In search of Welsh cinema

Fedor Tot investigates the factors currently stifling creativity in Welsh cinema.

Fedor Tot investigates the factors currently stifling creativity in Welsh cinema.

What does a healthy Welsh national cinema look like to you?

The Welsh film and TV industry ought to be in a good place, with big-budget Hollywood productions and prestige TV series frequently making use of Wales. The industry benefits from a strong BBC presence and the Welsh-language sector. Disney, Netflix and Amazon have all made use of Pencoed-based Dragon Studios. Since its creation in 2015, Bad Wolf has emerged as a success story, with a foothold in Cardiff and in LA, and renowned productions such as His Dark Materials and Doctor Who. Whilst Pinewood, the historic British studio whose London base provided the backlots for many James Bond films, pulling out of Wales in 2020 may represent a step back, the studio space they used is now being leased by the company behind Lionsgate. Wales’ geographic variety within a small area – beaches, mountains, urban cities and quaint villages – also makes it an attractive choice for location work, with major series like Sex Education shot almost entirely in Wales. This is good news for Wales-based industry professionals, who are kept busy with a steady stream of productions. The technical knowledge of Wales-based film professionals is impressively high. Practice makes perfect after all, and a steady stream of international productions allows for the sharing of technical and creative knowledge, even though few of these international productions ever give Wales the chance to play itself.

With the money coming into Wales via these big-budget productions, it is remarkable how little we see coming back into domestic production.

But the British film industry is still beset by precarity. For many, freelancing is often a necessity, not a choice, a fact made all the more visible by the knock-on effect of the Hollywood actors and writers’ strikes of last year, which caused a severe slowdown in British film and TV production. A recent survey by Bectu, the union for entertainment industry professionals, revealed that 68% of British film and TV freelancers are currently out of work (a slight drop from 73% in the last survey, though it was undertaken during the strikes). Just as concerning is the long-term picture – 37% of respondents see themselves leaving the industry in the next five years, a number that rises to 40% when the question is put to women, and 50% when put to Black respondents. ‘Working-class people and those without connections and the disabled are hit the worst’ says one respondent, whose statements echoed throughout the report. Surveys such as this suggest a homogenised future for the industry.

In addition, the picture within Wales for domestically produced films is, frankly, poor. With the money coming into Wales via these big-budget productions (an estimated turnover of over £500m, even in the pandemic-hit year of 2021), it is remarkable how little we see coming back into domestic production, particularly films made by Welsh talent or with a purpose that aims to speak to a specifically Welsh context. Of course, very strong films do emerge from Wales or Welsh-based directors: Lee Haven-Jones’ Welsh-language horror The Feast / Gwledd (2022), and his immediate follow-up Y Swn (2023), about the creation of S4C in the 80s were both favourably reviewed by critics; Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (2021) premiered at Sundance in the States and earned critical acclaim; Zambian-born, Wales-raised Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch (2017) premiered at Cannes, the most prestigious film festival in the world, before its wider UK release. And then there are successful productions from outside setting up shop in Wales. Joanna Hogg, about as close to a contemporary A-list auteur as the UK has at the moment, shot her most recent film The Eternal Daughter (2022) in Sychdyn, Flintshire with Tilda Swinton, wearing the Welshness of the location quite visibly. 

Each of these successes are short-lived, and the resources to support directors and filmmakers in establishing long-term careers appears to be missing. Prior to I Am Not a Witch, Nyoni completed a number of acclaimed shorts. Her follow-up, On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, is yet to premiere, seven years since. Bailey-Bond’s last film as director prior to Censor was the acclaimed short Nasty in 2015, and she too has not announced new work since. Prior to the two features he put out within a year or so, Haven-Jones cut his teeth in TV; his IMDB credits include Doctor Who, Casualty, and Shetland, and it looks as if he is returning in that direction. The subsequent Q&A tour for The Eternal Daughter in support of the film as it rolled out across UK cinemas did not include a single Welsh venue.

The reason for these issues lies in the infrastructure in which these films are produced. Outside commercially oriented projects, filmmakers looking to create films with an artistic, personal outlook are forced into either self-funding and crowd-funding routes (these in turn tend to be very small in scale, such as The Nettle Dress by Dylan Howitt, one of the few such films to gain theatrical distribution) or to apply for funding from one of the national film agencies. For Wales-based filmmakers, that would be the BFI or Ffilm Cymru Wales.

After years of austerity and downward pressure on arts funding in the UK, both organisations are operating with limited resources for funding films, but there are wider infrastructural issues relating to questions of vision and strategy on behalf of the agencies. In a country with a healthy independent film industry, any filmmaker who debuts to overwhelmingly positive reviews and festival acclaim should have offers on the table from their national film agency as soon as it premieres: ‘what do you want to do next and how can we help?’ This doesn’t happen: much of the industry feels geared towards development, yet to develop a film is not to make a film, and projects can be stuck for years in development before getting made. Specific practices are unhelpful: Ffilm Cymru, for example, include a clause in their development contracts stipulating that, when a film enters the production phase, it must return this development money plus a 50% premium. Filmmakers have told me this clause is often waived or negotiated away, but it is not hard to see how this might put off less savvy filmmakers from developing work in Wales.

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.


These films are highly unlikely to make money at the box office. They are personal work, but more broadly they create cultural capital, which is as valuable in the long-term. Presently, the process for funding a film here ensures Welsh or British filmmakers are not encouraged to take risks. For all their qualities, films like The Feast, Censor and I Am Not a Witch evince a sense of fear; they feel like first features in which the directors were unsure of where their next film was coming from, so every attempt is made to ensure the film is ‘perfect’. Many stick closely to three-act structures, with little improvisation, and very clearly a lot of heavily composed images. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, but they are signs of a film which has spent a long time being drafted and redrafted, storyboarded, and overthought. The end result is a rigid, airtight film, which doesn’t breathe or move or experiment (except in very controlled ways). The national film industry is not producing great filmmakers, it is producing great funding applications. But the talent, the skills, and the imagination are very clearly there.

There are precedents for this in film history. The cinema of Yugoslavia (my country of birth) emerged from the Second World War without a physical film infrastructure. As with other communist countries of the era, cinema was a major plank of cultural policy but by 1948, the country, led by Josip Broz Tito, had split from Stalin’s Soviet sphere and took on a so-called ‘alternate path’ to socialism, which in turn meant the country was open to investment from the Western world. From the early ‘60s onwards, international productions increasingly used Yugoslavia for location shooting. Crews were skilled and cheaper than in the West, studio space was plentiful, and just like Wales, locations were rich, beautiful and varied.

It isn’t an accident that Georgia, a country of less than four million people with a smaller GDP than Wales, suddenly produces a stream of acclaimed filmmakers.

The money from these international productions was funnelled back into domestic production. Some went into the propagandistic big-budget Partisan war films which glorified in the socialist victories of WWII such as Sutjeska  (1972), which starred Richard Burton as Tito, hand-picked by the President himself. But money was plentiful enough that it went to deliberately challenging work. Directors such as Aleksandar Petrović (Tri, 1965), Zivojin Pavlović (When I’m Dead and Pale, 1967), Želimir Žilnik (Early Works, 1969) and Dušan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971) created work that was provocative and radical. The Yugoslav Black Wave, as it was eventually labelled, earned major prizes at festivals, and Oscar nominations. They created a cultural conversation both at home and abroad. It wasn’t all sunny: many directors faced political pressure and, after a change in attitude in 1972, they faced direct censorship that resulted in some going into exile. But films have to get made to get censored. Prior to 1972, the Yugoslav film industry was healthy. Policy changes at the top killed that.

A more contemporary comparison might be modern Georgian cinema, which has produced an incredible crop of filmmakers over the past few years. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, 2021), Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili, 2020), Blackbird Blackbird Blueberry (Elene Naveriani, 2023), Taming the Garden (Salomé Jashi, 2021), And Then We Danced (Levan Akin, 2019). All of these films premiered at one of the ‘Big Five’ film festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto), around which much of the world’s film industry congregates, and all earned acclaim and prizes. The films are funded through international means, bringing in a Europe-wide financial structure with a portion coming from Georgia’s own film institutions. Beyond that, they are gorgeous, exploratory, risk-taking films that paint a complex and multifaceted picture of the country.

It isn’t an accident that Georgia, a country of less than four million people with a smaller GDP than Wales, suddenly produces a stream of acclaimed filmmakers: the talent has always been there, the question is whether the people in charge of administering the infrastructure of that film industry have the vision to allow that talent to flourish. Even then, it appears this wave of excellent Georgian cinema may be short-lived; the director of the Georgian Film Centre, Gaga Chkeidze was forcibly removed in 2022 and replaced by party loyalists, prompting accusations of censorship from Chkeidze and the filmmakers themselves.

Creating a real change in Welsh and British film and TV production requires more than money: it requires vision.

From a basic financial perspective, there are calls for a ‘streaming levy’: with a large amount of streaming series and films being shot in Wales these would force the hand of major streamers to contribute to a funding pot for independent domestic production, which can in turn increase film production locally. Quota systems, whereby studios have to produce a certain amount of work a year, and paired with guarantees for theatrical screen space in cinemas or streaming visibility, can be quite powerful, ensuring an audience even though they’re unpopular with American giants. International co-operation is already a feature of Welsh film production, but there needs to be a stronger turn towards convincing international film funds to produce films by Welsh filmmakers that confidently speak to the local context. The tax credits for low-budget films (up to £15m) recently announced by UK Government represent a welcome move in kickstarting independent and local productions, but are still an essentially passive policy change rather than a proactive one.

But creating a real change in Welsh and British film and TV production requires more than money: it requires vision. A vision that supports creative filmmakers beyond just development, and essentially sets them free from worrying about funding, distribution or the boredom of film administration. At the moment, it is simply lacking.

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Fedor Tot is a film critic and curator specialising in Yugoslav and Eastern European cinema, based in Cardiff. His bylines include MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, Photogenie, and Vague Visages.

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