Where next for the British film industry?

The body that funded The King's Speech is being axed and the BFI library is under threat.

The culture minister Ed Vaizey's November 2010 announcement of the coalition government's plans for the future of the UK film industry heralded "the new BFI". Following the abolition of the UK Film Council (UKFC) in April 2011, the restructured British Film Institute, guardian of the nation's moving-image culture since 1933, would become the new strategic body overseeing the development of British cinema, in partnership with Film London and the Regional Screen Agencies in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. As Vaizey said, the BFI would change fundamentally as it became the lead body for British film.

The BFI responded with a proposal for "a new film era in the UK". This involves adapting to the current financial environment by prioritising core BFI activities, "those that audiences most value". In addition to incorporating staff from the axed UKFC, the BFI is faced with a 15 per cent budget cut that requires efficiency savings, including job cuts. Key features of the "new era" proposals are a large-scale digitisation programme, necessitating investment in new skills; the removal of the BFI library and reading room from the institute's Stephen Street premises to BFI Southbank; and the establishment of a bespoke study centre for academics and researchers in Berkhamsted. In tandem, there will be a drive to reduce overheads, boost new business and increase fundraising income.

As details of the plans emerged, alarm bells rang about the effects of the cost-cutting measures on the BFI national library, a world-class collection of print materials on the moving image and the gateway to UK film culture and history. The BFI library is used by a broad range of people, but historically higher education has been its primary market and this has underpinned the development of moving-image education in this country. Academics, researchers and students from across the globe rely on central London access to its materials and the support of its specialist staff. The relocation plans involve moving substantial amounts of the library collections to the Berkhamsted storage centre and the reorientation of the library reading room to the general public as part of the BFI's audience development programme. The opening up of the BFI to the wider public is admirable -- but in the context of the coalition government's draconian cuts to the higher education sector and the devastating impact on the arts and humanities, the plans for the BFI library appear to be a retrograde step, with fewer staff operating a curtailed service. This would represent a serious threat to film and television studies research and education world-wide.

A group of senior academics mounted a campaign to keep the library collections together and accessible, and set up a petition to gather public support. The comments from signatories testify to the high regard in which the library and its staff are held by a large international community of users, and the value placed on its accessibility. Despite BFI assurances that the library service will benefit from the relocation plans, many questions remain: about space and storage availability at the Southbank site; about the timescale and costs of the digitisation programme; and about the impact of staff cuts on the library service. It's clear that the library is not a priority and is unlikely to be improved by the proposals.

There is more at stake than convenience. It's shameful that one of the most prestigious and valuable library collections in the world, the repository of our national film culture, should be struggling for survival. A new era for British cinema without the infrastructure of ideas, research, critical analysis and knowledge held by the BFI national library, disseminated by education at every level, is unthinkable.

Pam Cook is a writer, blogger and academic. She is responsible for bfiwatch, an independent blog dedicated to tracking events that have an impact on the work of the British Film Institute

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump