Wales Writ Large: Shaping a Nation on the Big Screen 

© Portrait of Kaye (Ben Reed), © Being Hijra (Ila Mehrotra) © The Almond and the Seahorse (Bankside Films))

Wales Writ Large: Shaping a Nation on the Big Screen 

Written by Nia Edwards-Behi and Film Hub Wales

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We also commissioned Abertoir Film Festival co-founder and programmer ‘Nia Edwards-Behi’ to talk about the diversity of these films, what they say about Wales’ changing cultural landscape why it’s important that all Welsh films are given theatrical releases.

To me, there is no better place to see a film than in a cinema – surrounded by my fellow audience members in a darkened room, with a bright screen and enveloping sound. 

The importance of cinema and the theatrical auditorium, however, goes way beyond personal preference.  Its wider impact on culture-building should not be underestimated, especially for small filmmaking nations like Wales. If a Welsh film misses this window and goes straight to streaming, is there a discernible impact on the film and its intended audience?

Take Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers for instance. After a limited theatrical release, it went to Netflix in late 2022. It was undoubtedly the first film from a Welsh, female storyteller about two Syrian refugee sisters. It benefitted from a substantial marketing campaign and widespread critical debate – a discussion which was eerily absent in Wales. I can’t help but wonder why? From my experience of co-directing the Abertoir International Horror Festival of Wales, I know that there is power in curation. When a programmer selects a title for a local community, that recommendation is trusted and space to tell that story is created.  

We have over 300 independent venues in Wales, festivals and community screens that exist to support this type of culture building through fresh storytelling, not just another re-make or film ‘reimagined’. They are not only community hubs but cultural leaders, showcasing Welsh films alongside arthouse cinema from across the world, classics, the latest blockbusters and archive films. These spaces are precious – often historically but also through the services they offer to the community, which can extend far beyond the cinema offer, to food banks and social gatherings for marginalised communities who don’t have access to streaming services.

A film that passes theatrical and goes straight to streaming, often misses out on the marketing treatment that can come from a cinema that knows its community. A theatrical release for a film like The Swimmers could have sparked nuanced community conversations about supporting refugees in Wales. Not to mention, opening up on Manal Issa’s opinions about the film’s orientalist cliches and on-set working practices, which have for the most part been overlooked by the wider media.  

Giving these exchanges (and the film itself) a chance to flourish offline can be financially and culturally beneficial. The programmer brings the film to their community knowing that they need or want to see it, rather than relying on the viewer to pick the film out of a conveyor belt of new releases on a small screen, where we are isolated in our engagement. When conversations are taken offline, communities are also given the chance to influence the dialogue and shape demand for what they see on screen. 

One such conversation is why The Swimmer’s Welsh connection received limited attention. This isn’t specific to this film of course. Films like Three Identical Strangers or The Silent Twins face similar barriers. Where some Welsh films are acquired by larger production companies, they fail to mention that the stories, or the talent behind the stories are Welsh. If it can be said that our cultural understandings and appreciations are made and challenged by films from the busiest filmmaking nations, the same is surely true of those whose output may be smaller, such as Wales. 

We’re used to Welsh stereotypes. We have an idea of what Wales will look and sound like and we can usually see it on screen. Take some of the first titles that might spring to mind when we think of Wales on film – How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941) and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (Christopher Monger, 1995). Although neither film was made in Wales, an emphasis can be found in both on landscape and close(d) community. Wales has been seen – when it is seen – as a backwards place, where closed communities cling to old ways and resist outsiders. It is a Welsh landscape that stands in for the Yorkshire moors in one of film’s most famous ‘hostile locals in the pub’ scenes in An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981).  

Welsh landscape and history seem to lend itself so well to that favourite type of ‘British’ film, the feel-good underdog story, but what might that say about us as a nation? Throughout these periods, many films about Welsh history have broken through these stereotypes. Hedd Wyn (Paul Turner, 1992) shares the history of its pacifist poet, Mr Jones (Agnieszka Holland, 2019) its war journalist, and Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014) portrays the myriad braveries of miners, their families, and the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). 

(Image: © Y Sŵn, Joio) 

More recently we find films that challenge our pre-conceptions. Brian and Charles (Jim Archer, 2022) shows how our landscapes are home to gentle innovators and their creations. I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, 2017) shows that Welsh filmmakers don’t just tell stories from one place, and what purpose does a nation’s border serve when defining art anyway? A film is not necessarily any less Welsh for telling stories set elsewhere when its maker is Welsh or Wales-based: if we can find universal meaning in films from elsewhere, films from Wales can do the same. 

Gwledd (Lee Haven Jones, 2021) wraps a specifically Welsh narrative in a wide-reaching and popular genre, showing our landscapes corrupted and the self-inflicted cracks in our close-knit communities. It does it all in a confident expression of a minoritised language. For a film like Gwledd to screen large and loud, to audiences in Wales and across the globe, is a challenge to how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. When the film premiered at Abertoir, in 2021, writer Roger Williams even stated,

“If we were to be quite bold about telling our stories on this big, screen, we could start to build the kind of culture where it’s not unusual to see Welsh language film in cinemas.’’ 

In order to make this a reality – in order to ensure equity in Welsh filmmaking and a platform for films that might not traditionally be considered Welsh, we also have to interrogate the entire chain of events. How are these stories being chosen, what makes it to production and which stories are missing? 

Streaming and home film releases do of course have broad benefit, offering a platform for marginalised filmmakers who are not always given a fair chance at distributing their films in traditional ways. US filmmaker Ava Du Vernay has commented on this in the past:

‘‘One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes Black work far and wide. 190 countries will get WHEN THEY SEE US.  I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not SELMA. Not WRINKLE. It was 13TH. By Netflix. That matters.” 

Recent articles in the Guardian and Variety that explore not only the huge decline in working-class people working in the arts since the 1970’s but also the lack of accountability for racism in the UK’s film and tv industry emphasise why Welsh stories struggle to break through the stereotypes. It’s important therefore, that a moment from Welsh media history will make it to the big screen in Y Sŵn (Lee Haven Jones) in 2023, from the team that made Gwledd (2022). It comes at a crucial time in the cinematic landscape, when many venues face closure following Covid and the cost-of-living crisis. Though it will have a limited two-week theatrical window before broadcast, which is a huge challenge, venues are working to maximise the impact of the film in their communities.   

(Image: © London Recruits, Inside Out Films)

Perhaps the old ideas of Wales are now being challenged. Upcoming Welsh made documentaries exploring topics such as apartheid (London Recruits – Gordon Main, 2023) and India’s first transgender model agency (Being Hijra – Ila Mehrotra, 2023) would suggest so, if we seize the opportunity to celebrate each film’s connection to Wales. As audiences, we also have to maintain momentum by gathering as a community in our cinemas and shouting loudly about what want we to see.  

Welsh film is no longer just the underdog drama – it’s documentary, sci-fi, thriller and horror. It’s also not only made by those who were born here, it’s made by those who’ve made Wales their home. That home is no longer a place of closed communities, but a place of progress. 

In the right hands, so many stories can be told about our home and the people who live here. They have the power to reach an incredibly wide and diverse audience if we enable our communities to see them and take ownership. This means we need to invest the right resources into cinemas. To fund them properly and make space for the theatrical and non-theatrical window. Cinemas are much more than buildings where films are shown. They’re places of friendship and companionship, and shared experience. Cinemas are places where we can forge who we are, as individuals, communities and nations.