Amber the Workshop Declaration and Moving Image Distribution

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sunderland
Department Name: Media


Through an examination of the work of Amber during the 1980s and early 1990s, the research programme will explore the role played by the Workshop Declaration and Channel 4 funding in enabling the wider distribution of community, radical and independent film and video during the 1980s. The research will also examine how/to what extent Workshop Movement models of production and distribution, aimed at giving local communities and their interests a (media) voice, are now being drawn into contemporary online delivery via Amber's Heritage Lottery funded project which aims to extend access to their collections.


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Description This award is ongoing, but I have provided below the key findings of my research so far.

Since its demise, the Workshop Declaration's practice and output, has been dismissed as obsolete and outmoded, but this thesis aims to examine the Workshop Declaration and its working model. Previous research projects have failed to address Amber's wide-ranging and extensive film and video distribution practices. In fact, little research has been conducted in the field of independent, collective, non-commercial approaches to digital distribution. Work, such as this, related to the study of distribution, promotion and exhibition of independent film and video in the UK has mainly focused on pre-digital mediums such as celluloid or videocassette. So, this research investigates the parallels between the Amber's historical practices facilitating the circulation of independent moving image work in the 1980s and early 1990s, and their contemporary online initiatives.

My key contribution is to demonstrate that digital distribution relating to alternative moving image has not initiated entirely new practices, but instead has implemented pre-existing strategies involving analogue formats such as 16mm and VHS. This research will focus on the Workshop Declaration era (1982-1991) and the film practice underpinning the Declaration, integrated practice, whereby, the practice of the filmmaker would not be confined to production alone but significantly extend to exhibition and distribution activities. This allowed workshop filmmakers the opportunity to participate with their chosen community on a multidimensional level, the result of which generated a unique film and video culture.

Demonstrating the accomplishments of integrated practice, will be a discussion focusing on the Current Affairs Unit (CAU) (1982-1987), Amber's video production unit. Spanning the years of the Declaration, CAU increased Amber's grassroots activism, through the distribution of broadcast and non-broadcast video work. This activity not only enhanced Amber's research potentials within the local community, but significantly extended their audience building capabilities. CAU has received little scholarly attention to date and this thesis will be the first to excavate CAU's history and practice, which fed into and enriched Amber's more noted productions.

The Workshop Declaration reached a productive peak in 1987, with three innovative, award-winning workshop productions; Amber Film and Photography Collective's Seacoal (1985), Black Audio Film Collective's Handsworth Songs (1986), and Birmingham Film and Video Workshop's Out of Order (1986). It was a sign of the sectors growing confidence in the practice nurtured by the Workshop Declaration. Buoyed by these achievements, Audiovisual in the Regions (1987-1989), a programme proposal headed by Amber and supported by ECC MEDIA and Channel 4 Television, was an attempt to extend the workshop model in Europe. The scheme eventually failed, however, a chapter is dedicated to this arrangement, exploring its distribution model and transnational network plans that included film workshops in Portugal, Greece, Ireland, France and Germany.

My literature review outlines the historical debates around the Workshop Declaration and the productions it nurtured. Discourses have positioned the Workshop Declaration within a narrative of failure, sidelining the wider regional accomplishments of its practice. Focus has disproportionately been drawn to the films and videos cultivated under the Declaration. Barring a select few that have received critical legitimacy, most of the productions have been dismissed as inferior endeavors, lacking in visually innovative content. Scarce attention has been paid to the novel workshop practice underpinning the Declaration. Integrated Practice, the interrelation of production, exhibition and distribution, forged a far-reaching regional filmmaking infrastructure across Britain. Since the demise of the workshop movement much of the regional infrastructure and its functions have been absorbed by the state. My literature review contextualizes the era of the Workshop Declaration in order advance it as a critical counterweight to the increasingly centralized, top-down cultural sector imposed in Britain since the early 1990s.

Firstly, the review focuses on the recent wave of publications concerning UK independent filmmaking. While there has been increasing academic and gallery interest in UK independent collective and oppositional filmmaking, publications have failed to include the wider infrastructure supported by the Workshop Declaration. There is also a tendency for these publications to focus on groups with a well-defined experimental aesthetic. This interest precludes groups who valued community focus and commitment to politics over any aesthetic motivation. This trend is also predominately focused upon London based film groups that again ignores the ingrained regional commitment of the Declaration.

Secondly, the review highlights the discourses of the original signatories of the Declaration. Histories of Channel 4 and the BFI have largely omitted the unique arrangement espoused in the Declaration, preferring to privilege conventional filmmaking productions that received national and international acclaim in the era. The success of Film on Four, in the 1980s, for instance, is commonly championed for reviving the British Film Industry, by allowing new directors the opportunity to portray life in 'Thatcher's Britain'. Yet there is little space for the Workshop Declaration, which arguably provided a far more diverse range of films that gave a voice to women, the working class, and gay and ethnic minorities in 1980s Britain.

Thirdly, with its perceived failed engagement with television and the perceived unsustainability, a section of the review is dedicated to literature regarding digital distribution, and the ways in which online activity could be a means to revitalize the workshop model. This would no doubt be useful for contemporary independent filmmakers or community groups who are eager to expand their network and connection with their audience. Focus is drawn to pre-existing research that revisits the numerous labour intensive strategies and models deployed by organizations in the VHS era.

Finally, the review observes the research surrounding one of the last remaining workshops in the UK, Amber Film and Photography Collective. Most of the scholarly research concerning Amber has largely focused on the collective's longevity within the UK independent film movement. Certainly, since the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity cuts affecting arts funding by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (2010-2015), there have been several academic articles addressing regional film policy in the UK. Due to the collective's impressive, alternative survival strategies throughout the last twenty-five years, Amber has been positioned as a notable counterexample to the current situation in UK filmmaking.
Exploitation Route Amber Film and Photography Collective provides just one model of integrated practice from workshop movement. In truth, in the 1980s and early 1990s there were a variety of interpretations of integrated practice within the sector. Therefore, further research should be initiated to interrogate the archives of other workshops operating at the time; Trade Films (Gateshead), Chapter (Cardiff), Birmingham Film and Video Workshop, Sheffield Film Co-op and Leeds Animation. Not only will this research contribute to a more rounded understanding of the Workshop Movement but its grassroots strategies of distribution and audience building, deployed at a time of great social and political upheaval, remains increasingly relevant to today's film, video and online activists.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The Workshop Declaration (1982-1991), underpinned by the fusion of production, exhibition and distribution activities, was a hugely radical intervention within the UK film and television industry, both on a structural and organisational level. Deviating from the accepted norms and rhythms of mainstream production, not only did the Declaration fashion an alternative workplace arrangement that nurtured diverse, original product and increased the circulation of non-mainstream moving image, but it provided an unprecedented degree of continuity and stability to a sector previously hindered by livelihood insecurity. The unique film and videos cultivated under the Workshop Declaration, however, barring a select few, are routinely dismissed, and discussions of integrated practice within an industrial context belied denunciations of anachronism. But since the economic crisis in 2008 and the austerity measures impacting arts funding, many film practitioners and researchers have revisited the era of cine-activism preceding the Declaration for inspiration. The Workshop Declaration, however, provided previously unwaged, independent, non-commercially motivated filmmakers with a collective ethic, together with the space and stability to pursue their innovative endeavours outside of the pressures of the competitive market space, and therefore stands as a credible alternative for many current concerns in the contemporary creative industry. The landscape of the film and television industry has of course drastically altered. The mechanisms that implemented the Workshop Declaration, namely the closed-shop system of the trade union movement, has been dismantled and nullified, and national and regional funding policies supporting the Declaration have been redrawn and realigned. However, many contemporary independent filmmakers and film groups surviving outside of the mainstream industry and discounted from arts funding criteria, would share many of the same concerns afflicting the independent filmmakers of the 1970s and early 1980s; relatively unwaged, insufficiently represented, lacking a support and resource network and in need of innovative exhibition and distribution strategies. The Workshop Declaration is a neglected antecedent to recent developments of collective organisation in the creative industries and re-examination of its audience building and grassroots distribution strategies would greatly benefit contemporary film and video makers. One example, the Radical Film Network, founded in London in 2013 by a group of activists, academics, filmmakers and programmers involved in radical film culture, is another collective response to austerity and precarity. Over five years it has develop a network that put those involved in contemporary radical film culture in communication with one another and with previous generations of radical filmmakers and activists, to support its growth and sustainability in the UK. It has since reached four continents, over twenty-three countries, involving 122 affiliated organizations ( The network has resonances to the Workshop Declaration and reiterates the workshops' commitment to finding innovative ways to produce, exhibit and distribute. The Workshop Declaration is a major precursor to these organized confrontations to austerity and precarity and its labour intensive campaigns and strategies serves as an effective blueprint for organizations like the RFN who are currently exploring potential relationships between the RFN and other more mainstream organizations, such as the BFI, to support precarious politically engaged film and video cultures.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Impact Types Cultural