The British film industry has lost its edge, says BFI boss

Artists, not movie directors, are the only ones now willing to push the boundaries
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The Independent Culture

A generation ago, the British film world had Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, directors who were renowned for their pioneering depictions of cannibalism, gang rape and homoeroticism that pushed the boundaries of contemporary cinema.

Then, as Hollywood's influence over cinema increased, the UK followed its straitlaced methods of storytelling at the expense, some would say, of the distinctive experimental edginess it was once famed for.

Now names more well known for their success in the visual arts are helping to push the boundaries of homegrown films once more. For Eddie Berg, the artistic director of the British Film Institute (BFI), conceptual artists like Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Wood are part of a trend that is seeing the most experimental and edgy films being made by artists rather than trained, experienced filmmakers.

"When people outside Britain talk about the vanguard of British cinema, they talk about Ken Loach, and he's 74 years old," he said. "That's fine and fair enough on one level and, of course, there are great new filmmakers out there. But the big question we need to ask ourselves is where do we see the new vanguard of British cinema coming from?

"These are the people who push the possibilities and the boundaries of cinema. The generation that was led by Jarman and Greenaway were seen to be coming from a place of experimentation and were ambitious about cinema and how it could be an art form."

While Mr Berg commends the achievements of Michael Winterbottom, who directed the acclaimed films Road to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People, and new talent such as Andrea Arnold, who recently won plaudits at the Cannes Film Festival for Fish Tank, he said the British film sector should endeavour to "reclaim" experimental filmmaking. "Twenty years ago, the gallery sector hardly ever commissioned film work, but now it seems to have an all-consuming appetite for this former 'periphery'. Artists working in film have had huge support. That's why the audience has gone in that direction.

"It's an opportunity and challenge for the film sector. We need to reclaim some of this territory," he said. Searching for this talent may not necessarily "translate into money", he added, but it was important to balance creativity with financial concerns: "There are definitely interesting filmmakers around, but it's about another generation, finding that talent, nurturing it."

He suggested that the 1980s had been a fertile ground for experimental cinema because of Margaret Thatcher's oppressive brand of Conservatism, which many filmmakers railed against.

Stuart Comer, film curator at Tate Modern, said artists – as outsiders to the film industry – had traditionally challenged the parameters of conventional cinema.

"In cinema of the early 20th century, there were many ways to make a film and present a film and that became standardised very quickly. It was always artists who continued to push these parameters. Now, in the context of the art world, people are rediscovering the history of experimental filmmaking," he said.

He said for a long time, artists received very meagre budgets for film projects, leading them to take greater risks and employ more ingenuity. Now, with bigger budgets available, they were still upholding the tradition for experimentation, he added.

The future of cinema? Artists in the frame

Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize in 1996 and the following year represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. In 2006 he created a film focusing on French footballer Zinedine Zidane, which took place in real time, over the course of a football match, with the camera solely on Zidane.

Steve McQueen is best known as a Turner Prize winning artist, but recently won the Golden Camera at the Cannes Film Festival for his debut film, Hunger. His artwork often uses film, typically projected on to one or more walls of the gallery. He has cited the influence of the Nouvelle Vague and the films of Andy Warhol. One of his best known artworks, Deadpan (1997), is a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt in which a house collapses.

Gillian Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997 and has now turned her hand to film. Her debut feature, Self Made, is an exploration of the blurring between reality and fiction and is being backed by the UK Film Council. The idea for the film came about after Wearing placed an advert in newspapers asking "If you were to play a part in a film, would you be yourself or a fictional character?" The seven people selected attended a method acting workshop.

Sam Taylor-Wood is a Turner Prize-nominated conceptual artist and photographer, who was married to the art dealer Jay Jopling until 2008. In 1994 she exhibited a multi-screen video work called Killing Time, in which four people mimed to an opera score. Multi-screen video works later became the main focus of her art, and in 2002 she was commissioned to make a video portrait of David Beckham, whom she depicted sleeping.