Monday, 1 February 2010

Shanked by the BFI

A feature from 3Sixty Magazine about how the British film industry fails to support the UK's gay film-makers

After another successful run this year’s London Lesbian and Gay Film festival is now touring the country, taking the cream of gay film-making out of the capitol and into cinemas in around 30 towns and cities, including Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dublin and Bristol. But although programmers might be congratulating themselves on a triumphant 23rd season, some UK film makers are questioning the validity of a British film festival that only included a handful of British-made films.

According to figures from the British Film Institute (organisers of the Festival), just 23 UK-produced films made the cut this year, and only one was a full-length, narrative feature. One particular movie overlooked by the selectors is Shank, the debut feature from 20 year-old director Simon Pearce, an often violent, drug-fuelled portrait of a young man involved in Bristol’s gang scene struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.

Co-writer and producer Christian Martin, who has petitioned the BFI endlessly for the movie to be shown, tells 3Sixty that he cannot understand the logic behind their refusal to include the film. “The festival is supposed to showcase the best in gay cinema, and the BFI has a remit to support British movie makers,” he says. “Clearly they are not achieving either of those stated aims.”

Although the BFI found Shank unworthy of inclusion in the LLGFF an awful lot of other people disagree. The film has been programmed by 30 other International gay film festivals, has been picked up for distribution by TLA Releasing and last month Simon Pearce won an award for Best Emerging New Talent in Queer Cinema at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Sandra Hebron, Artistic Director of BFI Film Festivals, says: “Whilst a film may attract support from other quarters, our programmers are under no obligation to include it. Having viewed and discussed Shank they did not feel it was of sufficient merit to include.”

“In light of the fact that Simon has been recognised as an emerging talent the unfounded comments from the BFI that Shank has no quality or merit continues to astound me,” says Martin, who has had run-ins with the BFI in the past, although they refute any suggestion that their decision not to programme Shank was personally motivated. “They have written to confirm that they will not offer any support to the film; it’s been left to the rest of the world to do just that.”

But Shank is not the only British film overlooked for this year’s LLGFF. Mr Right, a romantic comedy from brother and sister team David and Jacqui Morris has also been receiving accolades and has been accepted by some of the world’s most prestigious gay film festivals including those in Berlin and Miami. NewFest, the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, one of the most comprehensive showcases of international LGBT film and video in the world, has chosen the movie to open this year’s festival.

Both Christian Martin and Jacqui Morris were incensed by an interview given to the Independent by LLGFF’s senior programmer Brian Robinson which claimed that the local film-making talent isn't there to take advantage of the showcase the annual festival provides. Adds Martin: “The international success that Shank and Mr Right are attracting at the very least demonstrates that the view that there is a lack of ‘local film making talent’ is wrong. Even if the assertion was correct, what is the BFI doing to help bridge this alarming gap in local talent and why doesn’t the LLGFF have a specific strand for new and emerging British talent?”

In his defence Robinson said: “We received over 800 films for consideration in the festival but have room for less than 200. We’re really passionate about the festival but only want to show films that we feel will appeal to our audience.” Lisa Daniel, director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival (which programmed both Shank and Mr Right) finds the figures a little hard to swallow. “We received 430 submissions for our 2009 festival. Of those 152 were selected and screened, and 30 were Australian.” Domestic movies made up 20 percent of one of the world’s biggest gay film festivals: the LLGFF chose just 12 percent. Yet a spokesman for the BFI states: “None of the BFI’s objects require it to positively discriminate in favour of British Film.”

The importance of the LLGFF cannot be understated, and the festival’s endorsement can often be crucial to a film’s success, as Jacqui Morris tells 3Sixty: “When I completed the film it managed to attract the attention of a well known, mainstream distributor. We were in talks at the time for selection for the LGLFF and were absolutely devastated when we were turned down. We were given no proper explanation, just a second-hand message from Brian Robinson stating he felt it was a bit too long. I mailed him and explained that a screening at his festival could just tip the scales in our favour. I explained we were first timers, and that I wasn't disputing his comments. In fact, I pretty much begged him to find us a slot but there was no response. We didn't secure the distribution deal, and although we'll never really know why, without a doubt, acceptance from our home turf would have played a significant part.

“Highly-paid people are making decisions that affect the livelihoods of British film crews, and they should be held accountable. Considering the magnificent talent we have in this country it's shameful and scandalous that the British film industry isn't a healthy, thriving, money making business. But when you have one of its leading ambassadors making irresponsible comments about the lack of British talent, what hope do we have?”

Lee Gunther, of TLA Releasing, says: “The LLGFF is important to us as a distributor as it's the highest-profile and best-attended lesbian and gay film festival in the UK. It's always great to be a part of it for any filmmaker or distributor as we should embrace every opportunity to celebrate and promote the genre.

“I don't necessarily think the festival should be biased towards British-made gay films; the most important factor should always be the quality and relevance of the production. However, I do think that the LLGFF audiences are interested in seeing what British gay cinema has to offer and it's always beneficial to support home-grown talent, so it is important for these films to be a part of the programme.”

“We understand that a film-maker is very close to his project and is upset when his film is not selected, and we appreciate all of the labour that goes into making a film but, at the end of the day, we’re not film-makers,” Brian Robinson adds. “What we are is a small team of six who spend three months trawling through film festivals and watching DVDs to choose the films we feel will work best for a balanced festival.”

A (slightly) edited version of this feature first appeared in 3Sixty Magazine, June 2009. (c) 2009 Darryl W Bullock

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