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Social Inequalities in British Documentary Film Production

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 6098 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Social inequalities in cultural work in British documentary film production


The research seeks to explore social inequalities in British documentary film production. I investigate what variables produce different social inequalities within the film industry and how social inequalities influence filmmakers’ career development. I am interested in understanding laboring subjectivity, i.e. stories of the self produced by filmmakers regarding their work and life. I investigate working life of individuals who experience social disadvantages and provide various responses towards them. As well as undertaking a review of the relevant literature, I conduct primary research using the qualitative methods of semi-structured interview and ethnographic observation.

Theoretical framework and methodology

The works of Foucault are illuminating for developing the theoretical framework of my research. Foucault undertakes analytical shift or displacement in his analytics of power (Foucault 1983; Foucault 1978 [1990]; Foucault 1991; Foucault 2007). Power relations are defined as modifying others, i.e. it is ‘conduct of conduct’ or ‘an action upon an action’ (Foucault 1983). Power is not someone’s privilege or property, it is social relations based on complex set of positions, strategies and tactics. Foucault suggests exploring techniques and procedures of governmentality instead of looking at power institution operation, as power operates through various social modes rather than just through management of states. He argues an omnipresence of power which originates from multiple sources and an immanence of power in any social relationships. Power relations operate through everyday practices of individuals, therefore he explores ‘regimes of practices’ (Foucault 1997c) instead of ‘universals’ such as ideologies and systems (Foucault 2010b: 3).

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Foucault suggests the term governmentality which he regards as a set of institutions and regulations within historically specific form of power which govern population by using political economy as a source of knowledge about governed population and apparatuses of security (Foucault 1997b: 219-220). Foucault also regards governmentality as a historical shift from one period to another and as a process of transformation of states (Foucault 1997b: 220). He analyses the changes of governing modes throughout the history of Western societies and looks at the XVIII – XIX centuries as a period of profound social and political changes. He discusses the governmentalization of the state which produces the state of government in XVIII century. It replaced the old forms of state which are the administrative state and the state of justice. Foucault distinguishes between ‘juridico-discursive’ view of power which is a repressive and preventing force and ‘modern’ type which is a creative force (May 2015). The latter type of power replaces the former at the time of emerging of governmental state. It rather makes something happen than forbids. Foucault argues that modern power creates modern soul, i.e. it creates certain kind of human being (1991).

Foucault is interested in not only how actions are regulated, but also in how subject governs herself (Foucault 1997a). Subject is controlled ‘inside and outside’, with the technologies of power and the technologies of the self, and the connection between them is called governmentality (Foucault 1997a: 225). The technologies of power concern domination and control of the subject, while technologies of the self ‘permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operation on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality’ (Foucault 1997a: 225).

Foucault makes contribution to historical understanding of neoliberalism which is the main rationality of contemporary state (Foucault 2010a). He applies his theoretical framework to neoliberalism which is regarded as an art of government or as a form of governmentality. It relates to his view on neoliberalism which is not just theory and ideology, but practices of governing. Foucault explores neoliberalism as concrete historical forms of governing existing in different countries and as specific doctrines provided by the group of scholars. According to Foucault, neoliberal governmentality is a ‘method of thought’ (Foucault 2010a: 218) which provides account on neoliberal subjectivity.

Foucault argues that neoliberal subject is homo oeconomicus (Foucault 2010a). Homo oeconomicus is not just a partner of exchange in economic processes, but she is an entrepreneur of herself. Entrepreneur is a producer and a source of her own capital. Entrepreneurial subject is ‘eminently governable’ through governing herself. Foucault analyses neoliberal subjectivity by looking at the theory of human capital introduced by neoliberal thinkers. He explores the theory of human capital as a source of economic explanations of non-economic spheres, specifically labour turns into the object of economic analysis. The theory of human capital put work into economic analysis which provides knowledge on worker’s conduct, values, and rationality. It regards worker as an economic subject with her positions and views that should be analyzed. Foucault calls worker as a ‘machine’ and ‘enterprise-unit’ to show the process of turning human capital into earnings. That human capital includes various innate and acquired elements, from genetic hereditary to any skills or experience acquired through education, family, mobility and not necessarily related to work (Foucault 2010a: 227-230).

Within Foucauldian studies, there is an acknowledgement of contribution made by Foucault into research on production of neoliberal subjectivity (Brockling 2016; Dean 2018; du Gay; McNay 2009; Rose 1999). Foucault’s theorizing on entrepreneurial subjectivity is also applicable within contemporary scholarship on media and culture (Banks 2007; Banks 2017; Brockling 2016; Coulson 2012; Gill 2008; Gill 2010; Gill and Pratt 2008; Ikonen 2018; Lesage 2018; McRobbie 1998; McRobbie 2016; Morgan and Nelligan 2015; Neff et al 2005; Oakley 2009; Ouellette and Hay 2008; Ross 2009; Scharff 2016; Scharff 2018; Ringrose and Walkerdine 2008; Storey et al 2005; Taylor 2018; Taylor 2015; Ursell 2000). According to their research, entrepreneurship is an essential feature of contemporary work in cultural industries. McRobbie (2016; 2002) regards entrepreneurialism as a new form of governmentality that manages cultural industries. Banks (2007) and Oakley (2009) argue that entrepreneurial discourse is implemented in the policies of cultural industries. Taylor (2015) explores the convergence of discourses of entrepreneurialism and creative work and argues (2018) that an entrepreneur is a model which includes new working requirements and rewards. Ursell (2000) explores British television workers who develop the entrepreneurial ethos that is analysed as modern governmentality, ‘governance through self-government’ (Ursell 2000: 746).

I apply Foucault’s theory of governmentality to my empirical study of subjective experience of social inequalities in British documentary film production. I explore how research participants shape and guide their conduct at filmmaking work that is characterized by class and gender inequalities. The method of in-depth interview allows me to examine discursive patterns of reflexivity about oppression and discrimination. I am interested in filmmakers’ subjectivities that are the ways of governing the self. Foucauldian study of neoliberalism and neoliberal subjectivity is applicable to my empirical study of social inequalities, as ‘exclusionary processes lie at the heart of neoliberalism’ (Scharff 2016: 119). Foucauldian scholarships explore neoliberalism as rationality and discourse through which subjectivity is constructed in economic terms. I investigate labouring subjectivities of individuals who contribute to documentary film production at various capacity, for instance directors, producers, and cinematographers. In summary, my research addresses the following research questions: What are social and political conditions influencing the current ecology of British documentary film production? How do documentary filmmakers experience and negotiate social inequalities in filmmaking work? How do social inequalities constitute labouring subjectivities? What are responses provided by documentary filmmakers towards disadvantageous experience?

Policy regulation of British film production

The following section contextualizes the research by providing background information on the contemporary history of British film production. The review relates to the main tendencies in policy regulation in the film sector from 1980s onwards, as it shows the political and economic changes towards deregulation and marketisation that strongly impact on labour relations within the film sector. Without seeking to be comprehensive in the following review, I outline the main changes in policy regulation and funding provision which are relevant in terms of understanding the current ecology of British documentary film production.

The Conservative government (1979-1990) policy of deregulation and free market significantly influenced the film sector (Corner and Harvey 1991a; Corner and Harvey 1991b; Dickinson 1999; Crisell 1997; Higson 2011; Hill 2016; Hill 2004; Hill 1993). The Thatcher’s government believed that the film industry along with other businesses should be financially independent and self-reliant. Their idea involved minimizing public expenditure, facilitating private investments and privatizing public properties in the film industry (Hill 1993). In 1983, the quota for distribution of British films was abolished after its operation since the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act. The 1985 Films Act suspended the Eady levy that was a tax on box office revenue implemented in 1957 in order to support British film production. The Conservatives also changed the way of operating the National Film Finance Corporation towards its privatization. As a result of governmental initiatives, the British film production was at ‘a historically low ebb’ by the end of the Conservatives decade (Hesmondhalgh et al 2015: 105).

Channel 4 launch contributed to an emergence of new organizational form of film production (Dickinson 1999; Harvey 1994; Sparks 1994; Crisell 1997; Freedman 2016). The channel did not make programmes, instead, it commissioned them from independent film production companies. The new production model was opposing to the old one at the BBC and ITV. The independent production quickly grew and significantly changed the industry (Harvey 1994: 104; Sparks 1994: 139). Before those transformations, the industry was dominated by a few large employers (the BBC or ITV) providing secure employment. The independent production growth related to the development of many small employers that had precarious and short time employment that favored subcontracting arrangements (Sparks 1994: 137). The income of independents was unstable and unpredictable, and employee benefits were cut to decrease the cost of production and increase the profitability of companies (Harvey 1994: 104, 125).

In terms of its film policy, the Major government (1990-1997) changed the previous agenda of the Conservative party (Dickinson and Harvey 2005; Higson 2011; Hill 2004; Hill 2012). It renounced free market policy by introducing tax reliefs and providing National Lottery funds for film production. The tax relief on big-budget films was introduced in 1992. It established the current funding system of the film production. As a result of the government’s initiatives, the film production was significantly increasing during 1990s (Higson 2011: 15). The tax relief attracted inward investments into the film industry and ‘helped boost employment and developed the UK’s state-of-the-art facilities and world-leading talent and crews’ (Newsinger and Presence 2018: 447). However, the tax relief system contributed to the emergence of ‘corporate welfare system’ and ‘commercial subsidy as a cornerstone of creative industries policy in the UK’ (Newsinger and Presence 2018: 448). The main beneficiaries of government subsidies were multinational corporations and Hollywood studios, as the government was eager to subsidy the commercial media and culture where large corporations were prevailed.

New Labour government (1997-2010) showed certain continuity and shifts with the preceding Conservatives’ policy. It extended the tax relief to low-budget film production which intended to support the independent film production. The government increased the available Lottery funds to film production. However, those economic measures mostly addressed well-being of big-budget production and marginalized the small independent film (Newsinger and Presence 2018). New Labour showed a great emphasis on economic goals; the sector was regarded as a creative industry that was a source of economic growth, and there was less concern with film as culture. The government aimed at creating sustainable and successful industry which was able to compete with Hollywood.

As Hill (2012) notices, the Coalition government (2010-2015) demonstrated ‘fundamental continuities in film policy’ with the preceding New Labour (Hill 2012: 335). Its policy aimed at achieving economic goals and promoting commercial filmmaking (Hill 2016). There were further cuts in public expenditure that led to a decision to dismantle the UK Film Council and Regional Screen Agencies in 2010 (Hill 2012). Newsinger (2015) argues that culture funding cuts had a strong impact on non commercial and small sectors (2015: 307). The main tax break system for films was remained, but there were a few changes in taxation supporting commercial filmmaking (Hill 2016: 716).

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British film production significantly increased during the last decade. The film and video production workforce grew from 24,000 in 2008 to 64,000 in 2017 (BFI 2018: 198). Half of workers are self-employed, the other half of them are predominantly employed in small companies which include 1-10 workers; those companies account for 97% of all workplaces in the sector in 2017 (BFI 2018: 203). The film production sector is polarized and fragmented, as the vast majority of companies are small independents which produce low-budget films and the minority of companies are large companies with bigger-budget films (Newsinger and Presence 2018). The current system of public funding contributes to polarization of film production. The largest source of public spending is tax relief, and its main beneficiary is a small number of large production companies which make big-budget commercial films. The majority of film production companies have access to insufficient amount of public funds. The independent film sector (including documentary) is the most disadvantaged within the current funding system (Hill 2016; Steele 2015). Newsinger and Presence (2018) argue that the current system of public funding ‘maintains the systemic barriers to equality that characterize the industry’ (2018: 455). The insufficiency of available public funding places the risks of film production on workers who are able to take those risks only in case if they belong to privileged social groups.

Data on social inequalities in British documentary film production

British documentary film production workforce is characterized by various social inequalities. There were 25% of female crew members in the documentary film production during the last 5 years (the period between 2013 and 2018) (BFI 2017). There were significant differences in gender representation in workforce across documentary film departments and roles. For instance, there were 36% of female producers, 24% of female directors, 15% of female editors, 13% of female directors of photography, 6% of female sound recordists in the documentary film production in the UK during the same period (BFI 2017). There is significantly less available data on class and race inequalities in documentary filmmaking work. The accessible data on class and race inequalities relates to the film industry or the sector of film, television, video, radio and photography. According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport report (DCMS 2016), there were 12% of employees from socio-economically disadvantaged groups in the sector of film, television, video, radio and photography in 2015. There were 27% of workers with secondary education certificates or no qualification who were employed in creative occupations in the sector of film, television, video, radio and photography in 2015 (DCMS 2016). Among BAFTA winners of best actress, actor and director awards, there were 42% of attendants of independent schools, 33% of attendants of grammar schools and 25% of attendants of comprehensive schools over the last 25 years (Sutton Trust 2016). There were 3% of Black and minority ethnic workers in the film production in 2015 (Creative Skillset 2016); and 65% of film workers were based in London and the South East in 2015 (BFI 2016).

My empirical research reveals a wide acknowledgment of social inequalities by documentary filmmakers. The research participants discuss various disadvantages of filmmaking work and characterize the film industry as elitist and exclusionary. They argue that filmmaking occupation mostly benefits white middle class able-bodied middle age men living in London. It systematically excludes others, particularly women, working class people, Black and minority ethnic people, disabled people, and senior people. Documentarians negotiate inequalities as a cumulative and complex phenomenon. According to their accounts, there are various working conditions that reinforce the inequality problem of the film production. The filmmaking is highly precarious work which does not guarantee any economic or social security to its workers. There is a high economic pressure of filmmaking work which requires documentarians to contribute own financial resources into it. The networking sociality and nepotistic practices of hiring facilitate systematic exclusions of unprivileged workers. The filmmaking profession promotes homophilic communication of workers who have similar social characteristics. The filmmakers argue that the homogeneity of workforce restricts an experience that is portrayed in documentary films.

Entrepreneurial subjectivity of documentary filmmakers

The documentary filmmakers provide an entrepreneurial response to social inequalities that they face in the film industry. It includes following an entrepreneurial ethos, rather than just creating film enterprises. The entrepreneurship addresses the self as the political project which involves a particular way of self-governing. Discourse of entrepreneurial self is a normative discourse that prescribes to constitute a new type of worker, i.e. who is productive, ambitious, motivated, initiative, committed, tenacious, rational, pragmatic, flexible and mobile (Brockling 2016). The entrepreneurial herself takes full responsibility and risks of her life, as she manages precariousness, multiple job holding and speeded up character of her work. Entrepreneurial subject narrates her biography as series of professional achievements and successful individual developments.

Entrepreneurship contributes to ideas of resilience and adaptation; therefore, it naturalizes neoliberal governmentality. Filmmaker entrepreneur is a resilient subject who is able to overcome difficulties and to sustain own independent professional activity. The discourse of resilience promotes a necessity to adapt to insecure conditions and provide sustainable response towards them (Chandler and Reid 2016). Its interlocutors change themselves to become entrepreneurs, rather than the working environment. Diverse social characteristics prevent to accept insecure environment; therefore, the neoliberal governmentality addresses social vulnerabilities as limits to entrepreneurial subjects (Chandler and Reid 2016).

Filmmaking enterprises contribute to reproducing social inequalities and cultural elitism; entrepreneurs, on the contrary, argue that their professional independence results overcoming social inequalities of the film industry. According to their accounts, independent film production sector is an opposite one to the elitist and exclusionary film industry. Entrepreneurial commitment and hard work are able to create equal opportunities to everyone who wish to get access to film production, and social inequalities are not regarded as structural phenomena producing obstacles for marginalised individuals. Contrariwise, I argue that adaptive strategy of filmmakers entrepreneurs contributes to reinforcing marginalization of the film production. Their film enterprises establish working conditions that are similar to the mainstream film industry. For instance, their enterprises are characterized by insecure employment, low remuneration, and nepotistic and informal recruitment practice. They contribute to entrepreneurial ideas of resilience and tenacity that are essential characteristics for employees. Adaptive and self-securing subjectivity of filmmakers entrepreneurs is unlike the oppositional subjectivity of radical filmmakers resisting marginalization of the film industry.

Oppositional subjectivity of documentary filmmakers

The documentary filmmakers provide an oppositional response to social inequalities that they face in the film production. The radical documentary film culture is rooted in opposing injustice in the filmmaking profession and in the broader society. The filmmakers argue for radical political transformations that would address capitalism, patriarchy, classism, racism, and colonialism. The independent film is examined as subaltern counterdiscourses (Fraser 1990; Perry 2016) that challenge power relations by bringing marginalised voices into the film production. The oppositional response allows filmmakers to reinvent the working environment, as they create inclusive space for marginalised others by producing new representations and involving subalterns into creative processes.

The oppositional documentarians create radical aesthetics by producing politically motivated films. Their filmmaking addresses subjects of social and political matters representing problems of homelessness, poverty, racism, xenophobia, crime, violence. The filmmakers are interested in certain subjects as politically engaged citizens. Their primary concern is political and social subjects of their films, while there is less attention to changing conventions of observational techniques in their filming and editing. Similar to the independent filmmakers of the 1970-1980s, the contemporary documentarians use the rhetoric of assertion (Perry 2016: 43-44, 59). The assertive discourse criticizes the social reality in order to achieve social and political transformations. Their statements contribute to a new form of filmmaking that aims to promote social justice (Perry 2016: 44). Waugh (2011) calls it ‘committed documentary’ which makes ‘a declaration of solidarity with the goal of radical sociopolitical transformation’ (Waugh 2011: 8 quoted in Perry 2016: 44).

The oppositional documentary filmmaking is a political intervention into the dominant discourse produced by the mainstream film and television. The latter neglects an experience and knowledge of marginalized individuals, and the independents make subalterns visible. Subaltern counterdiscourses allows their interlocuters to create spaces for reinventing themselves and, thus, decreasing their disadvantages (Fraser 1990: 68). In their representations of marginalised communities, the independent filmmakers use the rhetoric of committed analysis of social phenomena. Contrary to the mainstream production, the oppositional filmmaking investigates the social problems in their historical contexts. The radical documentarians provide an account on class, race and gender related issues having structural nature that is not limited to individual cases.

The contemporary oppositional documentary film culture aims at social and political changes. They articulate an intention to create different representations of marginalised people that would transform broader social imagination. The oppositional documentarians argue for social changes within the film profession. The mainstream production, according to them, is discriminatory in terms of class, gender, sexuality, race, age, and physical ability. The filmmakers provide structural reasons that are rooted in power relations, rather than individuals’ actions. The documentarians contribute to social changes within the film profession by involving marginalised people into the film production. They agitate for creating film collectives and practices that provide a new space of possibles for others. Apart from political reasons, the filmmakers articulate the cultural rationale behind involving subaltern others into production, as they contribute their perspectives into creating truthful representations.


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