A question of nationality in the film world

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The Independent Online

If hell does exist, I think it almost certainly contains a corner devoted to pointless discussions. Under satanic coercion the damned will be obliged to sit for eternity discussing whether nature is more important than nurture or whether screen violence leads to imitative behaviour. And, if you've behaved with particular vileness, you will be forced to join the endless debate about the state of the British film industry.

If hell does exist, I think it almost certainly contains a corner devoted to pointless discussions. Under satanic coercion the damned will be obliged to sit for eternity discussing whether nature is more important than nurture or whether screen violence leads to imitative behaviour. And, if you've behaved with particular vileness, you will be forced to join the endless debate about the state of the British film industry.

Quite a few people will be doing this voluntarily this week – provoked by the Bafta shortlist of nominations for best British film, which this year includes some titles that seem to stretch the definition a little. Chris Columbus's Harry Potter and Robert Altman's Gosford Park are packed with British A-list talent, but both are directed by Americans and financed almost entirely with American money.

Surely, the sceptics will say, this is the kind of smash-and-grab raid that the best British film category was designed to prevent. The award has always had a smack of the consolation prize – as if it were one of those Tried Jolly Hard stickers that the more anxious schools give out on sports day, so that slow boys aren't discouraged. But what's the point of cordoning off a section of the trophy table, if Hollywood can just lean over and rake in the cups?

Bafta's definition of Britishness turns out to be pretty straightforward. If you qualify for government tax relief as a British film then you qualify for this section. Since the rules are that a film only counts as British if more than 70 per cent of its budget is spent in the United Kingdom and more than 70 per cent of the payroll goes to European and Commonwealth talent, you can see that there's a concept of nationality here that is more all-embracing than that generally adopted by the UK immigration service.

But Bafta's approach to this matter strikes me as perfectly sensible – or at least properly insouciant about an essentially trivial matter. Besides, there really isn't a workable alternative. While there might be a popular prejudice in favour of the "who pays the piper" approach to establishing national pedigree (if the Americans foot the bill then it's an American movie), it very quickly runs into trouble. Bridget Jones's Diary, for instance, could credibly be claimed as a French movie by those lights, since a large chunk of money came from Studio Canal. Follow the money and you could claim that Peter Greenaway makes Dutch movies and Ken Loach Spanish ones.

It doesn't help to call for the travel documents of the producer or director, either. Is Black Hawk Down a British film simply because Ridley Scott can walk through the fast track at Heathrow passport control? Or should A Room with a View be regarded as quintessentially Indo-American because its producer (Ismail Merchant) comes from Bombay and its director (James Ivory) from New York? More importantly, who cares, apart from the production accountants who must squeeze every last drop out of the smallprint?

The truth is that the patrimony of a film – amorphous and debatable -- is probably the least interesting thing about it. Cinema has always been a medium that thrived on the genius of immigrants – in this country as much as in America. What would Hollywood have been without Schmuel Gelbfisch (the young Polish boy who later adopted the fabulously aspirational name Sam Goldwyn)? What would British cinema be without Korda and Pressburger?

To those questions we might legitimately add another one. What would American cinema be without the legions of British economic migrants and gastarbeiters who do their time in the Hollywood hills? It's time to recognise that Britishness has been so successfully exported that Britons can no longer claim a monopoly on its virtues.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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