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Is the punk spirit still alive in British cinema?

  • Jubilee

Derek Jarman's Jubilee

As punk turns 40, Sophie Brown questions if the punk spirit can still be found in British filmmaking today. Part one of a two-part series.

Forty years have rolled by since punk music -- kicked off by bands like The Sex Pistols, the Slits and the Buzzcocks -- smashed into the public consciousness, fired by the boredom and anger of a young generation.  Having originated from the suburbs and working class, punk gave a voice to the dissatisfied and discontented from many backgrounds. With an exciting, confrontational spirit, the punk movement put two fingers up at the system, and roared with DIY power against the establishment that frantically tried to shut it down.

Although easily identifiable in fashion or music, its presence in cinema is elusive, and a question of content vs. form – does the documentation of the punk era necessarily mean punk cinema? As Helen de Witt, Head of Cinemas at the BFI, says: “You attribute punk to a certain kind of filmmaking, even though there were a lot of films made in that era, can you really say that they were all punk films? Were they just documenting a time? What is it that makes them punk? Is it the content or is there a form, not just located at that particular time?”

It is difficult to ascertain how punk exists in contemporary British cinema, and whether it is an aesthetic or an attitude. Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1977) is a distinctive example of the cinematic embodiment of punk; angry, violent, deranged and not the kind of film that the cinema industry would gamble on for ticket sales. The ways in which films reach audiences have shifted and transformed astronomically since the 1970s, and prospective box-office performance plays a huge part in the fate of independent films beyond the film festival circuit. As distributor and filmmaker Ashley Horner says, “Films we see in cinemas [now] are unlikely to be very punk because the process itself is so bloody expensive and the filters that get in the way of getting that kind of stuff on screen are huge.”

For filmmaker/curator Stanley Schtinter, who recently curated The Liberated Film Club at London’s independent cinema Close Up, the notion of punk existing in an industry shackled to capitalist structures is not an idea that he entertains: “I have a straight and negative opinion of almost everything given visibility by the machinery in place. It used to take some time for radical ideas to be coopted; now it's part and parcel: immediate recuperation, and I'm afraid I don't see many individual or collective workers who actively look for an alternative model, or communicate anything of the grand, abstract ‘liberation’ which tends to define the work I respond to.”

“The infinite bureaucracy, control, inertia, is central to this - but it's all propped up by the idiots who think there's still such thing as 'career' as 'future' in the current mould. It's about as boring as madness can get. The flat-headed culture necessarily utilises aesthetic devices intended to present contemporary material as radical or alternative, but this is a culture of currency, and I can think of no greater example than in so-called British cinema.”

Short film is one area where punk definitely thrives, with the accessibility of technology and potentially lower production costs in comparison to feature films, alongside its existence outside of a box office system. Having programmed the Halloween Short Film Club for years, Philip Ilson teamed up with Kate Taylor to create a ‘punk rock film festival’, the Halloween Short Film Festival at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). The festival transformed into the London Short Film Festival and Ilson still seeks out and champions radical filmmaking: “To me, punk means going out there and doing it. In the early days, as we tried to distance ourselves from the safe conventional festivals and I hope that that legacy has continued into what the London Short Film Festival is. With shorts, being punk rock would be just getting out there and doing something from the heart without caring about what people think, and I look for this kind of work all the time… though any art form has a personal taste issue attached, so I may hate many things that are considered punk.”

But if the connotations and cultural symbols are stripped from the overused word ‘punk,’ the subversive, challenging attitude at its core has continued to exist in filmmaking in various guises. Harmony Korine, whose work London Short Film Festival focused on last year, is one (American) example – or any of the three filmmakers commissioned to take part in LSFF’s CATS&CATS&CATS event –  Vivienne Dick, Nic Abrahams and Jennifer Reeder. These artist filmmakers also stand out for De Witt, who lists “vitality, energy, being oppositional, confrontational, claiming territory….putting yourself in people’s faces” as the central elements to punk; qualities expressed through the work of British artists such as Jeremy Deller, with his inflatable Stonehenge, and Rachel Maclean with her dark and satirical explorations of contemporary culture and the British psyche.

In terms of British Cinema, the independent, subversive or confrontational attitude of punk can be seen in contemporary filmmakers such as Andrew Kotting, John Akomfrah, Alexander Taylor, Peter Strickland, Campbell X, Charles Henri Belleville, Alice Lowe, Jonathan Glazer and Shane Meadows, amongst others.

de Witt also identifies Carol Morley, Andrea Arnold and Ben Wheatley as heading up punk’s presence in contemporary British filmmaking. “They’re all filmmakers of individual visions, all about confronting societal norms. There’s always an alternative present in their work – a different kind of thinking. They’re always about characters who are somehow outsiders and don’t fit in. By concentrating on outsiders who don’t fit it in it shows up the false values, manipulations and assumptions of society at large.”

As the popularization of punk watered down some of its initially controversial force, the explosion of, and immediacy created by, social media assimilates trends which are rapidly absorbed and homogenised by popular culture. “The success of underground initiatives and marketing tactics have put everything on a level,” says de Witt. “These days of high-end capitalism, where it’s so hard not to engage with the market… everything that punk stood for was not to do with the market or capitalism, it was to do with autonomy and confronting power structures, and democracy and opportunity. When there’s a big enough movement it gets noticed but at the moment our society is so much more complex and corporate it’s really hard to. Signing a 38 degrees petition online, radical does not make you.”

Read part two of this essay series here, about how the punk spirit is alive in connecting non-mainstream films to audiences.