Update on Colin MacCabe’s bid for BFI Chair

This piece on Colin MacCabe’s bid for Chair of the BFI appeared in Screen International last week.


Colin MacCabe wants to shake up the UK Film Council-British Film Institute relationship, he tells Geoffrey Macnab.

It is almost a decade since Colin MacCabe left his position as head of research and education at the British Film Institute (BFI). He is still an active producer — his latest project, Isaac Julien’s Derek Jarman documentary, Derek, premieres in Sundance. Yet MacCabe cannot hide his dismay at what has happened to the BFI over the intervening years.

“I see an institute devoted to the love of history and film that has been deliberately destroyed,” MacCabe says. The rot, he suggests, set in at the beginning of the New Labour era.

During this period, the BFI Production Board, which had supported the work of Jarman, Julien and many others was dismantled and such initiatives as the masters degree that the BFI ran from 1992-98 were discontinued. The BFI itself became “subordinate” to the UK Film Council and, he contends, much of its old expertise as a centre of knowledge was lost.

MacCabe announced his candidacy for the position of BFI chair before Anthony Minghella vacated the position at the end of last month. In a sharply worded letter to James Purnell, secretary of state for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), he wrote that he considered “the major task of the new chair of the BFI to seek a more equitable and beneficial relationship with the Film Council.”

He does not have much hope he will be given the job as chair but hopes to re-ignite the debate about public film policy that has flickered on and off since 1998.

MacCabe — an academic and biographer of Jean-Luc Godard as well as a producer — accepts that outsiders may see him as a representative of an old guard. Nonetheless, he insists his motives for wanting to be chair are simply “to give to others the benefits I have had”. He adds that he has “no personal ambition in this matter… what small boy grows up and says, I want to be chairman of the BFI?”

It is clear MacCabe feels he has unfinished business at the BFI. He spent almost 15 years there (as head of production, from 1985-89, and as head of research and education, from 1989-98).

“The BFI was not a perfect organisation in 1997,” he says emphatically, but it was at least in his eyes “a national and global benchmark for excellence”.

In his time at the institute, MacCabe encouraged projects to allow schoolchildren to use film to communicate — with startling effects in boosting literacy. He believes that one central plank of public film policy should be to ensure “the recording and editing of images goes together with the teaching of reading and writing”.

The BFI has been the beneficiary of a windfall as the DCMS invested $50m (£25m) in autumn 2007 for the organisation to safeguard the UK’s national and regional film archives. The institute is now looking to establish a national film centre.

MacCabe pays tribute to the way BFI director Amanda Neville and her staff “have achieved both the money for the archive and a realistic — for the first time — plan for the South Bank”. The question he asks, though, is just what the BFI is going to do now the era of the cinematheque seems to be over. “A most fundamental level of rethink needs to go on.”

Screen International 4 January 2008, p. 13

One thought on “Update on Colin MacCabe’s bid for BFI Chair

  1. Why is the era of the cinematheque over? Cinema audiences may be declining but they’re still higher than they were five years ago and 155 million admissions is still quite a lot.

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