognised cinema’s power as a tool for progressive and revolutionary social change and sought to develop national infrastructures for distribution and exhibition, such as the Federation of Workers Film Societies, Kino or the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL). In the 1960s organisations like Newsreel in the US or SLON (Society for Launching New Works) in France continued this valuable work. In Britain, the nearest historical predecessor to the RFN is the Independent Filmmakers Association (IFA) which, formed in 1974, became the ‘organisational concretisation’ of the latest wave of radical film culture that had developed since the formation of the London Filmmakers Coop in 1966. Over the next fifteen years, the IFA ‘became the nucleus of a national movement’ that viewed ‘cinema as a social practice’, as the late film theorist Paul Willemen put it, and played a key role in supporting what is widely recognised as a ‘golden era’ in politically and aesthetically radical British film.
The IFA played a key role as a lobbying organisation in the lead-up to the launch of Channel 4 in 1982, for example. The channel’s much-cited remit that it ‘encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes’ was, in part, down the work of the IFA, as was the decision of the founding Chief Executive, Jeremy Isaacs, to create a dedicated department for independent film and video within the channel. That department – and its commissioning editorial team of Alan Fountain, Rod Stoneman and Caroline Spry – was responsible for some of the most politically and aesthetically radical work ever broadcast on television anywhere in the world, to this day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this encounter with Channel 4 and the relatively vast sums of money it made available to radical filmmakers, as well as the strings attached to it, created a new raft of problems. Invariably filmmakers were drawn away from their original motivations under actual or perceived pressure to conform to what the channel required to bestow funding, for example. That said, the significance of this achievement should not be underestimated either. As Margaret Dickinson has argued, ‘by 1984 many IFA activists were working for or funded by, the new Channel 4. Filmmakers who, previously, had circulated their work to audiences of tens or hundreds were now addressing hundreds of thousands and occasionally millions. It was a victory’.
The Radical Film Network was designed as the successor organisation to the IFA, but it would be stupid to simply aspire to repeat its successes (even if we could). We occupy a very different historical moment, one characterised by a very different set of political, social and technological contexts. Nevertheless, there are lessons we can learn from the earlier organisation. One of the key divisions in the IFA arose, as the organisation grew, between the politically committed, activist-oriented filmmakers and those other independent filmmakers who simply (and understandably) wanted organisational support to get their films made. Each group had equal claim to being ‘independent’, and thus to the IFA.
The ‘Radical’ in the title of the RFN is an attempt to anticipate and avoid this division. Of course, the word ‘radical’ is also ambiguous and there is not the space here to explore it in detail or account for the long debates that were had in adopting it for the title of the network. Suffice to say here just a few things in its defence: it derives from the Latin word, radix, for ‘root’, and so suggests both a grassroots, bottom-up film culture and some form of significant or fundamental departure from the norm (whether in mode of production, aesthetic style, approach to exhibition etc.). Perhaps most importantly, it signals the one thing that all those organisations in the RFN share, which is a broad-based alignment to the politics of the radical left (an interest in radical democracy, sustainability, social justice, equality etc.). Unfortunately, the dominant use of the word at the moment, in the mainstream media at least, is in the context of Islamic fundamentalism or to describe the ideologies of the radical right. But this should not mean that we shy away from the history and value of the radical left. On the contrary, it’s all the more reason to foreground those histories and values.
On a related note, the IFA also provided a platform on which the very concept of ‘independence’ could be interrogated. This is something that, to my mind, the RFN should replicate. And indeed it is: another advantage of naming the network ‘radical’ is that it immediately begs the question: what is ‘radical’ film? As well as signifying the fundamental political alignment mentioned above, I think the meaning of the word is most productive if it is understood to be in flux and fluid, able to be debated and discussed, and applied to different practices at different times. In this way, I hope the RFN will push and challenge those of us who identify as being engaged in ‘radical’ film culture – in whatever form that engagement may be – to interrogate our own positions and behaviours, to explore the kinds of social, political and environmental worlds in which we want to live and to be creative in how we represent those futures to ourselves.
Finally, another of the many lessons we can learn from the IFA is the way in which it provided a forum for ‘the two avant-gardes’ to discuss and debate with one another. Authors of a paper at the IFA’s inaugural conference in 1976 recognised that ‘the aesthetic avant-garde and the political vanguard have developed separately’ but emphasised that the organisation was for both experimental filmmakers interested in ‘aesthetic and formal radicalism’ as well as others ‘whose goals were more socially, politically or community oriented’. Furthermore, the IFA understood itself as an organisation that was engaged in ‘an aesthetic and political struggle in the field of cinema’ and as such sought both ‘the radicalisation of film aesthetics and the radicalisation of political filmmaking’. The notion of the ‘two avant-gardes’ is also not a new concept, and is admittedly a rather blunt instrument – the world is always more complex and messy than such neat divisions suggest.
Nevertheless, in Britain today the gulf between the political and aesthetic avant-garde is wider than ever. Politicised artist film and video-makers – those who explore and experiment with film form as much as they articulate a radical politics – operate in entirely separate fields of distribution, exhibit largely in gallery spaces, and are generally supported in some way by arts funding. By contrast, the political avant-garde – those filmmakers and collectives that stage political arguments before (if at all) innovating an aesthetic level – receive barely any funding at all and show films in trade unions halls, squats and other politicised community spaces. Today, as in the 1970s and 80s, both sides of this radical film culture stand to benefit from the kind of interaction, argumentation and inevitable cross-pollination that took place within the IFA.
Obviously there is a lot more to say about the RFN and its relationship to both the IFA and other historical and contemporary networks and organisations around the world. In closing though, it seems sensible to end on some more practical concerns. For me, one of the most significant challenges we face is how to design the RFN in such a way that it can provide an infrastructure without adding a layer of bureaucracy upon the culture it is intended to support. After all, the point is to alleviate our combined workloads, not add to them. For me, that means it is essential that the RFN remains a network: decentralised across the culture as a whole (not the ‘nucleus’ Willemen understood the IFA to be).
Ideally, having built the existing infrastructure – a website and directory of groups and artists involved, and a mailing list on which they can share information, events and ideas – the network will operate with a minimum of administrative input. It cannot be dependent on funding, but should allow an infrastructure from which a variety of funded projects could develop. Finding a way to balance these competing demands – that the RFN be decentralised but functional, that it requires no funding but can provide an infrastructure for funded projects, that it remain open and diverse while maintaining a political focus – are the challenges I think the RFN will face in its second year. How we address them will depend on those individuals and organisations involved, but if the first year has been anything to go by, the future of the RFN looks bright.
The inaugural conference of the RFN, Political Cinema in the 21st Century takes place on the 7th and 8th February 2015 in Birmingham. For more information or to register to attend, please email Steve Presence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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