How the Independent Film Trust is disrupting the industry
Words by Joanna Henry
Films don’t just shape culture, they create it. So when the British film industry reflects only a fragment of the population, prioritising a small section of society over the rest, we miss out on a vast number of stories and perspectives that have the potential to enrich who we are and our understanding of one another. Intentionally or not, rather than stigmatise difference – and do damage to those on the receiving end of harmful stereotypes, the arts should be about celebrating the intricacies that make us human.
That’s why I was thrilled to speak with the Independent Film Trust (IFT), who for the past ten years, have been advocating for a diverse, representative cinema - amplifying the stories that evoke, inspire and challenge.
Independent films are known for their artistic freedom, thought-provoking stories and nuanced representations. Because they are not financed by big studios, indie filmmakers are often considered to be more about the art, than box office success. However, pushing the boundaries of culture is not easy, as independent filmmakers can struggle to attract investment – their films being seen with greater risk.
Speaking with Charlotte Knowles, the IFT’s Chief Operations Officer, we talk about the charity’s latest project ‘Vertical Lab’ and how the organisation is setting an example for a rich, inclusive cinema.
What is Vertical Lab?
Vertical Lab is a mentoring program that supports fifteen talented, underrepresented film professionals, to make their practice financially sustainable. The applicants, also known as ‘lab artists’ get six months of mentoring, top-level industry support and attend the Raindance Film Festival to screen their work.
The people on the lab aren’t just any filmmakers or producers, “[they are] people who have a lot to say and who are obviously very skilled. In some cases, they may have won prizes”, Charlotte tells me. However, for one reason or another, they are also having their stories turned down or ignored.
Why are stories about marginalised groups so rarely told in mainstream cinema?
“I think ultimately, all of this stuff more or less comes down to money, right. If there’s some kind of risk attached to the story, is it going to go down well or not? Is it something that hasn’t before been told in this way? Do we want to take that risk? No investors want to take financial risk – least of all in film”.
But the question of finance, of who or what gets funded, of who the decision-makers are, in my opinion, is a political as well as economic one. Charlotte is clearly conscious of this and I probe her further about why the images we do see, for example, of women or people of colour, often involve demeaning stereotypes.
“There’s a perceived idea of what society wants, and what society is willing to accept, which often limits us to a really narrow subset of clichés. I don’t think there’s a maliciousness in this, but I think there’s a massive level of ignorance around what audiences are going to respond to”.
She goes on to say;
“I don’t really want to get into an argument with people about, why are you telling these stories and not these stories? I’d just rather put my energy into helping [underrepresented] people get their own stories told, in the way that they want them told. And to help them challenge and disrupt the industry in a way that they feel is necessary right. The IFT is one organisation, and we can’t represent every experience, but what we can do is go to the people who are having these experiences and say, how does this need to change, how does this need to be better, and focus on the change that needs to happen”.
What has changed in the industry as far as representation goes? Is this enough?
“Here and there we’re seeing glimpses of people getting their voices heard, we’re seeing a commitment in lots of different ways across different sections. For example, the new guidelines about the kinds of films that will be eligible for a BAFTA. All of this stuff is really positive… but let’s be clear it’s a start, right? Because it’s also quite easy to be tokenistic and tick boxes, without really substantially changing the narrative. So, there are instances where the production, cast and crew are really diverse, but the story is still the same old story. The story is still putting people of colour in a negative light. There are still clichés, so there’s still a lot of work to be done”.
What is unique about the Vertical Lab process?
Vertical Lab is not the only mentorship program that exists, but what struck me about the organisation was how they worked. Unlike other programs that might prescribe who and what it means to be underrepresented, the IFT give people the agency to self-define – broadening our understanding of what it means to be seen or unseen. Personally, I find this inspiring in a sector (and society) fixated on labels.
For Charlotte, this comes down to being open to learning and wanting to set an example for the rest of the industry;
“What we’re not trying to do is lump people together…We want the people on our lab to be an example for what could potentially be a more inclusive industry, and there’s a really important learning experience that goes on - for everybody, me included - about what it means to experience different types of lacking representation. Because the way that I experience it as a white woman, is totally different to somebody who identifies as black or is gender fluid”.
I get the impression that the learning experience is highly important to Charlotte, as it is something that reoccurs throughout our conversation. “By talking about [our experiences of representation] and understanding it and being open about it, we can kind of get down to the practical much quicker. We can start to try and resolve those specific problems for specific individuals in a more collective way”.
Vertical Lab also differs in that it is ran over the course of six months, as opposed to one or two weeks – supporting indie filmmakers “to develop in a way that’s sustainable in the long-term”.
How is IFT/VL disrupting the industry?
The IFT may only be one organisation, but they are helping to build a different kind of cinema industry - one that pushes the boundaries of culture by supporting the stories that challenge and by asking questions instead of presuming to know the answers.
As Charlotte puts it, “if we lose that freedom to challenge and to be challenged if we lose that part of the experience, then I think we’ve lost something. Because it’s within that challenge, within that conflict, that things change, that culture evolves because perspectives differ - and that’s a really important part of this process”.
By being open to learning, the charity is able to gain key insights into the lack of accessibility for different people and feed that back into the industry about what needs to change. Instead of “trying to restrict [lab artists] interaction with the bigger mainstream system, we want those people to be well within that mainstream system, but also keeping that voice intact at the same time”.
The Independent Film Trust is a charity. If you want to help support a diverse, inclusive cinema and see Vertical Lab ran next year, then please consider supporting IFT with a donation.