Sarita Malik posted her thoughts about the BFI and British film culture in a blog in the Guardian today.
Now you see me …
As the British Film Institute faces cutbacks, who should we turn to for support of our leading cultural institutions?
August 3, 2007 10:30 AM
This public celebration of our national cinema comes at an interesting time, coinciding with the disturbing shifts currently under way at the British Film Institute that have highlighted its fragile base. Sadly, the Summer of British Film is as ephemeral as its title suggests, momentarily touching the surface of what is a diverse and exciting cinema history in serious need of budgetary stability and respectful preservation.
If you Google “British film”, you will find the BFI’s website at the top. At the centre of the BFI’s activities is the National Film and Television Archive – a unique global resource not just for researchers but also for our national cultural heritage. As an institution, the BFI is as important to me as it is for thousands of film and TV researchers around the world. I spent several years at the BFI doing postgraduate research, and still depend on it for library and archival materials.
In terms of pure methodology, the archive empowers users, both practically and intellectually. Where else can you order and view a BBC2 documentary made in 1962? Ongoing access to the library and the archive is central to how we develop cultural knowledge about our visual history, particularly as we see a growth in film, television and new media students and researchers.
On a recent visit to the BFI, I shared a viewing room with two Americans, who beamed when the opening credits rolled and frantically took notes about the rare archival footage presented before them. But the overall mood of the organisation seemed subdued, quite different to the buzzy atmosphere 10 years ago. Back then, the BFI commissioned exciting publications from film bulletins to text books, was engaged in production from TV documentaries to contemporary British cinema and supported academic study and industry-focused research. Soon after, many of these activities were stopped and the more commercially-oriented UK Film Council assumed responsibility for steering the future direction and budget of parts of the BFI and, as it goes, British film.
The BFI has recently announced it will be closing down its publishing section as part of its first phase of reorganisation. The focus is shifting to its other activities on the South Bank and some are concerned about a possible threat to its “archive, exhibition and knowledge activities”.
The educational and cultural significance of the BFI is far-reaching and this needs to be supported if we are to treat our national cinema with the due weight is deserves. The BFI receives a £16 million annual grant, but this financial crisis raises the question of the degree to which the institution is a priority for government policy and public funding. This year has already seen major cutbacks in arts funding. So who should we turn to invest in the future of arts and cultural funding in the UK? Public libraries have long depended on the super-rich – often through progressive grant-making trusts and foundations – giving something back. The building that houses the BFI’s library base in Tottenham Court Road, London, was a gift from J Paul Getty. Must we hope for a renaissance in creative philanthropy that recognises the public value of culture, since the state is not taking primary responsibility for this as a basic provision?