To mark the approaching end of the festival, the BFI kindly invited me to a lunch where they presented their programme for 2011. I have to say that there was little there to make me sit up and take notice, let alone stand up and cheer. The programme announced so far for 2011 is dominated by safe choices which fulfil the cinémathèque’s vocation of showing films that are landmarks in the history of cinema. However, the programme doesn’t really go beyond the conventional canon, and what makes for an outstanding cinémathèque is to show rare films that audiences are unlikely to see anywhere else. The BFI aims to ‘educate, entertain and excite’, but this year’s programme seems to put entertainment first; if there is any education and excitement going on, it will be restricted to viewers who are just discovering cinema. For those who have completed their elementary education in film history, there may be sad year ahead at Southbank. The programmers seem to have favoured crowd-pleasing fare at the expense of new discoveries. It is strange that the BFI should hold back in this way when, as they themselves proudly pointed out, they have been enjoying record audience numbers. Perhaps they are understandably worried about government scrutiny: this is not a time when there will be much tolerance for films that fail to draw large enough audiences. Yet the BFI’s recent success has not been at the expense of diversity, so why should they become so cautious now?
January and February of the new year will focus on Audrey Hepburn and a retrospective of Howard Hawks. This is quality fare which the BFI is probably counting on to entice fans of mainstream classic cinema. The problem with mainstream classic cinema, however, is that most of it is readily available on DVD. Certainly, there are people who believe in the value of seeing great films on the big screen. But there are just as many who balk at the effort and expense of going out to see a movie that you could watch at home. This is why I think that the BFI needs to keep its focus on films which are difficult to see elsewhere: it is special opportunities that will make people go out during a recession. Just because people are becoming more conservative financially, it doesn’t equate to a need for cultural conservatism.
In addition to American cinema of the 1940s-60s, the BFI in 2011 will be showing films from other countries which traditionally feature prominently in cinema history: Russia, France and Italy. As transgressive as some of Bertolucci’s work may have been in its time, his work is hardly unfamiliar or inaccessible now. Having not so long ago presented a range of differing assessments of the value of the French New Wave in Sight and Sound, the BFI goes on celebrating its contribution with a selection from its most accessible, Hollywood-influenced representative, François Truffaut. More déja vu in the survey of Russian film-making, with Soviet cinema from the 1920s and 30s. Only the second section of the Russian season is a real surprise, with an offering of science fiction films of the 1950s-70s to mark the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight. The modern section of the Russain season returns to territory that should be familiar to all, with the work of Alexander Sokurov.
The most interesting fare may well end up being those films that sound the most boring. February’s ‘Boom Britain’ will offer a selection of British films from the post-war period (1951-1977). This title may conjure up dreary black-and-white images of industrial wastelands, slums and street urchins, followed by cringe-worthy colour films of bad hairstyles and garish textiles. But I think these films might do more than make us realise how much life in Britain has improved since then. They may hold unexpected gems of human interest and peel back, onion-like, the layers of modern British cities, bringing to life the history that lies beneath the familiar streets of today. This was my experience of British Free Cinema, which I had not been at all excited to watch. These films provided a new depth to my everyday experience of London. I can no longer pass by Piccadilly Circus without seeing the ghosts of the teenagers who gathered there in the 1950s, as captured by Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner in Nice Time. When I am near Waterloo Station, I can’t help looking out for the blind accordion player or wondering how the Hungarian immigrant fared in Robert Has’s Refuge England. There may well be similar treasures in ‘Tales from the Shipyard’, part of the BFI series on ‘This Working Life’. Although I have to say that I’ll be surprised if films about ‘Britain’s rich heritage of ship-building’ are going to entice me to trek across Waterloo Bridge on a chilly night. There is a greater edge to January’s ‘The Long Goodbye: a season focused on how filmmakers have dealt with death’, but again, it’s not really what you want mid-winter.
If the British Film Institute doesn’t show films about Britain, whether interesting or less so, who else will? It is important to offer people a chance to see their nation’s history on film. And I don’t mean to question the value of films by Hawks, Truffaut, Bertolucci or Sokurov: I love their work, and part of the reason that films by these directors are unsurprising elements of any cinémathèque’s programme is that they are a crucial part of cinema history. What I am asking for, though, is diversity in this standard fare, plus a few surprises scattered through. Where is the cinema that is neither English-language nor European? Some classic cinema from Asia, or new offerings from Africa? And where are the directors I’ve never heard of? BFI, I don’t want to be able to mistake your programme with one from 10, 20, or 30 years ago. You said in your presentation that there is ‘more yet to be announced’. There is still hope, then, for the next year. Please don’t disappoint everyone’s high expectations!