Competition winners

Ken Loach essay-writing competition results

Nick Bradshaw and Emer Heatley

Our competition winner Emer Heatley with S&S Web Editor Nick Bradshaw before the S&S London Film Festival gala screening of The Kid with a Bike

Nick Bradshaw on the winners of our competition for young film writers

Should British filmmakers be more independent?, we asked young writers this past summer, in a competition allied to both the BFI’s Ken Loach retrospective and the government’s forthcoming Film Policy Review.

Independent of whom or what?, you may ask. Hollywood? America? Branding? Power? Conformity? Financiers? Each other? All these shadows and more loomed across our respondents’ 1,500-word essays, which ran the gamut from history lessons to state-of-the-national-cinema diatribes.

Our judges – writer-director Penny Woolcock, reporter and critic Geoffrey Macnab and S&S editor Nick James – leaned variously towards the maverick, insouciant polemicist and the subtle, erudite analyst, but finally shook hands on the happy medium of breezy style and imaginative substance in the essay from 17-year-old Emer Heatley, from Bath, which is published below. Emer won tickets to our London Film Festival Gala screening of the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike – hence the red carpet in our picture – plus a year’s subscription to Sight & Sound and an IOU for a year’s mentoring with one of our journalists.

The two runners up were Nick Day, 23, from Tunbridge Wells and Wil Jones, 25, from Ealing, who both won a year’s S&S subscription and tickets to our Kid with a Bike London Film Festival gala.

Congratulations to all three, and thank you to everyone who entered.

The winning entry

Should British filmmakers be more independent?

At 17 and the youngest of three girls, to me independence is staying out late, travelling alone, fighting against my parents’ overly protective rule: breaking out of the cotton wool that softens childhood. Applied to the world of film, the word’s meaning doesn’t change: a filmmaker striving for independence will have something to rail against; the product of their work will defy the constraints that surround the industry. Film can be the most powerful weapon against not only conventionalism and tradition but also social injustices and controls – but sadly in recent years, when there seems to be so much material for filmmakers to use, so many events which have sparked protest elsewhere, too few filmmakers are choosing to utilise their medium’s true potency.

An online definition of an ‘independent film’ states that the picture should be produced mostly outside of major film studios in order to be considered independent, as well as less than half its funding coming from a major studio. Of course, in 2011, when even the NHS struggles to stay afloat, there’s less funding for smaller, niche films, and unless someone has infinite time and infinitely generous friends, a project may never get off the ground. A film won’t make itself, and no truly independent filmmaker will allow their idea to be compromised in order to approach bigger, richer studios – leaving them in a quandary.

The UK Film Council did, until recently, serve to provide directors with a means to achieve success outside of major studios, the financial independence it afforded paving the way for artistic independence, by removing the reliance on profit potential for the funding of films. The big-budget, profit-orientated movies that crowd our screens fuel the need for a more independent cinema, but also hinder its development; by highlighting issues of commercial viability and success, the bright lights of Hollywood have meant that unlike other art forms, film is regarded by many as a triviality, and something which could not survive the cuts.

Independent cinema should differ from mass-marketed films; it should offer a new way of thinking or a different way of telling a story. Yet when our filmmakers are forced to beg Hollywood for money, they are also forced to make films that Hollywood thinks will sell. It seems we have become just as proficient as the US at churning out bland, formulaic rom-coms, sometimes even hiring in an American lead to ensure maximum success across the Atlantic. Such films are apparently targeted at that lucrative American audience, or even audiences at home, whose filmic taste-buds have been numbed by indulgent and predictable spoon-feeding courtesy of big US studios.

Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was bold enough not to end with the happy couple’s wedding day, but instead with a scene where Mr Bennett (admittedly played by Donald Sutherland) laughs to himself. This quirky ending was interesting and satisfied UK audiences; however, such was Wright’s tie to Universal Studios, who felt that viewers in the USA would not enjoy this subtler finale, that he had to direct an alternative US ending to follow Sutherland’s brief monologue, a wildly romanticised scene which sat uncomfortably with the rest of the otherwise understated film. A film should contain a story that its maker believes needs to be told, not one which is simply told yet again to squeeze more money out of a tired idea.

Today’s filmmakers are not being encouraged to act independently. Trying to raise funds to support a project is as difficult as the actor’s task of obtaining an Equity card – and like those struggling Thespians, very few would-be filmmakers succeed. Instead of having to choose between playing into the hands of huge studios and scraping together a minute budget to get their film made, filmmakers should be supported and have their independence celebrated, not destroyed to minimise risk and maximise profit. The UK government needs to recognise the importance of one of our most successful industries and reinstate funding and support to allow filmmakers to remain true to their own vision.

Teenage independence often means simply trying to be different, and just as with the adolescent search for uniqueness, the best films are those which show a new perspective, perhaps introducing the audience to previously unexplored themes or cultures, or simply exploring classic ideas in a different way. Films should be brimming with signs of their maker’s personality; it is far more enjoyable when an audience is able to sense the hand of a director, when the motivation for making the piece is clear and there is a real sense of individuality and innovation, rather than watching a mass-marketed, broadly appealing, two-a-penny story which has no other purpose than to earn money.

Once, directed by John Carney, is a truly independent piece, shot by Carney and a group of his friends on an amazingly low budget. The director’s aim to make a “modern-day musical” with songs in almost every scene, and the definite Irishness of the film, was obviously not an attempt to draw in huge numbers, and to judge from the film’s personal quality, Carney would probably have been happy had only a few people seen the film as long as he was happy with the final product. Yet this hugely unlikely film achieved huge success, having wide-scale impact on audiences across the world, its ‘stars’ Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard even winning an Oscar for their original score. This example proves that audiences should not be underestimated in their tastes and that that the belief and energy behind a project will often ensure an affinity with its audience.

One example of how the film industry has changed for the worse is Kenneth Branagh’s recent foray into blockbuster direction. Thor was loud and brash, a typically Hollywood tale crammed full of CGI and made with a sickeningly large budget. Many directors have made a living out of this kind of production from the beginning of their careers; in the past, however, Branagh has been a firm believer in more independent British film, often maintaining a role in the casting of his films as well their writing and producing. His Shakespearian adaptations spoiled the audience with their showcase of British acting talent, and in 1995 he created a masterpiece of low-budget film with A Midwinter’s Tale, once again using his favourite actors to marvellous effect. It makes Thor look impersonal and cold. Who enjoys these films, and would rather experience 90 minutes of slick yet unsatisfying action over a lovingly created personal work? Brilliant films have hearts, whereas the further a director strays from his or her independent instincts, and the more he or she plays into the hands of others, the less heart the final product has.

A sense of youthful rebellion and fun at the expense of the establishment is something Ken Loach pioneered. He continues to make entertaining films which direct the audience to issues in our society which have not been given screen time in the past.

This year Emily James, in her film Just Do It, a documentary following the daily lives of a selection of environmental campaigners, followed in the footsteps of groundbreakers before her. The film’s release was delayed so as not to incriminate the more violent campaigners during their trials; it was also deemed too partisan to broadcast on television, highlighting the importance of cinema in allowing more controversial ideas to be screened.

James has toured the country with Just Do It, and is now in the process of screening the film in schools, colleges and universities across the country – not as a profit-making exercise but as an opportunity to share the film’s vital message with the young people who are most likely to be inspired by it. James’s faith in the film and its importance is clear in the efforts she has to gone to bring it to the largest audience possible. Although this process was more difficult than it would have been had she had a major studio’s support, the film retained every aspect of its non-conformist nature.

British cinema has always had soul, and the nerve to make points which are sometimes unpopular. From Mike Leigh and Ken Loach to Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold, the UK continues to produce filmmakers who use their own methods, who select their cast, who write their scripts, who are truly independent of any outside influence. Often it is the government or ruling classes which provide the motivation for revolutionary films – the essential teenage need for rules to break. However, recently it has been the government which removed the funds to create more independent pieces. Britain’s filmmakers should be more independent, but whether they can be or not, at a time when money is of so much consequence, is in the hands of not only the government, but also the paying audiences who must continue to support those who stand alone.

Emer Heatley

See also

The end of prestige?: Nick James on the death of the UK Film Council (August 2010)

In bed with the Film Council: Nick James on the birth of the Film Council (January 2001)

Women on film competition results (July 2011)

2010 Young Journalist Competition results (October 2010)

Little big man: Alex Dudok de Wit interviews Abel’s Diego Luna (November 2010)

Youth on the march: 2009 Young Journalist Competition results (October 2009)

Last Updated: 14 Dec 2011