Years ago, after completing my first feature, One Life Stand, I was surprised to see it listed in the Time Out Film Guide where it was favourably reviewed. Inside our copy my husband wrote a thoughtful inscription – Because it lasts forever. Now, sitting in my shed at the start of a New Year, I reflect again on his words because – to the chagrin of many an ex-porn star, I’m certain – films really do last forever, no matter how famous, infamous, popular or obscure they prove to be.
This is both a blessing and a curse. A year on from making the movie version of The Devil’s Plantation, I’ve no idea whether the film will screen again. With no backer, distributor, PR machine or exhibitor, it’s nigh on impossible for any film to grab attention and in spite of – indeed, because of – self-distribution and social media it’s become all the harder to get noticed; only a freak event can make one’s film visible.
On that score, last year brought several near-misses – everything from the suggestion that The Devil’s Plantation could be selected for Director’s Fortnight at Cannes to consideration for several other A-list film festivals to being picked up for limited arthouse distribution. Nothing happened, of course. But the film was noticed, even admired both by the audience and a few notable cinema-savvy individuals. So to win a nomination, as it did in November for the BAFTA Scotland/Cineworld Audience Award came as an unexpected bonus. That nothing resulted was no disappointment to me, having zero expectations when it comes to film.
At time of writing, barring the unforeseen, I’ll be giving a talk in February about the project at the Pollokshields Heritage Trust. Certainly The Devil’s Plantation has been an interesting journey but for a long time it’s felt as if I’m waiting at the terminus at end of a long desolate road, kicking my heels, ready to move on.
While musing on my next piece of work, I recall how last Christmas my husband gave me a copy of The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson. At the time I was too distracted to pay it much attention beyond a casual browse, too busy meeting a deadline on the DP film and equally preoccupied with what I hoped would be my next project, in retrospect ironic because for a long time I thought about making a film about poetry and my native city.
Flashback to July 2008 – when, in the small hours of a Sunday morning, I took my camera to witness the controlled explosion of two Sighthill tower blocks. In the five seconds it took to raze the buildings a sudden, involuntary thought entered my head – that Glasgow was a perfect backdrop for James (B.V.) Thomson’s poem, The City of Dreadful Night. It had been on my mind for a while, not least because of Tom Leonard’s Places of the Mind, his take on Thomson’s epic verse.
While finishing the DP film, I sketched out a treatment based not on Thomson’s poem but on a more ambitious plan – a series of films showcasing Scottish poetry. These would be performed in unlikely locations across Glasgow by poets, actors and non-actors, culminating in a live performance and screening. While devising this plan, the City of Glasgow launched a fund, Culture 2014 to coincide with the Commonwealth Games so at least there was an outside chance that I might attract interest in and money to the project.
To that end I met with the Scottish Poetry Library to discuss my proposal, unaware they had already made their own submission to the said Fund. The upshot: a reported £19m worth of submissions made to a £4m initiative left my film as one of the majority of rejected projects, leaving me to reconsider the viability of Plan A – a wholly self-funded film. Later it was reported that The Scottish Poetry Library proposal was successful so I wish them every success.
This led me to think of all the other stillborn projects kicking around. There’s even a planned exhibition of the rejected Culture 2014 bids – The Glasgow Possible – which in the organiser’s words states – If by an even more conservative estimate those proposals each took 2 days to complete, that represents 800 days or 2.2 years of continuous artistic endeavour.
Right or wrong, this is the artist’s lot. I can’t think of many other occupations that rely on so much speculative and unpaid effort. Here it’s worth recalling the doomed Dutch Pictorial Arts Scheme of the 1980s when, in a laudable attempt to remunerate artists, the state accumulated 220,000 unwanted works, warehoused in some vast edgeland shed.
It’s not that I’m troubled by unseen or even unmade works but where my own bag – filmmaking – is concerned, I’m increasingly depressed by what does get made and its cultural impact, most recently the creep of the victim genre where the subject becomes, tacitly or overtly, worthy of our pity: those with life-threatening or terminal conditions, mental health issues, sexual abuse, homelessness, chronic drug or alcohol problems and those just simply poor and unlucky. For decades this has been the staple of factual TV where the words if you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised… at the end of a TV or radio programme disclaim the shortcomings and sensationalism of the content in the guise of upstanding public broadcasting. Anyone watching Benefits Street on C4 surely knows there’s a certain breed of TV producer who has no soul.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to speak at a public debate on Peter Mullan’s film Neds vs. BBC Scotland’s poverty porn TV series, The Scheme. In weighing up the arguments for and against, I soon realised I wasn’t being asked along for either my oratory skills or my filmmaking chops. Rather, I felt I was being put up as a token schemie rent-a-gub, hailing as I do from Pollok. Doubtless the organisers hoped I would defend the right of the benighted folks of Onthank and Knockinlaw to appear on telly. On balance, I saw little merit in the debate itself since both the film and TV series were inherently bogus in their ‘realism’, each striving too hard for effect in the hands of their respective authors. Objectively – and depressingly – I also knew that when it came to intentions and fulfilling audience expectations the makers of The Scheme succeeded where Neds had failed. In the end, I declined.
So what’s prompting this shift among my filmmaking peers? In the worst scenario, like their counterparts in the tabloids, daytime TV and true-life magazines, filmmakers have lately caught on to the victim genre as a means of career advancement. Online, one regularly encounters call-outs, such as the request by Take-a-Break magazine, for stories dealing in quote – love and betrayal, loss and sin – for purely vicarious ends. Not that I blame filmmakers who turn to human tragedy to attract funds and raise profiles; I’m simply pointing out the trend. Indeed, the impulse to portray pain and suffering often stems from the best intentions – a personal connection with an issue, perhaps, or the story of a close friend or relative or simply having enough conviction to flag up an otherwise neglected cause.
Many filmmakers working in the victim genre solicit crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. They partner with charities in a synergistic attempt to ‘raise awareness’, i.e. market themselves. They have become – unwittingly or not – the perfect accompaniment to Austerity Britain.
At best, the victim genre offers a worthy depiction of and insight into human plight that nurtures the viewer’s understanding. At worst, the genre debases both its subjects and its audience by promoting sympathy over empathy, pity above dignity and worse, where filmmakers and charities arrogate to themselves virtue and altruism under false pretences. Having brought such tragedy to our attention the authors of victim films are morally and ethically bulletproof and thus immune from adverse criticism.
No wonder then that the business model on which the genre depends is thriving, having evolved in tandem with the growth of social media. By harnessing crowdfunding to online distribution both platforms take a piece of the action. In the case of Kickstarter, it’s 5% of any monies raised, assuming the filmmaker achieves their defined target. Distribution platforms such as Distrify and VimeoPro demand a cut of any revenue – 30% for the former, 10% for the latter after a $199 joining fee. In the end it’s down to the numbers but, headline-grabbing projects apart, because there’s no reliable stats it’s impossible to say how many films fail. Or the reason why they fail, given how filmmakers themselves are responsible for their own marketing – i.e. by selling their sizzle on Twitter and Facebook and inventing ever more novel sales tactics. For filmmakers, it’s less risky than betting away the farm but for the platform operators the model clearly works otherwise they wouldn’t be in business.
With limited public funds available for Scottish, UK and European filmmaking, the need to appeal, to be relevant becomes ever more pressing. Thus it was ever so. The dirty secret of most films, however, publicly underwritten or not, is that they don’t return a profit, never have and never will. It’s no exaggeration to say that the most innovative and aesthetically daring European films of the late twentieth century – the arthouse darlings – were privately funded.
Amid all the recent lobbying for Scottish film, this point gets lost because like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one, not even Creative Scotland, the nation’s sole public funder for film, will admit this inconvenient fact. But rather than slash subsidy to force filmmakers into more creative solutions and invest in films outside the perceived mainstream for their cultural, not commercial value, CS persists in backing so-called ‘winners’ in their continued support for Hollywood movies, big budget UK films and thinly-veiled victim-themed TV shows posing as documentary. Because guess what? Even the winners don’t recoup their investment.
At this writing, CS has yet to announce the findings of a Film Sector Review commissioned a year ago. The organisation has also failed to appoint a Head of Film and Media. To borrow from Jonathan Meades – the parasite believes itself to be the host. How much time and money, I wonder, has been spent so far on the problem of Scottish film to such little effect? Sitting in my shed, as I contemplate my own lost projects – that poetry film, I suspect, will never get made – I console myself with the knowledge that The Devil’s Plantation did get made, it did get seen and will last forever.
Right now I’m working on my next film, based on a screenplay I wrote 10 years ago. Knowing I have little prospect of funding what began life as a conventional feature film has forced me into thinking more creatively. As yet I’ve no idea where it will take me but it means – at least for the foreseeable – this is the last blog post for this project. A couple of days ago, finally I opened The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson and was inspired by these words.
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
To all my subscribers, or if you’ve just stumbled on to this blog, I wish you a Happy New Year and the best of luck with your own projects.