A week ago, the annual British Independent Film Awards took place in London, celebrating the achievements in British independent filmmaking and promoting new talents. The British indie scene seems to be mostly functioning on its own, and somehow isolated from the rest of the indie world. But why?

If we take a look at the history of British cinema, we can see how it has always been struggling with its identity. The American film industry has a great influence on the film scene within all European countries, especially in the UK; influences of language, culture, and money.

The origins of the independent film scene took place in the mid 50’s when the Free Cinema Movement had arisen. The independent filmmakers, who were struggling to get a chance to show their films produced out of the frames of the film industry and differentiated from the usual mainstream films, decided to unite, and started the documentary film movement. Free Cinema’s manifesto was “belief in freedom, the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday“. It represented a great cultural change, and a new attitude to filmmaking. Finally free from conservatism and featuring the raw point of view of the filmmaker, the group was summarized by the phrase, “no film can be too personal”. The project came to a natural end after the emergence of British New Wave cinema, a part of European art cinema. British New Wave explored themes of realism and tackled social issues. However, this freedom was all over when the new British cinema concentrated more on light comedy and escapism, and when American producers returned to the UK to invest their money in the film production.

In the 80’s, there were many problems the British cinema used to face. The state retired almost completely from the film subsidy, financial investments for feature films declined, the number of spectators touched rock bottom, and people started going to the cinema just to watch American films. It was at that time when the British director Stephen Frears (director of The Queen, 2006 starring Hellen Mirren) said, “there is no British cinema, it doesn’t exist.”

Only after the romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), which was unexpectedly successful not only in Great Britain but also in Europe and North America, the situation began to change and the state had decided to intervene in the film production. But even when film production companies received more money, they didn’t use them efficiently. Induced by the financial independence, many unconventional and daring films were deemed unsuitable by major American film distributors which dominated the UK and blocked the appearance of these films on the big screen. But despite this, British independent filmmakers profited from the subsidies thoroughly, and diligently created films often using difficult social themes, such as Trainspotting (1996), or complex dramatic composition, like in Billy Elliot(2000), or enhanced coproduction with other European filmmakers, like the British-German film Bend it like Bekham(2002).

To be labelled “independent”, the British film must be produced without the help of American sponsors, and must not be geared towards the tastes of American audiences. And, even if the indie films don’t make it to the big screens, the British indie scene has proved itself as a stabilising factor of the British film industry. One reason for this victory is the fact that British indie films have become popular in all of Europe and thus free from American subsidies, which still have a big influence on the whole British film production industry. Because of the dependence on mainstream cinema, UK cinema has to struggle to be treated as separate from American cinema. With every mainstream film from the UK produced, there is an accompanying question floating in the air: “Do we talk about British cinema or American, when it was produced in Great Britain, but sponsored with US money?”

Thanks to independent film festivals like the Raindance Film Festival and the London Short Film Festival, as well as to British Independent Film Awards, ÉCU is sure that the British indie film scene has a bright future ahead and we look forward to screening the indie films from the UK during the 8th edition of the ÉCU film festival!

Xenia Piskunova

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