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  • Implementing Cultural Policy: The Case of the BFI Distribution Library
  • Colin McArthur (bio)

My essay “Two steps Forward, One Step Back: Cultural Struggle in the BFI” is a memoir of my ten years, 1974 to 1984, in the senior management of that organization. Although it alludes to the cultural policy of the “key debates” (those areas of discussion such as authorship, genre, realism, ideology, etc., surfacing recurrently in discourse about cinema) that informed our work, the piece is as much concerned [End Page 147] with the nuts and bolts of bringing efficient management to a languid cultural body and with the “wading through molasses” experience of trying to shepherd policy change through bureaucratic committee structures. Here, therefore, I would like to go into greater detail about a specifically cultural feature of our intervention, the transformation of the holdings and the role of the BFI’s (mainly) 16 mm film library.

Having been set up as a cultural body in the 1930s, the BFI, when it came to enter the field of film distribution, did so initially as a way of making available, principally to the film society movement, some of the films not seen in mainline cinemas. Following the critical concerns of the 1930s, this particularly involved the cinemas of Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union. The film society movement, increasingly joined by the “film appreciation” initiatives appearing in the UK educational system, was to remain the central constituency of the film library. However, its initial cultural impulse became muddied over time. While it continued to acquire the “classics” of screen history, as they became available for acquisition (always a complex business due to the diversity of rights holding) it also began to acquire a motley collection of scientific, instructional, and documentary films, becoming something of a repository of the films other 16 mm film libraries did not wish to carry. At the same time, some of its holdings duplicated those of these other libraries. Having been an ardent user of the BFI Library as an aspiring film teacher in the early 1960s, I came into closer contact with it when I joined the BFI Education Department in 1968 as Teacher Adviser and shortly thereafter became its Editor of Film Study Materials. My predecessors in that role, most recently Alan Lovell, had established negotiations with a profoundly suspicious film industry (the characteristic industry stance to the BFI as a whole since its inception) to provide 5- to 15-minute extracts from feature films for use by teachers in the classroom and had even secured permission to create study units comprising an entire feature film, several extracts, and accompanying documentation, which, for a modest fee, a teacher could retain for six weeks to facilitate in-depth study. The Editor of Film Study Materials would discuss with colleagues which films to go for, arrange the screenings and discussions, oversee the production of t! he extra cts and their documentation, and make them available through the BFI Distribution Library. The study units were commissioned from teachers active in the field (e.g., Ed Buscombe on the Western and Richard Dyer on the Musical).

As other essays here have alluded to, the BFI in the late 1960s and early 1970s shared many of the features of public (particularly educational) bodies throughout the western world in the wake of the events in Paris in the summer of 1968. Within the general calling into question of the purposes and the running of the BFI, there was a specific concern with both the management and the policy of the Distribution Library. This resulted in several middle-ranking managers from diverse departments across the BFI forcing the library to accept two criteria within which acquisitions should be made: that each film should have a body of critical writing on it and that it should not be available from other libraries. This, however, [End Page 148] remained largely an aspiration without managerial control of the library. Such control rested in the post of Head of Film Availability Services, to which I was appointed in 1974. The subsequent activity of the library concentrated on two fronts: the rooting out of those films not considered central to the “key debates” policy...


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pp. 147-152
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