An Interview with David Archibald by Brian Beadie
The first Radical Film Network Scotland Festival and Unconference is about to begin, but obviously its very title begs the question; what is a radical film? The notion of radicalism is a much contested one, with one (wo)man’s radicalism another’s retrograde. I spoke to Radical Film Network Scotland’s cofounder, film lecturer David Archibald, about the issues surrounding radical film. First of all, what did the festival accept as a radical film? “Well, there are a number of ways in which you could define radical. We could talk about film form, content, exhibition, production and so on. For the festival and the unconference, we’ve interpreted radical broadly. In fact, we decided at the start that it would be pretty conservative to tell people they weren’t radical enough to be involved. Or that they were the wrong kind of radical. So, over the whole weekend we’ve created a space where all types of ‘radicals’ will be together, through the festival and through the unconference. In that sense, the radical is never fixed but is always in a process of coming into being. And perhaps it is in the juxtaposition of these different shades or strands of the radical, that something else emerges.”
One of the oldest debates in radical film is the old contention that radical content requires radical form, while others contend that the message (and a potential audience) can be lost if the work is inaccessible. Where does Archibald stand on this?
“Film critics, academic film critics in particular, have a tendency to prioritise form, whereas filmmakers who want to raise social or political issues through film tend to prioritise content. And filmmakers sometimes get angry with what they regard as a critical fetishisation of film form. There was a major debate in the pages of the film journal Screen in the 1970s over the politics of film form in Days of Hope, which was a four part BBC TV series charting the history of the British labour movement from the Easter Rising to the General Strike, directed by Ken Loach and written by Jim Allen. While the debate was an important one for film and television scholars, Loach and Allen struggled to get their head around why when they’d made an important televisual intervention into the history of the British labour movement, their critics were concentrating on debates about form. For me, the most enduring work is innovative in terms of both content and form. It has something new to say, and finds a new way to say it.”
This is a position that is still active in film criticism and making today, with films made via conventional channels – even if those new channels now include artists’ films facilitated by galleries – being privileged over films made by activists, whose actual genesis may be more ‘radical’. Archibald feels that this work is often overlooked, and many examples of activists films will be on display; “Well, film critics have specialist knowledge in film, so they’re clearly more comfortable talking about form than they are about content. In the same way that the ‘best’ film marries innovation in both content and form, the ‘best’ criticism will not fetishise formal analysis at the expense of content.”
These issues are sure to be amongst many raised by a special ‘radical’ themed issue of The Drouth, edited by Archibald, “which explores radical ideas philosophically and politically, from the Paris Commune to contemporary US politics, from the Surrealists to the cinema of Ben Wheatley. As the city welcomes many academics, activists and filmmakers from Scotland and beyond to explore radical ideas in relation to cinema, culture and politics, we offer up the essays in this edition as a contribution to the debate.”
The Drouth – Radical Issue
The festival itself is the culmination of a year’s work, bringing together a variety of filmmakers and organisations who have set up their own alternative exhibition networks via festivals, often in unorthodox screening venues. These have been facilitated by the same advances in digital technology that have allowed many more people access to the filmmaking process than previously, so bypassing all the traditional hurdles associated with the business.
Archibald comments, “The main discussion on film policy in Scotland – at least at the level of the mainstream press – focuses on production, specifically the development of a studio. There have been discussions about developing a studio in Scotland for decades and it’s something of a scandal that there are no such facilities now. But there’s an important discussion to be had about grassroots production and exhibition. On the ground there are more low-budget features and documentaries being made than ever before. This is not without its problems, as the people involved are often doing so on zero wages, but nevertheless there’s a dynamism in terms of no- and low-budget production. That has to be married to some form of alternative exhibition space – and that won’t be Cineworld – so other options need to be explored. RFN Scotland is involved in supporting the new Social Action Film Exhibitors’ Network that’s been developed by Richard Warden (who has also played a pivotal role in our own work) and we’d be keen to work with them in the future. “
Certainly, I think that one of the biggest problems in Scottish cinema isn’t the lack of a studio, but a lock of good, risk taking producers, which has encouraged filmmakers to take things into their own hands. RFN can be seen as a focal point for all this activity, allowing different filmmakers, writers, academics and organisations the opportunity to meet, exhibit and discuss their work. But where will it all lead?
“Well, who knows where the RFN is going to go. The way in which the RFN has developed in Scotland over the last twelve months – when we started we thought we’d maybe have about a dozen events in the festival and it’s grown to around forty – is indicative of the strength of an alternative and radical film culture in Glasgow. There’s much to be optimistic about, and much work to be done.”