Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bureau of Film Incompetence?

Cary Bazalgette's letter in today's Guardian is the latest strike against the British Film Institute's mishandling of its role. As Cary points out, control of the BFI has been given to the Film Council, a commercial body whose total contribution to the canon of British cinema is Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The full woe of the story is documented - of course - on a blog, bfiwatch, run by Pam Cook, a BFI and Screen author.

Here's my take, unsanctioned by senior academics, just based on interactions with various high-ups in the BFI over the last year, and also on conversations with library staff. In the tradition of corporate takeovers, the Film Council is now severing the BFI into edible chunks under the cover of convergence and flagship-ness. Squillions of pounds were poured (literally, the place is made of very expensive concrete) into the ugly echo chamber of the BFI Southbank's new "wing" (think 1970s brutalist institution rather than beautiful bird), while the library struggles to fund new acquisitions and, er, pay staff.

While many researchers gently mock the BFI Library - until last year, the catalogue was entirely DOS-based and required an advanced degree in information science to find anything; there's no internet available, wireless or otherwise; the microfiche machines print ghost copy - they do so with great fondness and, more than that, a long, democratic history of use. Because the library is public, all you need to work there is a library membership (roughly a tenth of the cost of a London Library membership) and a pen (yes, a library that allows pens!) There are open shelves for browsing current and reference material, as well as a treasure trove of publicity material, deposited screenplays, audiotapes and videos. You may find yourself working alongside well-known film scholars such as Laura Mulvey or film journalists or producers or costume designers or students. All sorts of names pass over the screen that lets you know your books have arrived from the basement.

Most important of all, the staff know the collection brilliantly -- able to judge whether it's worth searching for that obscure Polish film magazine, and equally able to advise on how to find what you don't even know you're looking for. Currently, there are too few staff working too few hours, because of pay cuts siphoning off money to the empty concrete box on the other side of the river. While it's undeniably exciting that the new Mediatheque is (selectively) making material from the National Film and Television Archives available to viewers on site and on tour around the country, it just points up further the way in which the Library and Publishing divisions are being regarded as poor relations. It just reinforces a comment made to me by a student in a first-year film studies course:

"What do you mean there's a reading package? This is a film course!"

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