“One of the questions back then was were you ‘organised’?—that is, who did you belong to? […] the dominant model of political activity in the extra-parliamentary left, notwithstanding the fresh wind of feminism, was still Leninist and centralist, defined by Communist Party practice or differentiation from it, and unfortunately prone to splits and sectarianism. Thankfully it seems that kind of factional politicking has gone—the model in evidence at Birmingham was the twenty-first century anarchist style of consensus employed by movements like Occupy, and mood was open and congenial. There was much discussion about how the new network should be organised—as loosely as possible. It remains to be seen how robust this will be, but that also depends on the wider political arena.” (Michael Chanan, 2015, ‘Radical film in Birmingham’.)
This document aims to do two things:
- Firstly to act as a partial record of discussion and debate in the Radical Film Network (RFN) from the first RFN conference in February 2015 and the RFN meeting at the Liverpool Radical Film Festival (LRFF) in October 2015 on what we can loosely call questions of organisation and policy;
- Secondly to put forward a proposal for project-based organisation that has emerged from these discussions.
This is not an outward facing ‘statement’, or ‘official’ or formal document. Rather, it is an attempt to draw together and share some of the momentum built up during the first part of the Arts Humanities Research Council-funded network project in order to contribute to further debate and development.
The first section briefly elaborates the background to the idea of a working group on policy and organisation in the RFN; the second summarises the debates that took place during the first RFN meeting at the LRFF; the final section puts forward the proposal of project-based organisation as a good way to approach collective work to maintain both the independence and integrity of members of the RFN while also enabling flexible mutual collaboration and outward-facing engagement on specific issues and activities.
The aim was always to take the ideas discussed and report back to the wider network, for further discussion, feedback and development. That is part of what this document is designed to help with. It is then, in a sense, an attempt to ‘catch up’ with, follow and share things that are already happening in the spirit of refining and developing ideas.
Comments on any aspect of this document, questions, and/or expressions of interest to contribute to further work in this area should be sent to Jack Newsinger (email@example.com).
Background: debates on structure, policy and organisation
Part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding for the Radical Film Network is a project to look at ways in which the network can be sustained longer term – ‘Strategies for Sustainability’.
As part of that project in May 2015 I circulated three questions on the RFN mailing list as a basis for further discussion. These were:
- As a collective, should the RFN engage with institutions, such as the British Film Institute or the British Federation of Film Societies, or other more international bodies? What form should this take? Examples might be for funding of existing distribution and exhibition work; campaigning for increased opportunities for radical film in more mainstream places (TV, Independent cinemas, festivals); funding for production; for increased recognition and support for alternative and non-commercial working practices and organisational forms.
- Should the RFN seek to coordinate political film activity across groups and regions? This might involve pooling resources and coordinating activity around particular issues such as industrial actions, housing disputes, political demonstrations and campaigns, and so on (of which there are certain to be an increasing number over the next few years…); if so, what sort of organisational model is most appropriate?
- Is an RFN constitution, statement or similar desirable? If so, what might this look like? Are there pre-existing models or practices we can learn from to reflect the RFN’s values and membership?
There were a range of responses to these questions demonstrating considerable disagreement on their implications, both for what the RFN is and what it should seek to do in the future. At one end of the scale there was a distrust of any sort of formal organisation, written constitution or policy, or collective engagement with established institutions; at the other it was felt that interfacing with institutions like the British Film Institute was an important means of increasing the impact of radical film on mainstream film culture in the UK. These differences of opinion are important and complex, and no doubt emerge from the wide range of left political and cultural perspectives within the RFN.
The open meeting at Liverpool Radical Film Festival was intended to interrogate these ideas further and lay the ground work for a ‘working group’ to establish strategies for sustaining the RFN, and establishing ways/methods and practices for greater collaboration and activity in ways that do not undermine the rapid success of the RFN to-date in communicating across such a large, diverse and international group of cultural/film activists.
RFN discussion on strategies for sustainability
A number of examples of activity were presented at the LRFF which gave a grounded sense of what could be achieved through collaboration; the challenges and opportunities available to us were debated; and there was an extended discussion of ways to proceed, particularly in regards to sharing information and communication. These included:
- Presentation on the People Power Screening (September 2015), an event celebrating direct action which saw six RFN exhibitors stage a simultaneous screening in six cities in the UK.
- Discussion about establishing an RFN Exhibitors Group, that could include negotiating deals with distributors such as Dogwoof for members, as well as staging more coordinated screening events.
- The recognition that resources and lack thereof is a key issue that everyone in the RFN faces in trying to carry out their activities.
- That responsibility for the administration of the RFN needs to be arranged – particularly maintaining the website, especially the Directory of affiliated organisations and the mailing list, and running the RFN’s social media accounts. The time this requires is estimated at around one day per week. Possible longer term solutions to this problem include a rotation system, academic funding for the role (i.e. a PhD), or some other funding source (i.e. the BFI or trade union support). Other options might be funding drives around particular issues/events/activities, such as crowdfunding.
- One thing to emerge in the presentations and subsequent discussions with funders (BFI Film Audience Network [North West and Central Hub]; Cinema for All; Creative Europe) was the extent to which mainstream institutions such as these require mainstream organisational structures and practices in order to gain recognition and access their funding. At a minimum, this means a written constitution and a bank account. This raised the issue of whether this was desirable; what a constitution might look like; and the extent to which conforming to this sort of outside pressure compromises the integrity and dynamism of the RFN and its members. One of the key strengths of the RFN as it currently stands is that it is completely open, which has enabled the linking of many organisations in a nearly global network in a short space of time. Would this kind of – admittedly loose – network be possible with the additional burden of adherence to a constitution, rules, conditions and so on? A number of people expressed the view that operating more like mainstream organisations was completely anathema to their objectives and interests.
- Reuben Irving made the point that the aims of funding/addressing institutions need to be clearly defined. Getting money, recognition and so on are not ends in themselves. It is quite clear that not everyone in the RFN shares the same aims on issues such as funding, engaging with organisations such as trade unions and political parties, or collaboration. For some, the issue of sustainability remains one of staying small; for others it means growth.
- An important function of collaboration within the RFN is to build solidarity and support. The lesson of the People Power Screening shows that working together across groups and locations on specific and time-limited projects helps to sustain planning and organisation through a sense of solidarity, of shared purpose. The importance of this when working in ‘spare time’ with very limited resources should not be underestimated.
- Individual groups and organisations coming together for specific, time-limited projects emerged as the best way to reconcile these various pressures.
Why project-based organisation?
Project-based organisations (‘adhocracies’ or ‘spaghetti organisations’) have the advantages of being highly flexible and reactive, and non-hierarchical. They are characterised by ambiguous and fluid role boundaries and a high level of autonomy.
Voluntary project-based organisation is particularly appropriate to the RFN for a number of reasons:
- The RFN is a networked organisation of cultural activists largely operating without organisational hierarchies or specific, codified skill specialisms;
- where empowerment through self-organisation, knowledge and skill exchange is particularly important in order to build and sustain largely ‘amateur’ activities;
- where a high degree of heterogeneity characterises the individuals and organisations across the network – in terms of interests, expertise and resources;
- where the evolution of activities and appropriate organisational form across the network is likely and desirable;
- where autonomy and flexibility are not strategic concerns but ends in themselves, part of a well-established ‘DIY’ ethos and radical-left cultural politics;
- and where compromise to external pressures is to be strongly resisted. Project-based groups can disband and reform quickly and easily if/when integrity of practice feels compromised.
‘Projects’ emerge organically from RFN members. They gather momentum through communication across the network. This mean that the RFN website and mailing list operates in part as an enabler to the formation of sub or working groups around particular topics, projects, issues and so on.
Three ‘projects’ were discussed at length at the LRFF:
- Firstly, Shaun Dey made a strong call to coordinate and collaborate around the upcoming Paris Climate talks that take place during 11th-13th Key aims are:
- To link up people who are going;
- Screening material to raise awareness and funds.
- Secondly events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1968 in 2018.
- Palestinian solidarity screening as idea for next coordinated screening event, to take place as part of RFN conference May 2016.
 Entitled ‘Sustaining Alternative Film Cultures’, this project consists of four events in the UK and US across a two-year period (2015-17). The funding includes travel and accommodation bursaries to enable RFN members to attend the events, discuss the challenges involved in the producing radical film culture and how the network and the culture it is designed to support can be sustained in the long term. The first event took place at Liverpool Radical Film Festival in October 2015, the second is at Sheffield Doc/fest in June 2016, the third at Workers Unite Film Festival in New York in May 2017, and the fourth at Bristol Radical Film Festival in October 2017.
 See, Fagerberg, Jan, Mowery, David C. and Nelson, Richard R. (Eds). 2006. The Oxford Handbook of Innovation. Oxford University Press, New York: 130-131. AND Defillippi, Robert. 2015. ‘Managing project-based organization in the creative industries’. Jones, Candace, Lorenzen, Mark and Sapsed, Jonathan (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Creative Industries. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 268-283.