Bristol City of Film’s response to COVID-19: leveraging the power of culture and creativity

Natalie MooreBristol, Network

Over the course of the pandemic, UNESCO Cities of Film have harnessed support, adapted programmes of work and connected communities through film, art and creativity. On 6th July, Bristol City of Film will represent UNESCO Cities of Film around the world at the UNESCO Creative Cities Annual Meeting 2021. Below is a summary of Bristol’s creative response to COVID-19 a

In summer 2020 Bristol’s Encounters Festival (in partnership with Watershed and the BFI) invited filmmakers from all over the world to #Shortitout. Filmmakers submitted 90 second films about their experiences in lockdown that were entered into Depict – a 90 second film challenge that has been running in Bristol as part of Encounters Film Festival for the past 20 years.

The filmmaking competition was supported by digital workshops and masterclasses with leading international filmmaking talent. These included award-winning writers, directors and animators, such as Jim Cummings, Desiree Akhavan, Ben Wheatley and Bristol’s own Paul Holbrook. The powerful films received, many made by first-time filmmakers on basic equipment, reflected the shared emotions of people across the world during the peak of the pandemic. They used creative filmmaking to document an important moment in time and showed how film has the power to connect us at a global level at a time of collective isolation. Watch the Depict Lockdown 2020 selection here.

The #WeAreBristol campaign embodies how we are all working together to build a city of hope, where everyone that chooses to live here is treated fairly and has the same life chances. During the pandemic this has been more important than ever. #WeAreBristol films, City of Hope, We are Still Bristol and Bristol Remembers have told the story of the city during the challenges we have all faced.

In response to the first wave of the pandemic, young Bristol artists were showcased through Rising Arts Agency’s #WhoseFuture powerful billboard campaign. Launched across 370+ sites city-wide, this home-grown campaign gave Bristol’s young artists the space to amplify their voices and address themes of racism, climate justice, access, leadership and young people’s futures.

During periods of lockdown isolation, stories from the city were shared around the world. Bristol-made films covered issues including transatlantic slave history, identity, isolation, and migration. Powerful stories included The Shadow of Slavery for Channel 4’s ‘Take Your Knee off My Neck’ series, and We Are Not the Virus and Sign Night for the BBC’s ‘Culture in Quarantine’ strand: all showing how film can connect, educate and empower us.

The city’s film festivals adapted to new digital formats; engaging broader global audiences in conversations around the climate emergency and lockdown isolation. Just as Bristol’s policymakers are leading the way in tackling the climate and ecological emergencies, our filmmakers are harnessing their own power to educate and influence behavioural change to the benefit of the natural world. Bristol’s Wildscreen Festival (the world’s biggest wildlife filmmaking festival) moved entirely online and used the opportunity host a conversation between key speakers, Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough. Central to the conversation was the role of natural history films in bringing the climate emergency to the world’s attention, with Greta reflecting: “Films and movies have the power to open our eyes.”

Periods of lockdown led to high demand for new TV and film content across the UK. Bristol has seen unprecedented levels of filming on location for major TV drama series since production activity was able to resume in Summer 2020. This has provided a major boost for the sections of the city’s creative freelance workforce, many of whom were without employment. Working with national and local industry partners, Bristol UNESCO City of Film has responded by working to understand the challenges faced by the sector and developing new guidelines to enable filming to take place safely in public spaces.

Work to support the city’s creative businesses and freelancers during the pandemic has been underpinned by Bristol’s One City approach, bringing together a huge range of public, private, voluntary and third sector partners within Bristol. They share an aim to make Bristol a fair, healthy and sustainable city. 2020 saw a dedicated One City Culture Board, made up of key sector stakeholders established in response to the pandemic. Its strategic focus is on supporting the creative and cultural workforce to emerge stronger from the pandemic and influence cultural policies for sustainable sector development. Bristol’s One City Economic Recovery and Renewal Strategy, published in October 2020, has been developed to do more than just help steer Bristol’s economy back to where it was at the start of 2020, recreating the existing challenges. Instead, it aims to help point and take us towards a renewed economy, which is more inclusive, sustainable, carbon neutral and ecologically positive.

Key to future sustainability of Bristol’s creative industries is tangible links to employment for Bristol’s diverse communities. Ambitious plans under the Bristol UNESCO City of Film Action Plan will take a proactive and focused approach to tackling issues around accessibility and representation within the film and TV sector. Focused around Bristol’s Bottle Yard Studios which is located in an area of the city with some of the UK’s most deprived communities, the planned expansion of Bristol’s main film and TV studios will be supported by work placements and employment opportunities for people living in the neighbouring communities. In addition, Channel 4’s Bristol Creative Hub (established in 2019) is opening up even more opportunities to develop and diversify the sector as it continues to go from strength to strength.

Finally, as part of Bristol’s pro-active approach on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, key members of Bristol’s SDG Alliance and Bristol Global Goals Centre are working in conjunction with our creative and community partners in the city and Creative Consultant Charlotte Pyatt (known for the Turin Murals project) to launch two key projects for Summer 2021 that will also be supported by a series of workshops and events:

The Bristol 17 campaign is focused on increasing awareness, understanding and action on the SDGs through art and culture including 17 SDG-inspired community murals across different neighbourhoods in the city, jointly developed through collaboration between the local community and street artists, plus a series of one minute videos highlighting the work of our unsung community heroes working on the SDGs that will be released weekly in the lead up to COP 26 in Glasgow across social media.

Alongside this, later this month (June) is the opening of the Vanguard – Bristol Street Art Exhibition in Bristol’s MShed museum that explores the role that Bristol played in the development of British Street Art and how a new generation of global creatives are advocating for social and environmental awareness through art on the streets, which is then being picked up through aligned outreach and events focusing on this and the wider SDGs agenda.

Plans for 2022 and beyond include the aforementioned skills development programme at The Bottle Yard Studios, a drive to transform the environmental impact of filming in Bristol, as well as the introduction of a Nollywood (Nigerian Hollywood) Film Festival to celebrate the city’s cultural links to Diaspora communities and forge stronger creative connections with African cities.