Why UK Arts Cuts Threaten Progress For Women Filmmakers

02/11/2011 23:02 GMT | Updated 02/01/2012 10:12 GMT

I co-founded Birds Eye View when I was just 25, as a positive response to the fact that only 7% film directors and 12% screenwriters were women. I was fuelled by my conviction that, for us to know equality in society, we need a balanced perspective in one of the most powerful story-telling media of our time: film.

I launched the inaugural Birds Eye View Film Festival in 2005, with a small amount of sponsorship and an entirely voluntary team. I didn't have any access to public funds, or the faintest idea how to get any. I was a 20-something on a mission, entirely focused on making this festival happen, and making it brilliant. To my naively ambitious mind, if I did this well enough, the funding would fall into place. I already knew it was important. It just had to be good. 

It was good, and it got better. Over the next six years the festival grew to reach an audience of 12,000, with another 6,000 through touring, and an incredible 650,000 via online and broadcast channels. Audiences consistently gave events an average rating of 9 out of 10. Celebrities and film VIPs came each year to speak and support - Rosamund Pike, Zoe Wanamaker, Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw, Jo Brand, Meera Syal, Gurinder Chadha and so many more.

We began to premiere bigger, better titles - last year including Susanne Bier's Oscar winning In A Better World, with other filmmakers including Mary Harron, Lucy Walker, Lena Dunham, Xiaolu Guo, Jessica Hausner, Marjane Satrapi, Wanuri Kahiu and more. We kept a tremendous diversity within the programme - including comedy feature films, horror films, hard-hitting documentaries, filmmakers from developing countries, multi-platform projects showcased online as part of our Innovation Strand, masterclasses and Q&As with leading directors and writers, showcases of the best short films from across the globe.

We highlighted the contribution of women from the very earliest days of cinema with our Sound & Silents events, commissioning female musicians, including Imogen Heap, Zoe Rahman, Bishi and Natalie Clein, to create new live scores to classic silent films.

It has been a wonderful, joyous celebration of all the brilliance, passion and skill that women bring to film and the incredible diversity of stories they choose to tell on screen, in so many different styles. It has inspired emerging women filmmakers to keep pursuing their dreams, given them access to insights from world-leaders, shown audiences what they are too often missing, and offered a much valued high profile platform to hundreds of filmmakers from around the world. There's 2min film of our 2011 festival on our homepage, to give you a flavour.

A huge achievement for a micro-organisation. Our impact is already clearly felt across the film industry, and beginning to hit a wider public. But what about funding?

In 2007 we first received support from the UK Film Council's Diversity Grant in Aid, to the tune of £30,000. In 2009 we were one of only 8 national film festivals (outside London and Edinburgh) to receive the support of the UK Film Council's Film Festivals Fund - at £58,500 a year. That was an immense achievement, but it came at the same time as the credit crunch, when our growing corporate sponsorship disappeared. Over the years we have constantly worked at commercial partnerships - not easy when you can't afford team consistency to fully develop them, and have begun to find the confidence to court individual giving - a long and time consuming process. There has been no opportunity for core funding - the Film Council never supported organisations in the way Arts Council England has, and Trusts and Foundations tend to rule out film from the start. But we muddled through, with a too-frequently changing lo-paid team and with all the favours we could pull. 

This year, after the sudden closure of the UK Film Council, and transference of funds to the British Film Institute, we found ourselves with a 90% drop in the Festival budget. The BFI have, as yet, no funds set up for festivals or diversity focused projects. Thus we will not be able to run a film festival in 2012, instead keeping activity up through a touring programme and through our membership scheme: The Nest, and planning new sustainable structures for 2013 and beyond.

We will be back, I'm sure of it. But 2012 will lack a festival that has become vital to our culture. Women still make up less than 10% film directors and 15% screenwriters. That means that around 90% of the stories we are told through film - stories which influence our culture and our inner worlds - come from a male perspective. Birds Eye View has provided a cultural oasis in which we get to see and celebrate the full potential of that missing half. 

You hear it said that times of cuts are good for culture: 'talent will out'. But we do not live in an equal world. If we lose the best efforts of the last decade to counter inequality, we will lose access to the creative vision of half the population. And what a loss of creativity that would be.