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  • In Focus: The British Film Institute
  • Toby Miller
  • Who Are These People?1
  • Toby Miller (bio)

A letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement signed by 48 academics—42 from overseas—cited BFI Publishing’s “unique contribution to the study of film and television around the globe;” a similar letter to the Guardian expressed the concern of 58 academics. [BFI Director Amanda] Nevill, however, is unmoved. “Go back and analyse who these people are. It’s a very small number of people … saying a small number of things”—Time Out2

The time is the late 1990s, and I am cleaning under my bed—an unusual activity for me. The phone rings. I reach for the cordless device, and a pleasant-sounding, youngish man introduces himself as a consultant who has been asked to look for ways to improve the British Film Institute (the BFI). He was given my name and number. His main thought is that the Institute should become more commercial, following the example of the American Film Institute (the AFI). I laugh and say that the AFI is a joke, a public relations arm of Hollywood with minimal academic, cultural, theoretical, political, or intellectual credibility. The AFI needs to become more like the BFI, I suggest.3 He laughs, the conversation ends amicably, and the dust accumulates under the futon. Ten years later, someone pins up Kill Bill posters around the BFI, with Uma Thurman’s sword-wielding figure airbrushed away and replaced by the face of the organization’s director, Amanda Nevill. The trope symbolizes her stripping the BFI of its assets, to remake it under the spell of the private sector.4

I suspect that today the joke is on people like me, not the BFI’s director or the advance-guard consultant of a decade ago. Buttressed by years of neoliberalism, their triumph seems complete. For many of us, however, “the overall mood of the organization” seems “subdued, quite different to the buzzy atmosphere 10 years ago.”5 What had been “an enviable model” of cultural policy is now widely regarded as “an awful example of political vandalism.”6 This dossier seeks to explain how that happened, and what it means for us now, in the light of the BFI’s past.

How should we conceptualize the British Film Institute? In struggling for an analogy, anthropological museums come to mind. Ethology, ethnology, and [End Page 121] archaeology were pioneered by such institutions. The study of difference moved from the museum to the classroom in part via their example. Something similar occurred with screen studies, which in its humanities manifestation has drawn massively on the example set by the BFI. The great thing about the Institute for scholars has been that its teaching, archiving, and publishing were run by intellectuals, pioneers of English-language film theory, history, and study. They provided an example of how to “do” screen culture that we cloistered souls now emulate.

The BFI’s origins in the late 1920s and early 1930s lay in concerns about the perils and promises of cinema, its twin capacities to curse and to bless, to intoxicate and to educate. In those days, the screen was regarded by such bodies as the Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, a creature of the adult-education movement, as “a powerful instrument for good and evil.”7 That discourse animated the formation of the BFI. Activists thought that the best way to use movies as an “instrument” for “good” over “evil” was through the generation of a considered, improving discourse that would elevate viewers.8

Such beliefs conceived of culture as “conformity to law without the law,” as articulated by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment. Kant argued that aesthetic contemplation, if properly tutored, could produce “morally practical precepts” that transcended particular interests through “public sense, i.e. a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation … to weigh its judgement with the collective reason of mankind.”9

The BFI initially focused on publishing and education. The heart of its mission from 1933 to 1948 was providing instructions for projectionists, short courses for teachers, film pantheons for pupils, and periodicals...

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