Two years ago, a report for the British Film Institute (BFI) used the memorable phrase “pandemic lack of inclusion” to describe the film industry’s UK employment practices. Among other findings, the report revealed that just 3% of the film production workforce come from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, compared with 12.5% nationally. A “culture of nepotism” was blamed for this widespread exclusion, presenting “significant obstacles” to anyone from such a background hoping to gain a foothold in the industry. “That’s awful,” tut-tutted everyone in this famously liberal creative industry. “Something must be done.”
Now pardon the cynicism, but this wasn’t news to anyone who’s been writing about film for any length of time. I’ve just dug out a yellowing old copy of defunct Bristol what’s on magazine Venue from 1997 – two decades before that BFI report – in which I wrote an article about Black Pyramid, who made exactly the same points. Founded back in the mid-1990s and run on a shoestring budget, Bristol-based Black Pyramid was set up in part to address these issues. It encouraged young BME filmmaking talent and ran its own impressive annual film festival. But then the funding ran out, Black Pyramid folded, and that was that. One of the talented young filmmakers nurtured by Black Pyramid was a chap named Gary Thompson. Today he’s on a mission to revive its spirit with his own initiative, Cables & Cameras, which is run on – you guessed it – a shoestring budget.
That all the grand initiatives and fine words of the last 20 years appear to have achieved nothing (or, in more polite yet equally damning officialese: “There is . . . little to suggest that these interventions have to date had any success at addressing the underlying causes of inequality or the existence of barriers to equal participation”) comes as no surprise to him. “There are a lot of production companies in Bristol,” he observes. “If they knew there was a problem back then, they could have done something. So the question is: why didn’t you do anything? Is it because you didn’t want to, or because you didn’t have the capability to attract the right people? There’s a lot of talk about this now that Channel Four are coming down and they need to be seen to embrace diversity.”
Given that diversity is regularly cited as one of great attractions of Bristol to the film industry – alongside culture, creativity and the mandatory ‘chilled atmosphere’ – it’s more than a little embarrassing that this is not reflected in its workforce. It’s not just about race, of course. As the BFI report acknowledged, structural inequality is also fuelled by class. Plummy-voiced, privately educated types seem to abound. Hard statistics to back up this anecdotal evidence are hard to come by, though UWE’s Go West! Report on Bristol’s Film and Television Industries revealed that a whopping 25% of freelancers working in these industries attended fee-paying schools (compared to 7% in the general UK population). “That’s 100% right,” says Gary. “Some of these organisations are doing internships, and that’s great. But how many people are able to afford to do it if their parents aren’t supporting them? How do you get people from low-income families involved?”
Cables & Cameras came about after Gary decided to return to the passion fired by volunteering with Black Pyramid all those years ago. Having gone back to university to study film as a mature student, he found that there was no longer a screening forum for BME filmmakers in the city. “So I thought I’d better set up my own night. I pitched it to the Cube and asked if they’d help facilitate it and they said yes.”
For the first night back in 2017, Gary collated ten films from fellow students and filmmakers. “I asked Adam [Murray] from [black programming collective] Come the Revolution to host the event and he jumped straight on board. Since then, it’s just evolved…”
So did it feel as though BME filmmakers in the city were waiting for such a thing to happen? “Yes and no. The reaction was really positive. People said they needed this. It’s the kind of thing that hasn’t happened in Bristol for a very long time. But Bristol can be funny. There are filmmakers around, but they just keep to themselves. The whole point of this is about networking – finding out who’s who and what they’re up to. Bristol’s a small place. But it’s even smaller when you’re a BME filmmaker. The bonus is that they get to see their films on the big screen, which they may not have had before. I’ve never had that. It’s a really good feeling to see your film on the big screen, rather than on a phone or a little monitor, with your peers around you.”
Eager to develop the night, Gary launched The Conversation back in June: a full day of screenings, workshops and discussions, which proved a great success. In the longer term, he has ambitious plans to expand into film production. Cables & Cameras returns to the Cube in October, and there are discussions taking place about collaborations with the Afrika Eye festival and the 100 Years of Knowle West Style celebration, including a screening of Gary’s own recently completed short film about Full Cycle Records. In addition, I Am Judah, the crowd-funded independent documentary about police tasering of Bristol community elder Ras Judah and his subsequent fight for justice, is currently in production, boasting an all-local team led by director Bashart Malik. Cables and Cameras has been fully behind the project, hosting a sold-out trailer launch event. “That should really inspire other filmmakers,” enthuses Gary. “If they smash this, it’s going to open the floodgates.”
But he stresses that for all this activity to really bear fruit, funding needs to be in place to sustain it for the next five to ten years. Cables & Cameras is only part of the picture, but if just a tiny proportion of all that film production cash pouring into Bristol (£18.4m in inward investment during 2016/17, fact fans) could trickle down to help develop talent at grass-roots level, then perhaps we won’t still be talking about shocking inequality in a decade’s time.
All photographs by R. Thompson
The next Cables & Cameras event at the Cube takes place in October. To get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check their official website.