The Film Interview: Chris Atkins

The documentary-maker on his "urban fox hunting" hoax - and why he frightens TV executives.

Chris Atkins is a British documentary-maker. His films include Starsuckers (2009), an attack on celebrity culture which involved Atkins and his researchers selling fake stories to Britain's tabloid press, and Taking Liberties (2007), a polemic against the New Labour government's record on civil liberties.

You hit the headlines recently with a video spoof that purported to show a new craze for "urban fox hunting". How did that come about?

In my teens I was quite active in animal rights. I have always felt that fox-hunting is the most ridiculous thing that British society has ever created, really, and after the fox attack on the twins in Hackney, the misreporting of that went off the scale. My film-making hackles get raised whenever I see misreporting - I saw misreporting about terrorism and civil liberties, so I made Taking Liberties; I saw misreporting around celebrity, so I made Starsuckers. It kind of just grabs me really.

In what way was the fox attack misreported?

Well, I suppose the fact that it was reported so much, the fact that it was reported over and over and over again. The media clearly wanted to continue the fox narrative and in my mind that was all part and parcel of the fact that the the coalition government said they were going to have a free vote on fox hunting. All of this sort of demonised foxes to the extent that MPs would be able to turn around and say "Oh we're going to vote against the ban because the public's behind us." What they'd mean is the Daily Mail, they don't really speak to the public.

Were you surprised by the extent of the reaction to the video, which provoked criticism from the RSPCA?

I was, to be honest with you. We didn't think it would be taken seriously. With some of these things, often they sit online for three or four weeks before people notice them; this was noticed within two hours, then within 12 hours YouTube had taken it down and within 48 hours it was in the Mirror.

I wouldn't say it backfired, but I would say it was far more successful than we intended it to be. We intended for it to be taken seriously and for people to get whipped up into a lather about it. A news reporter from BBC London was even dispatched to Victoria Park to a "crime scene" and did this whole piece to camera. It looked like something straight out of Brass Eye and I have never laughed so much in my entire life as when I saw that report, so you know, Mission Accomplished.

Did we mean to upset quite so many well-meaning animal lovers? No we didn't and we saw the level of anger from the public, which I thought in a way was quite comforting. The point of the film was to show people what really happens when you kill foxes.

You seem to have an ongoing concern with news values and the way the mass media operates. Does that make your films political?

I think it's more sort of social, it's more about people. Taking Liberties was about the rights of individuals and I suppose Starsuckers in a way was the right to not be bombarded by a media saturated with celebrity. Either the government or media corporations or whoever are out there trying to do us harm, and my films tend to expose that.

[My films are] about boring things like good and bad and the fact that there are people out there, people in power who do not have your best intentions at heart. What I find interesting is that television has singularly failed to make these films. Television in Britain has stopped making documentaries, they are terrified of making anything that has a point and a value. They will make twenty series of Wife Swap, but they wouldn't dare fund something like this.

Is that why you make films for cinema rather than TV? Because it's the only space you have to make them?

I like the movie, I love the format, although it's a pain in the arse in so many ways - you've got to persuade people to part with ten quid on a Saturday night to go and see it at the local Odeon, which is frankly an impossible task. But you're exactly right, it's the only medium left for somebody like me because television refuses to make anything like this, they're terrified of it.

They're terrified on two levels. One is they don't know what they're going to get. If they make Wife Swap - and I've been told this by senior commissioning editors - they can say at the end of the second quarter before the ad break "this chap is going to shout at this chap and then they'll fight," and they can guarantee that and they know people will come back after the break. I can't give them that - I can give them something better, possibly, but I can't guarantee that before I make the television programme.

Secondly, I grew up watching things like World in Action and really good Panoramas, great investigative journalism. That position is now dead, basically, because they're so terrified of upsetting people in power. They'll have a go at little people, they'll have a secret camera that catches traffic wardens and they'll go for people who say they'll fix your car and don't, they'll do that, but do they go after people in power? Absolutely not.

How encouraged are you by new media as a way of circumventing that?

The internet provides us with a medium to go from the producer to the viewer instantaneously and cut out Channel 4, cut out the BBC. We've just got to work out how to make it pay, and that will come, but the structure of us going directly to the public and cutting out the broadcasters I think is a wonderful thing.

In the meantime, you need to keep on convincing people to part with their ten quid on a Saturday night. How do you make your subjects work as films?

Well I suppose you need two things and I think we just about get away with this: you need a very strong argument, you need an argument that develops, but a very clear one, so you can say to people, "I am here to convince you and here is a series of points." It's like an essay really: Point 1 - freedom of speech; point 2 - habeas corpus; point 3 - ID cards; point 4 - torture; conclusion - we've lost our civil liberties. Secondly, you've got to have narrative, you've got to have human stories that the public can relate to and say "that's like me".

Certainly for my kind of films you need both of those. Something like Touching the Void just has narrative - and bloody brilliant narrative it is too - or Man on Wire. Those are solely narrative stories, but I think if you're going to invite that kind of emotional engagement let's do something with it rather than just pat each other on the back and go "What a great story".

Humour seems to be an important part of that emotional engagement as well.

Of course, you've got to make people laugh. If you've got an argument movie, nobody wants to go and sit in the cinema and be bashed over the head for 90 minutes. I certainly don't, I can't stand those sorts of films. So, if you make someone laugh, you release a lot of tension and kind of clear their head a bit and they go "OK, you've just bought me five more minutes of polemic."

You've got to keep topping them up on laughs, but the laughs have got to take them somewhere. There are so many moments that you have on films where it's absolutely hysterical but they don't take you anywhere, just people falling over or someone saying something witty, but it's not proving a point. But if you can get Tony Blair saying you can start giving Asbos to children before they're born, everybody laughs but they're also saying "Oh my God, this guy's a lunatic." You do something with the giggle.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.