With alternative modes of production reshaping the definition of “mainstream” well beyond the reach of studio cinema, it can be difficult for independent cinema to maintain its, well, independence.
Yet the British Independent Film Awards, now in their 17th year, still occupy a unique position in the U.K. awards calendar. Though their definition of independent cinema is hardly elitist, their nominees annually cover a large sector of British cinema not served by the BAFTAs — as the latter institution models itself ever more directly on the American Academy Awards, their spotlighting of homegrown product grows increasingly selective.
As a measure of the disconnect, the last three winners of BIFA’s top prize — “Tyrannosaur,” “Broken” and “Metro Manila” — scored just four BAFTA nominations among them, all in specialized or subsidiary categories. This year’s BIFA nominee list sees Yann Demange’s tough, low-grossing Troubles thriller “’71,” above, leading the count ahead of the Oscar-buzzed heritage biopics “Mr. Turner” and “The Imitation Game”; such an outcome in January’s BAFTA announcement, where Demange’s film will do well to score a Best British Film nom, is all but unthinkable.
Johanna von Fischer, a BIFA director of nine years’ standing, believes their awards are more representative than any other of the full spectrum of contemporary British filmmaking.
“The health of the industry is only reflected in BIFA, and each year it just gets stronger,” she says. “We’re in a position to celebrate films that are a bit more popular alongside smaller critical favorites, or even really strong genre films, that wouldn’t get noticed at other ceremonies.”
Past BIFA ceremonies have favored arthouse independents over those with broader crossover appeal: Memorable upsets in the awards’ history include “Red Road” lead Kate Dickie besting “The Queen” star Helen Mirren in the 2006 actress race, or oblique sci-fi pic “Moon” taking the top prize ahead of multiple Oscar nominee “An Education.” Still, the awards have drawn criticism for being overly generous to films sitting at the more mainstream end of the indie spectrum: A near-sweep for “The King’s Speech” in 2010 had some industry observers wondering if BIFA was failing to honor its own principles.
Von Fischer is sanguine about such protests, describing films like “The King’s Speech” and “The Imitation Game” as essential to the process.
“When BIFA is criticized, it’s only a good thing, because it means people are engaging in the conversation about British independent film,” she says. “People might accuse us of rewarding films that don’t need our help, but if those films weren’t there, people would pay less attention. Part of their job is to raise the profile of the awards, to get people to notice the other films nominated alongside them.”
Meanwhile, annual complaints are made about films and individuals excluded from the shortlist — previous BIFA winner Peter Strickland’s acclaimed “The Duke of Burgundy” was one of this year’s most surprising no-shows.
Such omissions, says von Fischer, are merely a testament to the robust health of the indie industry: “When I first started at BIFA, we actually had to take our nominations down to four per category, because there just weren’t enough films. Now the problem is that there isn’t enough room.
“Each year, we’re told that this is it for British independent film, whether it’s down to funding or taxes or politics,” she continues. “But it just keeps growing.”
Emma Thompson will be honored with the Richard Harris Award at the Dec. 7 ceremony in London. Previous winners have included John Hurt, David Thewlis, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Daniel Day-Lewis, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon and Julie Walters. Thompson was nominated in 1998 and 2008.
For a full list of nominations, see bifa.org.uk