“The American film industry presents one of the greatest threats to the continued survival of British cinema.” This, and variations thereof, was a common answer we received during the filming of our documentary, The Reel Britain (http://toskaproductions.com/). Yet curiously, British film inspires endless enthusiasm and passionate love among American artists and filmmakers.
That same love inspired us, a small group of American women, to travel across the Atlantic with cameras in hand. The Reel Britain (http://toskaproductions.com/) is about British film and the unique industry that creates it. The British film industry has cycled between triumph and crisis since its inception, both circumscribed and perhaps aided by its uneasy relationships with the behemoth of Hollywood and various governmental agencies. Coming from the outside offers an opportunity to ask questions that seem basic on their face, but are complex and difficult upon being unpacked. It also offers us the chance, we hope, to approach the topic without preconception or agenda, but with simple, open-hearted love.
Film, like any other art, represents a cultural record of the people who made it and the time in which it was made. British film speaks with a bold, raw voice very particular to its nation of birth–and unlike American films that are often effectively standardized by their creation in the studio system, each British film is essentially an independent endeavor. While many of us on The Reel Britain production team grew up watching British film (often thanks to the under appreciated and oft attacked efforts of public television in America) what has kept our love strong is the unfiltered and powerful creativity of the art. We find a reality both beautiful and terrible in it that no other national cinema has, a dedication to seeking truth that we want to honor.
Using interviews with British filmmakers, actors, scholars, and others connected with the industry, we seek to answer a series of questions we think are of deep importance to all lovers of British film: How has the industry changed in the last fifty years, and where is it going? What are the greatest challenges the British film industry currently faces? What must change, both within and without for the industry to flourish? What makes a movie uniquely British?
For our filming conducted in the UK thus far we’ve received a warm welcome. The generosity, thoughtfulness, and love for the art that we both received and captured on film was astounding, and a reflection of the deep spirit that drew us all to British film. We’re incredibly grateful to everyone who has spoken with us:
Producer, writer, and director Tony Garnett (Prostitute and Earth Girls Are Easy among others)
Producer Iain Smith (The Fifth Element and Children of Men)
Director and Writer Debs Paterson (Africa United)
Writer and critic Kim Newman
Director Vicky Jewson (Lady Godiva and Born of War)
Producer Rupert Whitaker (Lady Godiva and Born of War)
Filmmaker and producer Elliot Grove, founder of the Raindance Film Festival and the BIFAs
Director Jon S. Baird (Cass and Filth)
Producer and founder of HanWay Films Jeremy Thomas (The Shout, The Last Emperor, and other films too numerous to mention)
Producer Lord David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, The Killing Fields, and many more)
Julian Petley, Professor of screen media at Brunel University
Director Ken Loach (Kes, Sweet Sixteen, The Spirit of ’45 and many other legendary films)
Nev Pierce, Editor-at-large for Empire magazine
Director and actor Dan Poole (Muse of Fire)
Actor Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left Alive, War Horse, and others)
Joost Hunningher, Professor of film and television at the University of Westminster
And the British Film Institute has taken time to speak with us about their cultural work, preserving British film in its archives and restoring old films.
We were also lucky enough to attend four red carpets at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival: The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave, Locke, and Only Lovers Left Alive. Not quite the same as an interview, it still offered us a chance to ask (very quick) questions of artists whose current work serves as a reminder that for all the pessimism often leveled at the British film industry, the art is alive and well–and perhaps punching far above its weight class.
Through all these interviews, we were continually impressed by the diversity of opinions, though common threads also existed throughout. One we heard often was an exasperation with the American film industry and concern with its stranglehold on cinema–though always followed by a quick assurance that there was nothing necessarily wrong with American films, or Americans. (It’s all right, we’re not easy to offend!) It’s probably an awkward conversation to have, with American filmmakers, though it’s an open question as to just how American our film will be.
The Reel Britain is a film driven by the love of British national cinema, and while the film crew is composed of Americans, we were often told to follow the funding to know a film’s true nationality. Our film has been largely crowdfunded by supporters from across the globe, all of whom share our interest in and love of British film. Perhaps that gives us another sort of unique perspective, independent and not necessarily belonging to any single country. But it also speaks powerfully to the global influence of the British film industry, that people across the world wish to hear its story.
Our work to tell even the barest portion of that story isn’t done yet–we still have interviews yet to be filmed, and then the terrors of trying to edit down so many hours of fascinating footage still await. But we look forward to sharing what we’ve learned with a world that is far more eager to listen than we or the ever humble British film industry might first have guessed.
– The Reel Britain Crew (https://twitter.com/TheReelBritain)