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The Importance of Film

I launched my film company as a non-profit organization for two reasons. Firstly, as the business in this country has been so bad in recent years, it was more economically viable to attempt to acquire capital from the lottery funds based on our films raising important issues. Secondly, without corporate sponsorship no one is going to tell you what to do or force you to compromise your message. In other words, we were able to bring in the money to enable us to break the silence, in spite of being a film company initially comprised entirely of college dropouts.

When I was at university, I had a rivalry of sorts with a middle-class kid who also had the ear of the faculty. It was they who never liked the unorthodox, experimental, and original efforts of my close colleagues and myself humorously nicknamed the “Crazy Crew” (partially taken from the chorus of a Fun Lovin’ Criminals track entitled “Bearhug”). So, instead of encouraging us and nurturing whatever talent we had as some might have, they tried to separate us, influenced by this kid, who was suddenly outnumbered. I remember one report written by one of these unqualified and inexperienced failed filmmaker lecturers calling me “a crap producer.” So it’s kind of ironic that my first major professional role was as a producer, a role I maintain to this day. This is what I meant when I told Antonia Brickell on BBC Radio Sheffield that we were told we’d never make it, but we did.

Ever since I was young, when I first started doing drawings and writing stories, I’ve been a creative person. I guess being taught at home by your mother from the age of 11 kind of removes you from peer pressure somewhat and it makes it much easier to develop a stronger individuality, forming your own beliefs beyond people’s bias.

In this way, I pursued a lot of subjects through my own choice. I liked a lot of the old black-and-white films made by the American studio system of the 1940s, my favourites being those starring Katherine Hepburn and/or James Stewart. But a lot of the other great actors, such as Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, had been victimized through the House Un-American Activities Committee, set-up through post-war American paranoia of Communism as an alternative to defeated fascism. This led to infamous Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunts, using the HUAC to target any artists of influence who might enlighten people to more liberal ways and brand them “pinko-commies.” Ironically, though, given that the list also included people considered to be alcoholics or sexual deviants, McCarthy himself might as well have been targeted, too!

Still, art fought back in the 1950s, and created some of the greatest films ever made, such as Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, both starring James Dean, who received posthumous awards for his breathtakingly realistic performances influenced by his time at the New York Actors Studio.

In France, the film buffs of Cahiers du Cinema were making movies into a serious medium to be studied by academics for the first time; in many ways we owe our “Mickey Mouse media degrees” of today to them.

Partly inspired by James Dean’s tragically brief but groundbreaking career, Cahiers du Cinema decided the medium had definitely been missing something, and so decided to make films themselves, becoming known as the French New Wave in the late 50s and early 60s. Again, this was unlike anything done before; the writer-directors were for the first time acknowledged as auteurs (authors) of their work, particularly as a result of their own unique individual approaches with their own themes running through their ouvre (body of work). This enabled us for the first time to truly consciously recognise a film for its direction and not just the stars; it gave credit to the makers of the movies. Each piece of art constantly reminded us – especially, for example, with the editing of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle – that we were watching a film, a piece of art that had been carefully crafted; even if by cinematographer Raoul Coutard using a wheelchair to use tracking shots when following the actors in A Bout de Souffle. Personally, I always loved Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, and Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups, which I think I related to on a personal level.

I think we all connect to art on a personal level, though, because we’re all different. Three Hollywood directors, all obviously auteurs, who were arguably influenced by the French New Wave are Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, and Tim Burton; each unique, but all also fond of dark comedy and postmodernism. Whilst I disagree with the claims they are geniuses, I do think they are visionaries also fond of paying homage to older art (sci-fi B-movies, pulp fiction magazines, pop art). But they just seem to be blindly swinging, to me; the narratives in their work vary from attacking the system and society, to being blatantly reactionary in some ways. And there’s something very dangerous about creating dark comedy through a white guy accidentally blowing off the head of a black youth; I’m uncomfortable with that.

M. Night Shyamalan, who as an auteur is to many proving to be our generation’s Alfred Hitchcock, explores interesting themes of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances experiencing self-discovery, but seems to sometimes tarnish them by presenting things as black and white, without shades of grey; looking at the cure and not the cause. And I just think this is why art is sometimes irresponsible. As a filmmaker you’re working with what is, let’s face it, a very manipulative medium, and even if you’re entertaining someone, you’re still drawing them into those angles and those messages and those meanings. With film, you’re influencing all kinds of responses and reactions and emotions, from empathy to contempt, happiness to sadness, and theoretically at least, you can make people lean towards anything, really.

Fictional filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Alan Parker, and Ken Loach are always creating relatively reliable and safe films, because they’re politically aware while making them, whereas a lot of the above-mentioned auteurs aren’t, and that’s why, although they’re very clever, they’re also in some ways quite dangerous because they’re just not conscious enough of the political implications of every aspect of their work. I mean, I really don’t like gratuity; I think an excess of graphic and shocking footage with neither rhyme nor reason to it is totally pointless, and awful, and unjustifiable. Obviously the government throw way too much blame on sex and violence in the media, and use it as a scapegoat still, but while a lot of it, with responsible parenting and guidance, is pretty harmless, it is kind of harmful in the sense that it lacks any significance and says nothing, and so wastes a lot of time, not to mention money. Art is obviously a mirror as well, and that’s why it’s essentially often absolved of any real blame. But my personal opinion is that it’s wasted when not used for a greater good. I don’t like manufactured pop tarts, I don’t like so-called reality television, and I don’t like people perceived for their looks instead of their personalities.

I’ve never been easily stereotyped, and that’s not because I’ve been avoiding it. I’ve just never been part of any one group, politically or artistically, and a lot of people really resent that. They want you to be on their team or no team at all. There are some media artists who I’ve been introduced to and they’ve basically blanked me when they realized I was a “rival,” whereas others have met with me and instantly come across as a potential collaborator. There’s this sense of intellectual and creative capitalism in these fields, where people are competitive to the point of excluding anyone else on the scene. And this is why I chose to work from an old factory building on the outskirts of Sheffield rather than in the Cultural Industries Quarter; I don’t particularly want to be treated as just another one of the troops to round up for something someone at the top thought of. It astounds me how many political parties and pressure groups still operate this way as well, ignoring your individual talents and instead trying to get you to attend meetings or events as a “number” that doesn’t really contribute other than to make it all look good on paper for them. In that way it’s a kind of Stalinism that taints everything they do, and it discredits the movement.

The majority of political actions were instigated by ordinary people with no previous political persuasion or affiliation. Yet when my colleagues and I try to do something, we find that those we thought were on our side try to hold us back, whether it be the politicos or the artistes. If we became famous (and none of us have ever had a particular burning desire to do so) then I have the feeling people would treat us differently. One colleague said something recently that really struck a chord with me – she said that people have to be told something’s good these days before they’ll support it. I think that’s totally true. At a concert or a cinema, the audience are usually only plauditory if they’ve been convinced beforehand that it’s “cool” or “popular.” People don’t think for themselves much, and I blame the media itself for a lot of that, as well as the sense of fashion and “keeping up with the Joneses” that’s taken over our lives. I’d like to see a world where people go with their gut instinct more.

When my documentary received an ovation from a packed audience of strangers at its premiere, it blew me away. That doesn’t happen much, and so when it does, it’s beautiful, especially as cinemagoers these days are told time and time again to sit down and shut up. Whether it be warnings about camcorder recordings, the rustling of snack packets, or just vocal response, audiences have been forced to become more and more stuffy and silent. In a way, that’s a shame, because I think there’s something to be said for the old atmospheric smoky cinemas where people booed and hissed (as I recently did at an offensive Orange commercial where, under the mask of self-parody, they suggested hungry African kids do a rap).

Young people today are constantly told that style and not substance is the most important thing; again, it’s about appearance and not meaning. So when Montgomery Hall started a cinema in its town of Wath-upon-Dearne, even the locals essentially cold-shouldered it, and when the great workers there (one of them about eight months pregnant) went to put promotional posters all around the town, the Tesco supermarket refused to let them place it in their window. And why would they? A massive chain store like that doesn’t give a damn what happens to that town, because there are always plenty of other towns for Tesco to occupy. Through the power that these companies possess, particularly through the media, a lot of people fail to see the crucial importance of something like Montgomery Hall’s cinema. Instead, they go and get a bus all the way to Meadowhall and its multiplex cinema with fat-filled ice cream and popcorn and trailers.

I read somewhere recently that by the age of 18, a person has already consumed around 300,000 television commercials. That isn’t advertising – that’s brainwashing! When someone is forced to sit and stare at something over and over again, that’s going to have an effect on them, right? And in cinemas today, they don’t just play trailers for upcoming movies a film audience may be interested in; they run commercials for cars and phones and clothes and perfumes and all kinds of useless excessive crap. Now, it’s bad enough on TV, but in a cinema, you’re there as a filmgoer, so you’re only there for films. If they took a poll that asked each audience member “Do you like to see trailers before the feature presentation?” I’m pretty sure a vast majority might go with it. But what if it asked, “Do you like sitting through nearly half an hour of commercials for products you may want but probably don’t need, pushing the start of the advertised feature back and making your arrival home later than you’d initially anticipated?” What then? I get a funny feeling that most people would tell them to shove their ads. But the cinemas don’t do questionnaires like these, and if they did, they’d ignore such responses, simply because it’s all about the money – the companies that buy time know they’ve got that audience by the balls; there’s no switching channels or going into the kitchen to get a cuppa! You’re stuck there, and they know it. That’s brainwashing, my friends. And that is why people are too busy buying junk to “improve” their lives instead of becoming more aware of what’s happening in the world. That is why companies milk communities dry to send profits back to HQ as locals lose their businesses. And that’s why the multiplex thrives and Montgomery Hall suffers, damaging the local economy, job stability, and everyday life for the locals in general.

Some people have said I look too deeply into things, that I’m “arty-farty,” a “beatnik,” a “peacenik.” But as a media activist I just can’t look at art in any way other than as being a powerful tool to use in increasing awareness and influencing progress. That’s me, that’s who I am, that’s what I do, and I’m not really ashamed of it. For me, the only unique aspect of film is documentary; that power, to capture and gather fact-based information and then distribute it and exhibit – it is only possible with film. So I say let theatre tell the great stories; I’ll be using film to tell the truth. And I know that’s just not very post-modern of me!

– Jay Baker; Sheffield, England

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