Wishing and Hoping

Speech by Lord David Puttnam, CBE
at the EFA General Assembly 2007

The future of film in Europe remains a deeply ‘political’ issue. It’s deeply political because something of the order of 800 million European taxpayers pour somewhere close to EUR 2.5 billion a year into what they are persuaded is their film industry; in support of what we think of as a distinctive European film culture.

Each of you therefore find yourselves engaged in an activity in which your fellow citizens have a very significant stake - it is they who make possible the vast majority of filmmaking in every single European country; and it is they who help to support the distribution of films, the exhibition of films, the archiving of films, and even education about films - and that’s far from an exhaustive list.

The whole argument for European subsidy rests on the principle that, in the absence of such support, the overwhelming majority of our films would not get made, and even the ones that did, would almost inevitably be poorly distributed and exhibited - to a point at which our film cultures would, over time, simply wither and die. Or at least that’s the argument which we - which I - have always used to ensure that the European taxpayer continues to underwrite European cinema. This is the argument, in broad terms, which we have successfully used to convince Brussels that our form of ‘state aid’ was wholly justified. The economic ‘means’ - that’s to say, large amounts of public subsidy - being justified by the ‘cultural’ ends.

But with the privileges of public support come a whole slew of cultural responsibilities, first and foremost, a responsibility to those whose hard-earned tax money effectively underwrites our endeavours. And it is here that I’d argue that European filmmakers have a very special responsibility. After all, it is the makers of films who are in receipt of the vast majority of the subsidies, and therefore they - you - who, as I see it, should shoulder most of the burden of ensuring that this subsidy delivers the maximum public benefit. And, as I hope will become clear, by public benefit I do not only, or even principally mean the economic return to the public purse - though that economic return is of course at least part of the equation.

We in Europe tend to wear the badge of culture on our sleeve, and for the most part with great pride. We use it as a means of differentiating ourselves from much, or even most of the cinema created by the Americans. But is it really enough, simply to wear the badge, or even the t-shirt? Are we really sure that our European cinema, in its many and diverse forms, really is all that distinctive?

A decade ago, I wrote a book, The Undeclared War which, among other things, sought to explore how, and, almost more importantly, why, the extraordinary cultural and industrial influence European cinema possessed in its early days - was somehow lost. The impact of World War I on parts of our industry, and the transition to sound, were, of course, tremendously significant. But something deeper was also lost, and for reasons that are, perhaps, rather more difficult to identify - a sense of confidence; of energy; most seriously of all, our unique sense of connection with the audience - that emotional chord that forever ties their dreams to ours. Certainly from my perspective these are not as strong as they might be.
All the more ironic perhaps that, from an economic perspective at least, these past few years have seen European cinema performing rather more strongly at the box office than for many, many years. Cinema admissions in the 27 member states of the European Union grew from 901 million in 2000, to 929 million in 2006 - with a realistic chance of reaching one billion by the end of the decade. Meantime, the overall market share for European films in the European Union reached 28%, continuing an upward trend. Modest growth on paper perhaps, but achieved in the face of massive competition from the internet, computer games and the drowning effect of film piracy. Nevertheless the trend line is still upwards, despite the huge increase in leisure choices available to every one of our customers.

Why should this be? Moving images are more readily available than at any time since the Lumière Brothers successfully projected a few short films in Paris 112 years ago. In the face of the onslaught of reality television shows, the reduction in production budgets caused by the fragmentation of television into literally hundreds of channels, and the ease with which short-form videos can be downloaded from YouTube or MySpace, film has retained the capacity to offer something different - stories which genuinely endure in the minds of the audience long after the lights have gone up, and on-screen production values which are increasingly superior to anything made for television, let alone the internet. Nonetheless, it is clear that our underlying business model needs to undergo some pretty radical changes if we’re to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital technology to maintain and even strengthen European cinema.

At its best, cinema does retain this remarkable ability to speak to people of every age, from every background and in ways that almost every other form of popular culture struggles to compete with. This is why the economics of the film industry, the numbers alone, do not even begin to describe the broader impact of the medium. As I’ve just described, we appear to have retained the imagination to re-think the structure of our industry, but are we equally sure we’ve retained our ability to truly connect with our audience; to really speak to all of our people in their extraordinary European diversity?

In my experience there has always been a societal role for cinema to play. I’ve never wavered in my belief that there’s a fairly precise correlation between the nature of the cinema people are offered, especially young people, and the view they come to form of themselves. Why should this be? I think it’s got everything to do with cinema’s unique ability, under cover of darkness, and assisted by the overwhelming size of the image, to find its way into our subconscious and, having taken root there, subtly shape the way we see ourselves in the context of the world about us. Once that’s occurred, what gets reflected back can be the very best, or the very worst aspects of our personality - and sometimes a little of each.

Throughout my thirty years as an active Producer I was always aware that filmmakers can take advantage of this phenomenon in either of two ways; they can seek to reflect back the dreams and whatever else it is that allows us to celebrate and believe in our potential as human beings - or they can reflect the negative, even violent survival instinct that lurks somewhere within pretty well all of us. I’ve always thought of the former as an act of enormous cultural generosity; whereas the latter is in every respect a form of exploitation.
In mitigation, films are probably not the best medium for exchanging very complex ideas. But they are unbelievably successful at creating lasting images and emotions. And as the history of world cinema has proved time and time again, the stories that really last are those with which the audience can most closely identify. Within the world of cinema, even if increasingly rare, there are still ‘moral’ voices, and at its very best it remains capable of that most valuable of all cultural gifts, “thought leadership”.
I look at films as varied as THE LIVES OF OTHERS, FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS and ONCE, and I see a world in which I am able to recognise a clear moral vision, and a genuine and generous compassion.
I look around at most other forms of popular culture; and the capacity of cinema to deliver this ‘moral vision’, to speak with this degree of compassion, to allow space for “poets and dreamers” becomes all the more striking. Yet having said that, for me, contemporary cinema remains far too timid about using its ability to influence young people’s lives, and the way they see and respond to the world.
Let me come at this from a different angle. Even though Hollywood is releasing a number of films which attempt to address the reality of America’s use of power in the world, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan, something is missing. But if you go back to the late seventies and the Vietnam equivalents of these movies, no one’s making films like COMING HOME, PLATOON or APOCALYPSE NOW - let alone THE DEER HUNTER - films that intelligently addressed the horror of that particular conflict. Those films were, in today’s terms, remarkably uncompromising - and uncompromised. For whatever reason, there’s a far more tentative approach to today’s films. Surely this represents an enormous missed opportunity. There’s an audience out there that’s really quite grown up - and would wish to be treated that way.
American cinema has the most wonderful excuse - it’s a commercial business, they don’t seek subsidy from anyone. That’s simply not the case in Europe where a significant underwriting comes from the state. Surely, that being the case, social equity demands that filmmakers play a serious, maybe a pivotal role in helping people - their audience - to navigate their way through an increasingly complex and difficult world.
Let me try to draw these disparate thoughts together: On its own cinema can never cut through, let alone solve significant social or cultural problems, but through ‘illuminating’ the sometimes very different lives and experiences of others - most particularly the young and the vulnerable - it can help create that vital ‘context of understanding’ within which the type of change that sometimes looks ‘impossible’ begins to look at least ‘possible’. And as every one of us will have experienced, once you cross that frontier of doubt, trust begins to develop, and before you know it, the unthinkable becomes, not only thinkable - but maybe even achievable?
This is why cinema, and its relationship with history and the ‘real world’, matters. I can only repeat that from my perspective, far and away the most important role of the individual filmmaker is to help illustrate and explain the ambiguities and complexities of life, and in doing so, help promote understanding and, where necessary create narratives that support or encourage dialogue - leading, in some cases, to the possibility of acceptable compromises.

The dream of our own cinema; a distinctive European cinema that really does ‘dare to speak the truth to power’ - and celebrates the privilege of being able to do so.
For far too many of you here this evening that wasn’t always the case!
The dream of a cinema that, in its infinite variety, speaks to all of the communities represented in this new and extraordinary Europe.
The dream of a cinema that entertains, that engages, and that endures - a cinema that leaves its imprint as much on our hearts and our conscience as on our minds; an imprint that lasts long after the lights come up - in my case for a lifetime.

Cinema is a dream - and a reality that, one hundred and twelve years on, is as powerful and as valuable as it has ever been.
Your job is to keep it that way.