Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Culture and the stories we tell ourselves...

Stories We Tell Ourselves is a study undertaken for the UKFC (now folded into the BFI) which examines the Cultural Impact of UK Film 1946-2006. Its authors were invited to Dublin by the Irish Film Board for a panel event Beyond the Box Office which took place in the IFI a week ago. It was intended, I think, as a possible point of departure for a discussion about Irish film culture, a discussion we seem to have assiduously side-stepped for nearly two decades despite the fact that film is an aspect of cultural policy rather than industrial policy.

The first point to reflect on here is that the resolute focus is 'film', not 'cinema'. It's a fundamental distinction because it separates the art form from the social aspect of the audience's initial engagement with it. I worry that there's a subtext here which seeks to downgrade the cultural importance of the cinema audience. Yes, it's undoubtedly true that our film and cinema culture is highly permeable to external cultural forces but that is all the more reason to admit its influence and to challenge it with our own output.

The title of the event itself - Beyond the Box Office - reinforces the film/cinema distinction but it is ambiguous as whether this has to do with cultural legacy, and its measurement, or a concession of the social arena, the cinema, to the output of an other, dominant culture. And it's not suprising, perhaps, that such a debate should be taking place at a time when the cohesive social audience for cinema, and television, is at once breaking down and reshaping itself across national borders, especially in the anglophone world.

Here in Ireland the heavy stress on measurable cost-benefit analysis of state funding and spend in the economy has long been a way to avoid discussing market outcomes, the quality of the films that have been made with public money, and their cultural value. If we are to begin a real discussion of Irish film culture then please let it not be for strategic political reasons.

The UK study was set in motion by the then UKFC Chair, Stewart Till, but we were not told why the study was commissioned. Nor is it readily evident in the study itself. It is a critical question.

Perhaps the answer can be found between the following lines in the study: Films are routinely reviewed and judged according to their commercial performance, and their impact is also assessed by the marketing sector intent on maximising awareness in order to increase revenues. The idea of identifying and measuring cultural impact is relatively new and less well established. To some extent it challenges commercial performance as the sole measure of a film’s success, recognising that films may have many different kinds of impact beyond triggering the willingness to pay to see them. Films may create extraordinary characters, who live in the memories and conversations of people who have seen them on screen, and perhaps even in those of people who have not actually seen them. (p.23)

The point is undoubtedly true, and it is a point worth making but why is it being made? Not, I hope, as a kind of defense of poor contemporary films which deservedly fail at the box office. Moreover, the point's validity hinges upon how one interprets culture, its impact (and how it's measured, over time), and nationality.

Let's face it, the stories we tell ourselves will sometimes try our patience. The inner voice will tell us we've heard this one before, or that the teller of the tale should stop beating around the bush. Sometimes we seek comfort in the familiar. Occasionally the drip of unrewarded time is part of the storyteller's delivery. They may have a discursive style or a particular way in which they form their tales. It comes - usually if not always - to a question of trust that will be answered either with the audience's engagement or disengagement and, by the end, either a sense of reward or of having been let down.

If we are to start a conversation about Irish film culture then we have to start talking about the quality and content of what we produce, and whether our screenwriters, directors and producers are rewarding the trust being placed in them by the Irish people.


Anonymous said...

Excellent points in relation to Irish film culture, which certainly warrant deeper analysis and discussion.

It is galling however that we do not seem to be able to initiate these discussions ourselves, but must lazily wait until prompted by whatever our former colonial masters are doing "across the water".

Another critical point is that the UK has a completely different culture to ours. In that context it isn't clear how relevant work carried out by the former UKFC or the BFI is here.

It says a lot about our self-confidence that we appear to remain reliant on the UK for intellectual analysis, at least in this area.

It also begs the question of what our legions of film academics are doing - noting that there appeared to be not one of them among the speakers last week - were they consciously excluded?

irish film portal said...

I would be concerned that we are only coming to this subject because it has become tactically expedient to do so. That may have been the case in the UK and it would have become a subject for discussion between the two agencies.

There were plenty of academics present, whether they were invited or just turned up I do not know. Someone did observe that very few books on Irish film have been published in the last decade. One notable exception is the annual Estudios Irlandeses (linked in the sidebar) journal which does consider issues of policy as well as the production output each year.

Perhaps academia has been compromised to some extent by the film = jobs equation? Could it be that the educational balance has shifted from 'why' to 'how', from academic interrogation to vocational training.

I agree that the UK has a different culture and film culture to our own. A certain kind of American film does better here (per capita) than in the UK, and British films perform less well (per capita) than they do in the UK. It hardly needs adding that the UK has, as sugested by the '1946-2006' reference, a film culture that goes back to the beginnings of the medium.

In Ireland, at a stretch, we can go back to the 1970s, with no insult intended to the almost solitary pioneers of earlier decades.

Anonymous said...

Very good points; could it additionally be argued that the focus of academic inquiry here has been too narrow? For example there seems to be an over-emphasis on political or ideological analysis(e.g. the study of national cinema[s]).

I'm not sure about a balance in favour of vocational training; in fact I would argue the opposite is the case and that there isn't enough such training, or certainly enough of the right kind of such training (a common complaint, not confined to Ireland, is that students emerge from so-called film courses with little practical knowledge of actual film production practices).

I think in your main post you hit upon a key area for enquiry by - for example - academics here, i.e.

< If we are to start a conversation about Irish film culture then we have to start talking about the quality and content of what we produce, and whether our screenwriters, directors and producers are rewarding the trust being placed in them by the Irish people. >

My own opinion is that on numerous occasions Irish filmmakers have demonstrably abused that trust, and have wrongfully rejected the basic truth that films - whatever their subject - must be made for an audience.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with the point above
" I'm not sure about a balance in favour of vocational training; in fact I would argue the opposite is the case and that there isn't enough such training, or certainly enough of the right kind of such training". I couldn't agree more, this isn't an Ireland only problem as I see more and more kids in the UK claiming they are experienced when they clearly are not. But why doesn't Ireland take the lead and implement a new well structured policy on training. Let's not wait to trot after our neighbours again!

Any truth in the rumours that camelot II is gone?

irish film portal said...

I hadn't heard that about Camelot II, I thought 'the numbers' were good and that they were hiring. Maybe the greenlight's gone orange?

The training question is both a vocational and an academic issue. Expertise and technique is acquired by making films but there is a real need for creative personnel to also know why they are making films. I suppose what I'm talking about is an understanding and clarity of purpose which seems absent from very many of our films.

Anonymous said...

That's a fascinating line of enquiry, Film Portal.

Is there a sense in which Ireland's film culture is not organic, but rather somehow imposed, perhaps as part of some kind of political or ideological project?

Is there is an imperative that "we must (blindly) make films" without, as you point out, understanding why?

Other aspects of Irish arts and culture often share the same lack of organic gestation - the "Cultural Cinema" project is an obvious one, but the many regional arts centres that have appeared in the last 20 years or so have not always seemingly had grassroots involvement or support either.

Whilst the state must fund arts and culture (and has a moral obligation to do so), is there a point at which such support can turn into stifling, ideologically-motivated control?

A fascinating counter-question could be, what would be the "consequences" if indigenous film production ceased for a period of say, ten years?

Anonymous said...

Confirmation from IFTN Website that Camelot is gone.

irish film portal said...

Curious about Camelot - no one seems to be saying on the record exactly what the problem is. Could it be casting? Or money - whether production cost or finance availability?

As to the query about Ireland's film culture - no, I don't believe it's a question of something being imposed or ideologically driven. However, if the State's cultural policy is delivered, de facto, by producers then I believe the policy will be compromised by their interests. Not that I'd blame them, it's the State that contracts with them to deliver the films.

There is a wider issue of the enculturation of audiences and film-makers. People say we need more media education - as if that might create a receptive audience for films that do not conform to the cinema mainstream - but it's much bigger than that. Education is unlikely to address it in a general population that is enculturated with flotsam and jetsam from faraway places long before even their basic formal education begins.

Irish films are essentially 'foreign' to Irish cinema audiences in a way that Irish TV drama in not 'foreign' to Irish TV audiences. Why is that?

The only imperative there should be to make films should come from film-makers who feel driven to express themselves though the medium. Not because they, or an industrial sector needs to stay in work.

All the better if the film-makers, in the process, entertain their local audience and/or surprise them or give them something to think about.