Working Together: Notes on British Film Collectives in the 1970s (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Giovanni Vimercati
Edited by Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner. Southend-on-Sea: Focal Point Gallery, 2013. 224 pp., illus. Paperback: £15.00.
Inspired by agitprop American activists such as the Newsreel Collective and galvanized by the political fervor of the era, which suffused, albeit in a more low-key fashion, the ranks of the British New Left, political filmmaking groups started forming in England during the early Seventies. Among the most prominent and significant collectives were Cinema Action, The London Women's Film Group, and the Berwick Street Film Collective. Although no major filmmakers emerged from this scene (the exception being Marc Karlin, about whom more later), the works they produced were often remarkable and notably devoid of the self-indulgent complacency commonly found in continental European political filmmaking. Firmly relying on self-production and -distribution, the collectives thrived for some years but never gained mainstream recognition, perhaps a product of the British public’s inveterate hostility to political radicalism. In a similar, political vein, The Other Cinema, a not-for-profit distribution company, screened independent, frequently radical films by directors such as Jean-Marie Straub, Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, and Glauber Rocha at its own titular movie theater. The spirit and some of the personnel of this short-lived but intense cultural interlude would eventually converge in the televisual experiment known as Channel 4.
The stated purpose of Working Together: Notes on British Film Collectives in the 1970s (edited by Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner) is “to reintroduce, debate and critically interrogate original issues [relating to political filmmaking in Seventies Britain] within our contemporary landscape.” While successfully broaching a rather obscure chapter of British cinema and its surrounding critical discourse, the volume leaves the reader uncertain as to what its contemporary relevance would be. Now that fatalist indifference has worked its way up from the silent majority to the enlightened elites, and radical thought is relegated to unaffordable academic institutions, where exactly does political filmmaking belong? To antiseptic art galleries seems to be the most realistic, if dispiriting, answer. That is mainly where the films discussed in Bauer and Kidner’s book have been recently shown in Britain. The book itself is published by Focal Point Gallery and follows the editors’ residency at the same gallery and their exhibition, “Me, You, Us, Them.” That the forced museumification of even the most antagonistic cultural practices has become the norm is obviously neither the editors’ nor the publisher’s fault. That said, such a blatant contradiction might have been worth mentioning in a book whose aim is to investigate the contemporary relevance of a previous era’s radical cinema.
Working Together is divided into two parts, the first half comprising contemporary essays and conversations, the second half collecting original material from the Seventies in the form of articles, pamphlets, and self-published catalogues. The first essay, by Esther Leslie, about Brecht’s impact on—and legacy for—militant filmmaking is pedantic and unilluminating, while Nina Power’s take on the feminist current of collective films in Seventies Britain proves very engaging. In her essay, the author of One Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009) speculates on the “cinematic monotheism” emanating from the auteur logic that saw “those who attempted to lay bare the collective dimension of filmmaking (Marker, Godard) finding themselves up against the celebrity principle, the dynamism of the solitary genius.” Feminist cinematic practices were designed to undermine the patriarchal ideology of individual—invariably male—authorship.
She also invokes The (Alison) Bechdel Test, originally featured in a comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, in the mid-1980s, which asks three things of a film: 1) Does it have at least two women in it?; 2) Who talk to each other?; 3) About something besides a man? “An absolutely extraordinary number of mainstream (and, let it be noted, arthouse films) fail this simple test,” she reports. Power also discusses two films—Women of the Rhondda (1973) and The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974)—made by the London Women’s Film Group, a feminist collective active between 1972 and 1977. While the former is a straightforward exploration of the role women played in the 1972 miners’ strike, the latter is a “political burlesque in seven tableaux” that takes “a lighthearted look at British industry” and the gender issue within class relations. Formed in 1972 in response to an advertisement placed by Midge MacKenzie after she had attended a screening of women’s liberation films at the London Film School, the London Women’s Film Group consisted of Esther Ronay, Susan Shapiro, Francine Winham, Fran MacLean, Barbara Evans, Linda Wood, and Midge MacKenzie. The collective addressed the gender imbalance within the British film industry and embodied a practical and proactive counterpart to the critical battles Laura Mulvey carried out in the academic arena.
The conversations that the book’s editors conduct with the leading figures of a lively if marginal cinematic movement make for a pleasant and informative read, offering helpful contextualization and insightful anecdotes. Humphrey Trevelyan, a member of Cinema Action who subsequently joined the Berwick Street Film Collective (BSFC), retrospectively ponders how and why realism gave way to formal experimentation. Referring to Nightcleaners (1975), an experimental documentary that follows the campaign to unionize the women who cleaned office blocks at night, Treveylan concludes that “a world so distant from most people’s experience could not be represented in a conventional cinematic or televisual way.”
The BSFC was formed by Marc Karlin and James Scott in 1970; like other similar collectives, the group foregrounded a militant idea of cinema in which the appellation “independent” applied to all aspects of the filmmaking process: production, distribution and critical dissemination. Although the number of members varied, names associated with the group include Mary Kelly, Richard Mordaunt, Jon Sanders, and Humphrey Trevelyan. Nightcleaners is probably their most notable achievement and a crucial work from the period documented in the book; it’s a film that successfully and seamlessly merges formal experimentation and political pathos. Berwick Street collective member Marc Karlin, a pivotal figure in the scene and a writer whose essays on film deserve to be rediscovered, reflects in a lengthy interview in Screen (Vol, 20, Winter 1979–1980) on one of the central problems of political filmmaking—the quandary of “how to sustain the split between the requirement for constant analysis and criticism and, on the other hand, the enthusiastic commitment of one’s emotional energies.”
Timeworn jargon notwithstanding, the articles and essays anthologized here exude a sense of possibility that is no longer discernible in the pages of UK film publications (the last surviving exception, Vertigo, having disappeared from the scene a few years ago). Like every aspect of society at the time—even amidst the emotional constipation of postwar England—cinema, too, became a site of political struggle and critical questioning. There clearly was a sense, however abstract and idealistic, that things could be changed for the better in and through movies, an attitude that, when measured against today’s dominant cynicism, feels almost naive. It wouldn’t hurt to reflect on the creative benefits and practical consequences of these two opposed predispositions as part of a historical evaluation of political filmmaking.
Needless to say, the collectives’ theoretical speculations and practical activities were not always admirable, or even coherent. As Mike Dunford notes in an article forAfterimage, “collectives are more like profit-sharing and resource-sharing groups rather than collective ownership groups.” One can only imagine the colorful and hysterical battle of egos that animated the collectives’ meetings. Yet, browsing through the articles and clippings of the time, one cannot help but notice how the schizophrenic division between the cultural and political realms was being challenged by a genuine belief in the untapped potential of cinema.
The volume remains a laudable endeavor, especially in a country where creativity is still inhibited by the strictures of an antiquated class system. One of the book’s main merits is its delineation of a fairly detailed picture of a lesser-known current in British cinema, one that courageously moved on from the social realism of directors such as Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Ken Loach, and Lindsay Anderson to call into question cinematic form as well as content. Sometimes, as in the case of Nightcleaners, the results were remarkable and their significance is something worth reconsidering at a time when the bleak sociopolitical situation is being met by an alarming amount of indifference, in and outside cinema.—Giovanni Vimercati (Celluloid Liberation Front)
Giovanni Vimercati edits the Celluloid Liberation Front blogspot at http://www.celluloidliberationfront.blogspot.com/
To purchase Working Together, click here.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1