Life is getting more difficult for those of us who try to follow the Activities of the Board of Governors charged with supervising the work of the British Film Institute. It seems the only source of information these days is the Minutes of Governors meetings. The occasional Press Release offers extremely selective information. The Members Board at the National Film Theatre is either gone or fallen into disuse. And all that appears on the Web Pages are the Minutes and the occasional Press Release.
And the process is slow if not worse. The Minutes for the April meeting this year only made it onto the Web Pages in August. And now it has been pointed out to me that the minutes for February 2012 actually display the Minutes for February 2011. Apparently this was raised with the Governor Office some time ago but they have still not got round to correcting the error.
The minutes are not a completely satisfactory record. They do provide some useful information, as in this case;
Also noted were the interests of most Governors in different aspects of the film industry and various related parties. It was agreed that the nature of these interests was such that none of these Governors would be required to leave the room during the meeting.
So the Governors are able to ‘mark their own work’, something the establishment finds anathema when it involves students in the Education system.
These minutes also contain the Board’s decision regarding the sole remaining Representative of Members.
The Board welcomed Peter Kominsky who was appointed as a Member Governor on 27 January 2012. The Chair noted that notwithstanding the fact that less than ten percent of BFI members participated in the election, the Governors had unanimously accepted his recommendation that Peter be appointed to the Board.
For an unexplained reason the Governors on this occasion decided to appoint regardless of their own ruling regarding the required percentage of the vote: but in 2012 they restricted Cy to a one-year term: and then in the next election they decided to implement that ruling. This is an unexplained anomaly. A further anomaly is the interpretation that the election for a new representative will now be in February 2015, regardless of the three year term actually running out this autumn.
As you are aware, Peter Kosminsky is the member Governor on the Board. His term does not expire until February 2015.
It is difficult to believe that the Governors give much notice to the views of the members and users. There is no record of any discussion of the complaints from some members regarding the vacant Members’ Representative Post. My colleague Roy has commented elsewhere on the dominance on the Board of the metropolitan establishment. Apart from records of attendance it is a difficult to find out if the current representative Peter Kominsky contributes in any way to meetings. There is no record of him taking a stance on the question of the vacant Representative post, despite the diminution of democracy this involved. And whilst some of his predecessors did make an effort to report back to the electorate apparently he has failed to do this.
The Board Secretary advised that regarding any communications:
I have received a response from Mr Kosminsky. He has requested that any issues are relayed through me. [i.e. the Board Secretary].
And regarding any report back to the electorate
To my knowledge Mr Kosminsky does not prepare reports of the type that you refer to.
Earlier this year the Department for Media, Culture and Sport held a Triennial Review of the BFI. The April meeting of the Board of Governors received an outline of the report’s conclusions.
Amanda Nevill thanked the Governors who had already met with the Review Team. The initial key findings were outlined and it was agreed that they were positive. The Review Team was still gathering evidence and would be meeting with the Challenge Panel on 18 June.
However Joe Public is still in the dark. For at least three months the Department’s Web Pages have promised that the finding will appear ‘soon’.
We are analysing your feedback. Visit this page again soon to download the outcome to this public feedback.
I have sent the Department a number of emails enquiring about this, but I am still waiting for the information.
Still there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Since the election for a new Member representative will not be until 2015 there is time for the Board of Governors to organise an election both for the Regional Representative and for the vacant National Representative. Costs were one factor cited when the Governors discussed elections earlier. But presumably have two posts up for election rather than one should have minimal effect on the cost of the process.
My experience of the Board of Governors to date is that they display little interest in such representation. So it will require pressure in order to produce this. For what it is worth I have written to the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport where the responsibility for the BFI and for the Governors resides. I think it is worth considering raising this issue, including having an election for both Members’ Representatives. The next meeting of the Board is on 24th September: presumably they should discuss the issue then.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is conducting a review of the BFI, this happens every three years. There is a window for public comment and consultation, open until April 28th. I thought some readers might be interested in the comments that I have sent in.
To The Secretary of State
I am writing to you with comments for the Triennial Review being undertaken with regard to the British Film Institute. First of all I wanted to express concerns about the publicising of the review. I only found out about it when a colleague sent me a link to the Department WebPages. I looked on the BFI WebPages – there is information there but you don’t find it be entering ‘Triennial’ or ‘Review’ in the search function. You have to track it down.
Regarding the Board of Governors the BFI should now review as promised its new rules for the conduct of Member Governor Elections. These were introduced about three years ago and have resulted in three failed polls and finally, in 2013, in the temporary (or permanent?) removal of one of the two Member Governor posts. At the present time the Board has given no indication as to what will happen when the one remaining “regional” Member Governor’s term expires this September. Members are justifiably concerned that their views are neither heard nor properly represented.
Here too the BFI has not given enough attention to providing information. They regularly issue Press Releases when new Governors are appointed. There seem to have been no Press Releases about the removal of a Member Governor Post. And the only source which provides complete information on this are the Minutes. A notice posted on the WebPages does not clearly explain what the Governors decided
There are also serious problems regarding BFI membership. The benefits of membership have been steadily reduced over the years and now it is only relevant to people with easy access to London. Like other voters I am able to be involved as a subscriber to Sight & Sound. However, we are not able to access the members’ pages on the BFI Website: and the only alternative source of information is a notice board at the National Film Theatres: in other words you need to be in or visit London. The BFI needs a membership system that is relevant to people all over the UK, as it funding comes from all over the UK.
The Board of Governors seems to be almost entirely composed of people who live and work in London. And presumably this is true of most of the BFI staff. This seems to have a negative impact on the provision outside of London in the Regions. To give a specific example: when the Hitchcock silent films were restored with new prints the circular from the BFI advertised both 35 mm prints and DCPs. However, in West Yorkshire exhibitors who have attempted to screen 35mm rather than digital have not been able to obtain prints for this. Yet all nine of these new prints were shipped to Italy for a Festival there. The audience were told that the BFI ‘really wanted to screen the films on 35 mm at the Festival.’ They do not seem to have the same interest for the audiences whose taxation pays for most of the resources of the Institute and the Archives.
I think proper representation of members on the Board of Governors and a more representative membership would be the best way to address the concerns I have presented.
Of course, opinions about how effective such a consultation is will vary. However, given that the Management and Governors of the BFI display little interest in the views of the ordinary punters who cough up the cash, it is ‘worth a shout’.
Although I’ve always been aware of this film, for some reason I don’t remember watching it in the 1980s. Watching it now I was surprised at how accessible it was. I remember the critical backlash against the film which attracted the attention of the mainstream press because it featured Julie Christie – during her 1980s stint as champion of independent and political film. There are several notable features of its production which are key to its high status in the history of feminist filmmaking in the UK. As well as Sally Potter as writer-director it had a largely female crew and creative team. It was also one of the first films to be produced by the BFI Production Board and the new Channel 4 working together and this means it was in the vanguard of the British experimental and new art film movement of the 1980s. In her succinct and very helpful entry on the Screenonline website, Annette Kuhn comments on the film’s beautiful black and white cinematography by Babette Mangolte, suggesting that it has the qualities of the best European art cinema such as Ingmar Bergman’s films. Mangolte had already worked with Chantal Akerman and was herself already a specialist in photographing dance and performance art as well as working on experimental film and theatre productions.
The Gold Diggers was shot on 35mm with a budget of around £250,000, most of which went on the shoot itself as all the participants, including its star, were on the same basic wage of £30 a day. The look of the film is thus very different from the 16mm low-budget Thriller. Its narrative is, like Thriller, a feminist investigation of patriarchy but with a much wider remit. The story concerns two women, one a computer operator (Collette Lafont from Thriller) and the other an actor/performer (Julie Christie). The computer operator wants to discover how men control the economy through possession of gold and she teams up with the actor who, born to a ‘gold digger’ (scenes shot in Iceland to represent the Klondike) later finds herself as the ‘queen’ in a parade of bankers. She is in effect investigating her own image as a ‘woman in film’. The film’s title is also a clue to this second narrative investigation into the history of cinema itself from Chaplin’s Gold Rush, through Busby Berkeley musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933) to later melodramas and costume pictures. The investigation is both a celebration and a critique of mainstream cinema and, via the chase and the dream sequence, the ways in which those narratives use female stars. Rather than linear, the narrative is circular so the investigation ‘reveals’ many things but never finds closure – the ‘riddle’ of cinema as an art form underpins everything. If this sounds ‘difficult’, rest assured it isn’t. There are songs and dances (music by Lindsay Cooper, choreography by Sally Potter, who also sings) and sly digs at the pompous men who are definitely not in control of the action. All the performers acquit themselves well and this is not ‘minor’ Julie Christie work.
Intrigued as to how the film was received at the time, I sought out Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound. In 1984 (when the film was released) the two BFI journals were still separate publications and they had distinctly different writing cultures. MFB in May 1984 included an interview with Sally Potter by Sheila Johnson alongside a detailed and perceptive review of the film by Pam Cook. In Sight & Sound by contrast, the film receives a mainly positive but limited ‘thumbnail review’ in the Summer 1984 issue, but earlier in the Spring issue, Jonathan Rosenbaum had reported from the Rotterdam film festival to the effect that: “Shown only in the Market, it has not yet found many defenders”. To be fair to Rosenbaum, he did write that he found the visuals “deserved applause” and the avant-garde tropes were “consistently fresh and unpredictable”. According to this 2010 review of the BFI’s DVD package of the film and Sally Potter’s shorts, Jonathan Rosenbaum has produced a new essay on the film which refers to him being “taken aback” by the reaction of Janet Maslin (then New York Times film critic) who described watching the film on its 1988 American release as “pure torture”. I have to agree with Rosenbaum. Pure pleasure was my reaction watching it now. I hope more people find the DVD. There are more films from this era to be re-discovered. I note that The Gold Diggers was released alongside another BFI-distributed film, Bette Gordon’s Variety with a script by Kathy Acker. Variety is reviewed in that same MFB issue with an interview with the director conducted by Jane Root. When was the last time two feminist filmmakers were reviewed together in this way?
The online notice below appeared on the bfi and DCMS WebPages on March 28th. However, I only found out when Mark Newell kindly emailed me with the information. This does seem rather typical of the bfi and government consultations. There has not exactly been a flurry of information or publicity around this. I have not found anything regarding this in Sight & Sound, which one would suppose was an obvious place to catch the attention of people interested in the work of the bfi. Now there remain only just on three weeks to send in comments. However, it does provide an opportunity to feed in comments, suggestions and complaints about this important film institution.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has launched a triennial review of the BFI.
It is a standard requirement by the Cabinet Office for all Government departments to review their agencies and non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) at least once every three years to ensure that they are still needed and are complying with principles of good corporate governance.
The aim of this review of the BFI is two-fold:
- Stage one: to examine whether there is a continuing public need for all functions performed by the BFI and if so, to determine if the BFI should deliver them or if there is an alternative delivery model.
- Stage two: to look at the control and governance of the BFI to make sure we are complying with recognised governance principles and delivering our functions effectively and efficiently.
If you would like to take part in this review you can do so by responding to an online questionnaire. The questionnaire will remain online for four weeks, starting on Friday 28 March and finishing on Monday 28 April. The review team expects to report in the summer.
For more information about Triennial Reviews and the process, visit the Government Services website:
Respond online or email to:
BFI Triennial Review @culture.gsi.gov.uk
Department for Culture, Media & Sport
100 Parliament Street
Mark, with great promptness, has already sent in comments. He kindly agreed to let this blog reproduce his letter. He has clearly raised some important and central issues about the bfi. Hopefully our readers will be stimulated to follow his example. I have looked over the questionnaire on the DCMS site – letters would be better! Anyway, I suspect readers will have other key issues to add. Given the paucity of information it would be a good idea to pass this information on to other interested parties. I should also note that the next meeting of the Board of Governors is fixed for April 29th: presumably to discuss the review among other matters. As Roy posted they have added more metropolitan members of the establishment to their number. However, according to the November and January minutes (posted on the bfi WebPages) they have not given any more thought to the reduction in Member Governors.
The Rt. Hon. Maria Miller, M.P.Secretary of StateDepartment for Culture, Media and Sport100 Parliament StreetLondon SW1A 2BQDear Maria Miller,The British Film InstituteThe BFI should now review as promised its new rules for the conduct of Member Governor Elections. These were introduced about three years ago and have resulted in three failed polls and finally, in 2013, in the temporary (or permanent?) removal of one of the two Member Governor posts. At the present time the Board has given no indication as to what will happen when the one remaining “regional” Member Governor’s term expires this September. Members are justifiably concerned that their views are neither heard nor properly represented.Film enthusiasts subscribe to the BFI Southbank’s monthly guide in the main to see films that cannot be viewed elsewhere. One of the more popular themes is Archive film. In 2013 this programme strand was drastically cut to enable work to be carried out on digitisation. It should be restored as soon as possible. Useful as the BFI Player and the Mediatheque are, they’re no substitute for seeing films on the big screen with an audience.Yours sincerely,Mark Newell
Some of you might remember that Keith posted a report on the BFI’s actions in deciding not to appoint a member governor in the last round of elections because the turnout of electors was too low. Keith asked us to write or email the BFI Governors asking them to clarify their position on Member Governors. I emailed the Secretary of the Board of Governors but did not receive a reply.
You may now be interested to know that on 12 March, the BFI announced that three new governors had been appointed. They are Andrea Wong, ‘President of International at Sony Pictures Entertainment’, Pete Czernin one of two partners in Blueprint Pictures a high profile UK film production company responsible for productions such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the former presenter of BBC1’s Film programme, Jonathan Ross. The full list of BFI Governors is given in the Press Release that announced the new names and you can read their profiles on the BFI website. The surviving Member Governor is Peter Kosminsky, a respected writer and director of TV documentary and drama.
The pretence that the BFI is a cultural agency with a diverse membership seems now to be gradually fading into the background. I’m not sure which of the governors in any way ‘represents’ or speaks with experience about anything outside the bubble of the Home Counties media ecology. The BFI, lest we forget, is a UK-wide body, though in my view it is little more than the London Film Institute these days. Meanwhile, specialised film distribution is under threat from several quarters. But what do we know? We are only the punters who actually go to the cinemas in order to explore film culture.
On the same day this week, I received a copy of my new book, Understanding Audiences and the Film Industry, published by the BFI, and a copy of the ‘FAQ’ sent out by the BFI to authors. This explains the realignment policy in terms of the impact on Education Publishing. It says that internal consultation re the realignment will end on 22 June and attempts to reassure authors that their rights are ensured if the list is effectively sold/transferred to another agency.
So, I have a book, but some doubts about who might be trying to sell it. I also have six sets of teaching resources jointly published with BFI Education. Add to that, I’ve been a member of the BFI since the early 1970s. I am a trifle miffed that the first formal indication of what the BFI has in mind, should come at such a late stage. The BFI is a publicly-funded body and a national cultural agency. As far as I can see it is facing a genuine funding problem with a freeze on the monies it has received via the UK Film Council. The BFI Directorate certainly should be thinking about how to respond to this situation.
But, funding crises are nothing new and we’ve seen many before. The BFI has many partners in what it does to support film culture in the UK. Previous regimes have usually tried to explain their proposals to partners. This time around, it seems that decisions have been made without all the appropriate consultation discussions. Who knows, the BFI directorate may have learned something? Let’s hope that the flurry of responses hitting the mailboxes at Stephen St. will have some positive results.