What keeps all of Britain's colours from the screens?

May 3, 2002

Ethnic minorities find the UK film and TV industry shut to them, says Sara Wajid, but Geoff Watts reports on an experiment proving that racism is not hard wired.

Twelve years after the rap group Public Enemy released "Burn Hollywood Burn", in which they condemned racism in the film industry, the Oscars have finally set the race record straight. But, although the awards have a huge symbolic significance, the obstacles to black film production are deeply rooted.

Behind the scenes, the British film industry has also arrived at a pivotal moment. Mike Dormer, executive producer of BBC Drama, says that when Greg Dyke was appointed director-general in 2000, the corporation commissioned research into brand recognition. It emerged that some African-Caribbean teenagers in inner cities never watched or listened to the BBC. Some had never heard of the BBC. "The reaction to that within the BBC was seismic," Dormer says, claiming that a new urgency to commission representative drama was felt from the top down. Dormer says that among the substantial number of drama producers regularly commissioned by the BBC, he knows of only two who are black.

Mainstream broadcasters operate in an increasingly ruthless market, competing desperately for ratings and taking few risks. This does not bode well for British multicultural dramas and films. It also bodes ill for hopes of "socially engineering" a representative industry.

Already, some ethnic minority artists have given up on mainstream media and turned to other outlets. Inge Blackman, an experienced director and a graduate of the respected FT2 training scheme, has rejection fatigue. She no longer seeks funding for her films or pitches them to UKbroadcasters but instead looks increasingly towards an international audience as she has a distributor in the US but not in the UK.

"Look at the amount of black feature films that have been funded in the past five years. I could be waiting for ten years. But the digital medium does give me hope," says Blackman, thinking, like many, that the advent of broadband technology could fragment British broadcasting beyond recognition and create new opportunities for niche broadcasting to black and Asian audiences.

Ever since the first British black feature film, Horace Ove's Pressure (1975), there have been endless reports, awards, ethnically targeted training schemes and databases of ethnic minority film talent aimed at building a representative industry. Despite all the effort, there has been very little progress. But now the box-office success of East is East and Gurinder Chadha's Bend it like Beckham , coupled with the realisation that the youth market is a multicultural one, does seem to have created a genuine appetite in the fickle world of film for commissioning black and Asian drama.

However, film funders and drama commissioners complain they do not get as many pitches as they would like. Himesh Kar, senior executive at the Film Council's New Cinema Fund (which has funded the forthcoming Meera Syal film, Anita and Me ), is surprised by the lack of applications from black and Asian film-makers. "It does puzzle me a little bit," he says. Kar insists that since the Film Council was established two years ago, it has been forging links with ethnic-minority talent through networking events and other schemes. But one director weary of such diversity-enhancing initiatives scathingly refers to such events as "meet-the-darkies parties that change nothing".

After years of what are perceived by many to be tokenistic gestures and racist nepotistic commissioning practices, relations between film-makers and drama departments or film funders have become deeply dysfunctional. Rose Mcdonald, chair of the black members council of the broadcast union Bectu, says many people have not even registered themselves on the cultural diversity database set up recently by Channel 4 "because of concerns that the lack of commitment to diversity higher up would render it useless".

Opinions differ as to the best way to nurture minority directors, screenwriters and producers. Kar feels strongly that targeted funds are patronising.

He recognises, however, that the UK film industry has traditionally cut corners on the all-important development stage, in which a rough script is shaped into a commercially viable film. The absence of this process has the effect of inhibiting the entry of new blood into the industry and of narrowing the field to a few players who can pitch developed scripts. Those outside the charmed circle of film-school graduates who know how to polish scripts and who to approach are at a big disadvantage. Kar hopes that the Film Council's development fund will help level the playing field and that investment in training across the board will attract black and Asian talent organically.

Others see the emphasis on more training as a fig leaf covering a failure to appoint black and Asian executive producers who would take on more diverse projects. Entry to the rarefied worlds of film and television depends not just on technical training but also on access to social networks and on a high degree of social mobility.

African-Caribbean and Asian 18 to 24-year-olds are generally over-represented in higher education, but they are predominantly in former polytechnics not known for schmoozing opportunities. The average percentage of entrants of African or Asian origin to the National Film and Television School between 1997 and 2002 has been 8.3 per cent (voluntary self-monitoring means this figure is approximate), which is above the national percentage of 5 per cent. But in Greater London, where the NFTS is based, 22 per cent of the population has a background in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean.

Historically, black and Asian film and drama successes have had to be aggressively nurtured through ethnically targeted support networks. East is East did not just appear. It was originally a play that was developed at the Royal Court by the Asian theatre company Thamasha. A generation of black directors such as John Akomfrah, Isaac Julien and Maureen Blackwood was nurtured by the black workshop movement and Channel 4's explicitly multicultural agenda in the 1980s.

Turning a script into a feature film on general release or a drama series on television is an excruciatingly complex process shrouded in mystery. The know-how, contacts and resources needed to navigate the process are handed down through family and friendship circles or film-school networks. The long time it takes to move from script to release often means that the people involved must have other incomes.

Helen Bingham, a production executive at the Moving Image Development Agency (Mida) in Liverpool, says change is vital to encourage more black and Asian film-makers to apply for funds and to enable those outside the loop to submit winning pitches. One of the funds Bingham manages has underwritten eight digital shorts. Black or Asian applicants claimed three of the eight grants.

To encourage more diversity, Bingham wants to run basic screenwriting courses "for people who are not coming from an MA in screenwriting - which if you're from the Asian community in Wigan, you're probably not". Mida also offers ethnic-minority training bursaries. Bingham explains that all too often people do not apply for general funds because they assume they have no chance of getting them.

One of the awards for digital shorts went to Erinma Ochu, who is now producing her film In Memoriam . She says: "I applied to Mida only because I saw the £1,000 training bursary it does for ethnic minorities, and I thought I might have a chance at that. Then I was encouraged to go for the £9,000 digital shorts grant."

Ochu's story is a testimony to the amount of cultural capital and support necessary to break into film from outside the charmed circle. She says her background as a neuroscientist gave her a secure position in society from which to gamble on film and gave her experience in seeking grant applications. She has also been awarded a prestigious £75,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for Science Technology and Arts.

Given that there is already a generation of trained and capable black and Asian professionals who do not get breaks, more targeted training seems pointless. Alby James, a veteran campaigner for black and Asian film-making, says valuable lessons are at last being learnt about the kind of training that makes a difference.

James has pioneered a raft of training initiatives and bursaries aimed at increasing ethnic minority participation, funded in part by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Film Council, Channel 4 and the BBC.

One project is a two-year foundation degree in film and television validated by Leeds Metropolitan University that is delivered in Hall Place Studios in the predominantly Caribbean Chapel Town. The first year drew 58 students. James hopes to attract half of the intake from ethnic minority backgrounds. The focus is on providing students with not only technical training but also vital cultural capital and networks through placements. The prestigious masters in screenwriting at LMU also has two bursaries from Channel 4 for widening access. But ultimately, James says, "the real change will happen only when they appoint us in top jobs, where we can make green-lighting decisions".

Sara Wajid is a media studies lecturer at the University of East London.

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