Sheffield Doc Fest @EdenCourt

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If the arts end up keeping anything positive from these pandemic times, I hope it’s the hybrid model of festivals and exhibitions where they have site specific and online lives. Over the last year and a bit I’ve attended a bunch of festivals – both film and music – online that I would realistically have never been able to attend in person for geographical or time reasons.

Sheffield Doc Fest, is a fortnight long documentary film festival that I’ve been planning to attend in person for at least the last decade and that I finally managed to do in an asynchronous, semi-virtual fashion this year. I’m pleased to see that they’re also following what I think of as the Africa in Motion model, where the films tour the country as well, I think I liked their version better with the remote screenings being the same night as the festival screenings – instead of weeks or months later – so that even if you couldn’t, or didn’t want to be, physically in Sheffield, you could be in a screening with lots of other people. I find the pre-recorded zoom Q&As that are in vogue at the moment even more awkward than their in-person versions but I think they do help the audience feel part of something bigger.

Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

This was the first and certainly the best attended of the Sheffield Docs being screened, and it was definitely my favourite. It tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, that took place across six weeks during the summer of 1969 in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), both the festival and the film about it celebrate Black history, culture and fashion, and capture a powerful and transformative moment in history. It also feels very much a film of this moment, telling a story, a history, that has been hidden, that doubtless many would prefer to remain so, despite, or perhaps because of it’s joy and positivity.

Many of the interviews are with ordinary folks from Harlem who attended as teenagers, and there’s some particularly poignant commentary from them about the importance of cultural history being recorded and taking it’s place in the historical record. (One man talking about watching footage of a concert he attended as a small boy, said something along the line of: its real, I knew it was real I was there, but now I know it’s really real, I can prove it.)

One of the film’s great strengths is the quality of the concert footage. It was recorded with the intent to sell the footage to TV Stations, the director of the original footage talks about pitching it as ‘Black Woodstock’ to executives, hoping they’d be hungry for something both similar enough and different enough to that cultural phenomenon. His baffled frustration forty years on that they weren’t comes through clearly. Whatever their professed reasons for turning it down, it wasn’t the footage quality – doubtless it’s been restored in the process of digitisation but both visuals and especially audio are too good for the originals to have been anything but top quality professional work – rubbish in, rubbish out after all – and it holds up well.

It’s both a great concert film, and an important and accessible film about the a side of the sixties in the US that we don’t hear enough about in the cultural and historical memory of that time.

Lift Like a Girl

This is a strange film. It’s an observational documentary – which does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment – and there are no real ‘to camera’ interviews. Not only is it a film without a narration, but a film that feels like it has no authorial voice. Officially, the protagonist is a young weightlifter called Zebiba following her from ages 14 to 18 as she strives to become a champion weight lifter. She struggles and strives, argues with her coach and watches everything with large cautious eyes. There’s clearly a lot going on behind those eyes, but we never really get any insight into what’s going on behind those eyes, or even really get to know her as a person. It’s obvious that her struggles are less physical than they are psychological, arguably she’s motivated more by the making her coach and the younger weightlifters proud of her than by the prospect of winning itself, let alone medals or prizes.

She does however make the perfect foil to her coach Captain Ramadan, a legend in his sport who trained the first Egyptian woman to medal at the Olympics in weightlifting. He spends the film trying to parle that fame and reputation into resources and success for the girls of a poor neighbourhood of Alexandria. He’s abrasive and aggressive, but also charming and committed and despite how much time he seems to spend shouting at them, it’s clear that the girls he trains think the world of him. He gives what is the closest the film gets to actual interviews, but more in the form of pontificating speeches that are given as much for the girls or their parents as they are for the camera. It seems very much that the relationship of trust is between himself and the director and everyone else trusts and/or tolerates the film-makers because he does. He’s the man with the plan and he dominates every scene he’s in – even in his rare moments of silence he’s compelling, drawing the eye irresistibly. The film feels as though it’s constantly fighting not to be about him rather than about Zebiba.

The Story of Looking

The last of the three documentaries I saw was Mark Cousins latest film, The Story of Looking, which is an oddly elegiac film, full of nostalgia, grief and hope. It’s a film about the power and the pain of looking, of what visual culture means to us collectively as a culture and to him individually as a film-maker and a person. It uses as it’s central conceit, the idea of turning Cousins’ darkened bedroom as a camera obscura, projecting an imagined journey around Edinburgh and the wider world onto the screen in front of the audience and plays with the idea of imagination and objective reality accordingly. (The film is definitely at it’s strongest when we’re watching the shadows on the wall, rather than sitting in the objective reality that is inside the camera obscura with the director.) It’s a strange film, but also compelling and lovely. I saw it in an almost empty cinema – there were two other viewers, all of us there by ourselves on a Saturday night, sitting in opposite corners of the screen – it was definitely a film to be seen alone in the dark, but it deserved more of us.

It’s partly based on his book of the same name and partly on the experience of having a cataract removed from his own eye. (Fair warning for eye harm.) The film features some fairly shocking imagery, but always in a measured and conscious fashion, it’s presented as imagery that pushes boundaries as part of a discussion about why it pushes boundaries and how it impacts the viewer. (Strangely the hardest part to watch, for me, was the small Syrian refugee Adam cry and not receive comfort – it felt the most voyeuristic somehow in a way that surgery or corpses or naked bodies did not.) We even see parts of Cousins’ eye surgery which oddly enough I found morbidly fascinating and somehow captivating, there was no revulsion like that provoked by that clip of Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel/Dali, 1929) – perhaps it’s intent that makes the difference, surgery has intent to heal, whereas the other is an attack however fake the eye might be, the intent of the imagery is to cause a visceral negative reaction. I’ve seen that clip a dozen times since I saw it the first time in film class nearly twenty years ago and every time I recoil from it, however braced for it I thought I was.

This film is only confrontational up to a point, as we face along side Cousins’ the reality of what sight loss might mean to someone like him, whose whole understanding of the world is visual. (As a very short-sighted person who spends a lot of time behind a camera, it certainly made me feel a lot of complicated emotions along the way.) Mostly it’s a love letter to visual culture and to vision itself.

Meet, Make, Collaborate @InvMAG

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I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me that the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery would be open again – it re-opened with Level 3 so is comfortably in the swing of things now we’re in Level 2 – but it wasn’t until I saw them tweet apologetically that they weren’t accepting bookings from Moray and Glasgow postcodes that it dawned on me that I could in fact go and spend my afternoon looking at new art. I went with no expectations, having intentionally not looked up what exhibition they had on before going, to avoid either building up hope and being disappointed, or putting myself off. There was an art exhibition on, that I could go to in person, that alone was worth it. I would be pleased to see even mediocre art at this point. Handily I need not have worried, it was definitely not an afternoon of mediocre art.

Meet, Make, Collaborate is the touring exhibition that resulted from Applied Arts Scotland’s international exchange programme, and involves collaborations between artists from Canada, Mexico, Scotland and Thailand. The first part of the exchange took place pre-COVID so the artists were able to meet and collaborate in person, and continued in the virtual space throughout the intervening plague year.

First up, I should say that all the pieces were gorgeous, skilfully made objects, I’ve picked my favourites to talk about, but only really because otherwise this review would be 3000 words long. There wasn’t a rubbish piece amongst them, even the pieces that didn’t speak to me personally were skilfully executed and dealt with interesting ideas.

In the ante-room to the main Art Gallery space there’s a silent short film playing that would be easy to walk past, but it is definitely worth waiting for it to start again and watching it through. In passing it all seems a bit abstract, but when viewed from the start it provides a charming insight into the collaborative process of the artists that, for me, added much needed context and set me up to be look positively on the works in the main exhibition.

silkroadmedals

Mengnan Qu and Susan O’Brien’s collaboration ‘New Silk Road Medal’ is a series of small but perfectly formed pieces that are lovely in and of themselves even before you know about the layers of symbolism that have been worked into them. Much like the Silk Road from which the piece takes it’s name, the medals represent the clash and melding of very different cultures and art practices and the sharing of technology/techniques. Collaboration and exchange, but hopefully with less cultural imperialism in either direction.

wings

My favourite piece was another Canadian/Scottish collaboration, this time between Carol Sinclair (left wing) and Rebecca Hannon (right wing), called Birds of Passage. With each feather being made of different materials from or representing the artists respective locations, chosen and processed with sustainability in mind. (It probably helps that I was primed to like this one by the introductory film, having seen the artists’ delight in each other’s creations as they held up ‘feathers’ to show each other on a video call.) It feels like a joyful collaboration, as though the artists had found a shared vision and had a great deal of fun realising it together, even if they couldn’t be in the same place.

sonograph

As a sound person I was delighted by the renderings of recordings of Zapotec – an indigenous language from Oaxaca, Mexico – into woven banners. At a casual glance they look like traditional craft work, every day and over looked, but when you read the plaque and look again much more embedded information and meaning is revealed. The transformation of the analogue elements of a child’s voice, bird songs or the sounds of the weaving machines themselves into digital recordings back into the ‘analogue’ art of weaving – especially given the important role of weaving patterns in the evolution of computer programming – really made the piece stand out for me. I was reminded of the sonographs that were included in the Natural Selection exhibition from 2019. Or perhaps those little visualisation screens that graphic equalisers had in the 90s. Like so many pieces in the exhibition, the close you looked, the more layers of meaning were revealed.

Cocooned from the Elements

Cocooned from the Elements is a collaboration between Lynne Hocking-Mennie (from North East Scotland) and Prach Niyomkar (from North East Thailand), due to their in person collaboration period coinciding with Storm Ciara their work is heavy influenced by ideas of sustainability – the dyes were created from indigo and storm-scavenged lichen – and the impact of climate change. The use of a parasol and an umbrella as the base for each of their pieces makes an effective analogue for the predicted move to the extremes of weather – the very hot and the very wet. While the idea of a cocoon as a place of both safety and transformation is both hopeful and ominous.

Meet Make Collaborate is running at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery until the 19th of June.

Second Contact

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I’ve talked before about how much I love hydrophones, the why’s and wherefores of their continued fascination for me, and the ways in which every time I encounter them I lose time researching them and debating the feasibility of getting my own. However, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately making contact mic recordings, and realised that I pretty much never write about contact mics which I’ve loved for far longer.

I first encountered contact microphones as a student. At the time contact mics were pretty expensive to buy – certainly out of a student’s price-range – but our course technician came across instructions to make your own and passed them on to us with the warning to be careful what you attached them to as he’d accidentally eavesdropped on adjacent offices trying to record some gurgling radiators. A course mate and I spent a delightful afternoon building some together and attaching them to things gleefully, and though they long since burned out, I still have one in my cable drawer for sentimental value.

Many moons later, though still quite a while ago, I ended up chatting about contact microphones with the then-artist-in-residence at the hospital radio station I volunteered with. We had a good chat about building our own contact mics and the way the components burned out after so long, and then he pointed out that you can now get them pretty reasonably online so you don’t need to build them yourself anymore if you don’t want to. The idea lodged itself in my brain and a few years ago I did in fact get myself a cheap little contact mic to see how it turned out. I was never particularly impressed by it, I figured either it didn’t work properly or it really needed a pre-amp, but it never did work well with my old – and much beloved – sound recorder.

However, back in the Summer of last year, I finally got round to treating myself to a new sound recorder – a Zoom H2n, I prefer the H5n but the H2n wins on portability, it literally fits in my pocket – and when I was listening to Deep Blue Notes and falling down the hydrophone rabbit hole I told myself sternly that I wasn’t allowed to buy one until I’d got my contact microphone situation sorted. I hadn’t tried it out with the new recorder, as I’d previously had enough to experiment with trying out it’s different built-in microphone configurations – it has X/Y, Mid-Side, 2 channel surround and 4 channel surround options, after years of using an X/Y set up for recording atmos on location it remains my go-to but I’m trying to be more adventurous and make better use of the surround options. In the course of my most recent hydrophone researching I’d been looking at the compatibility requirements for them and it noted that they needed ‘plug-in-power’ – which if it’s a new one on you as it was to me, is similar to phantom power, just a considerably lower voltage – and when it turned out that my new recorder did in fact have that, it occurred that that might be what my contact microphone needed. Indeed that made all the difference and while I suspect it would benefit from a preamp, I was able to once again enjoy the delightful world of secret sounds that a contact microphone reveals and make some delightful new recordings. I’ve spent the last couple of months delightedly attaching my contact microphone to everything I could imagine.

In practical terms the best element of contact microphones is the way they allow me to capture a sound in isolation. The sound of a clock ticking without the sound of the room around it, the otherwise nearly inaudible sounds of a sound desk’s faders in motion or the sound of a swing bridge clanking and rumbling as traffic trundles across it. (As you’ll hear from the recording embedded above, it does collect a certain amount of ambient noise but that is pushed into the background, allowing me to collect a particular sound without it being overwhelmed by it’s surroundings. Allowing the sound to shine, without having to remove the item from it’s context in order to record it – something that really isn’t possible when it comes to the clanking bridge, you need traffic for it to make the sound, but normally you wouldn’t be able to hear it over the traffic.) But there are also the secret joys of the contact microphone, the gorgeous, resonate bell tones of a fire extinguisher – CO2 is far superior to foam in this matter – the differing sounds of the bannisters in my office, that I have no practical use for but were a joy to capture and left me feeling as though I knew a secret about the building I’ve worked in for large chunks of the last seven years.

Deep Blue Notes

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Deep Blue Notes is a three part podcast, by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson and Professor Tony Myatt a spatial audio sound artist, released through the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. It follows them on their quest – at the start of the year – to record Blue Whales in the Sea of Cortez – off Loreto, Mexico – creatures whose sounds have eluded Watson throughout his long career as a wildlife sound recordist. The two of them are collaborating on a sound installation for Oceans 21 – a project on the fascination and endangerment of the oceans – called Seaphony, which premiers in Berlin in May of next year.

The podcast uses their quest for these very specific sounds as a jumping off point to talk to a variety of specialists about a variety of issues around sound and sea-life, from how sound carries through water, through the impact of climate change – both human driven and natural phenomena like El Niño – to how human noise – essentially sound pollution – impacts on sealife. It’s all fascinating stuff, and I always love listening to recordings from hydrophones – I definitely spent part of at least two of the episodes looking at hydrophones online and checking specs to see if a reasonably affordable one would be compatible with my new sound recorder – but it also made me want to introduce Watson and Myatt to the fine folks at the Lighthouse Field Station. I suspect, in these travel limited times, they could probably recommend some good marine life recording spots that are a little closer to home than Mexico.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole podcast, to me, is that they made a three-part podcast about their quest to record Blue Whale vocalisations, and in the end they didn’t succeed in recording the Whales. They spent time among the whales, sometimes with them being almost in touching distance and the whales just, didn’t sing for them. Of course, that’s the reality of sound recording, especially when you’re recording wildlife. On a trip this summer to record a variety of other sounds, I came across a frog, sitting in the middle of the road. It seemed quite happy for me to crouch down beside it – making no attempt to hop away or otherwise escape – and settle my recorder close by, but while other frogs in the hedgerows nearby croaked away quietly, the one literally at my feet, remained completely silent. It’s one of the great frustrations of sound recording, that so often you’ll hear an interesting sound and the minute you get your recorder out and running, it will stop. So theoretically that’s actually the most likely outcome of any given recording trip, yet narrative documentaries have taught us to expect a final act triumph, and I was definitely expecting one right up until the end. Yet that simple unapologetic acknowledgement that these things happen, that they knew that was a likely outcome, and have learned a lot from the experience so that they’ll do better next time they try, was so very refreshing and dare I say it, quite affirming too.

An Out of Doors Soundscape

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In the early days of lockdown, far enough in that it was obvious this wasn’t going to be a couple of weeks of strangeness but early enough that the novelty hadn’t yet worn off, I started making sound recordings. I think, initially I was intending to contribute them to Cities and Memories lockdown sounds or perhaps make some kind of sound walk installation with them but as time went on and I gradually collected more and more sounds, it became clear that I while I definitely wanted to make some art with them, I needed a bigger canvas for them. I needed a focal point, something to hang a piece on and do the wealth of material justice.

In July, Radio 3 put out a call for proposals for their Slow Radio strand, and one of the producers at work thought of me and my sound recordings and sent it on to me. Between us we put together a pitch – a new experience for me, as for most of the last decade I’ve generally been handed a brief and been expected to fulfil it – and submitted it off to them. This led to some rather entertaining socially distanced location recording adventures – the kind of location sound recording that I normally do is a rather solitary affair which was definitely a contributing factor to why I got so much of it done in lockdown – as my producer had come across some excellent sounds that he thought would add to my soundscape, and we got to re-negotiate how to work together on this sort of thing, within the somewhat safer space of the great outdoors.

Although we were ultimately unsuccessful in our pitching to Radio 3, we did succeed in interesting a Radio Scotland producer – who was also pitching – and so I ended up making a mini version of the programme for Out of Doors. It’s been ages since I made a soundscape that’s needed to stand alone but also told a story rather than being abstract. It was initially intended to have far less voiceover than it ultimately ended up with. I wrote the script to get the story of the piece straight in my head and essentially act as a guide track for me to edit around, but somewhere along the way I rediscovered my radio voice and a surprising amount of voice over made the final cut. Albeit after a fair amount of it had been rewritten and condensed and I definitely had to have a word with myself about killing my darlings. Having mostly worked in news over the last six years, it felt strangely decadent to have the luxury of time to work on a project, leave it to rest for a bit and then make more changes with fresh ears, rather than working against the clock. It was strangely thrilling to hear my own voice on the radio for the first time in years.

After that success my producer buddy casually suggested that I should translate my script into Gaelic and re-record it so that we could use that to pitch our original idea to Radio Nan Gaidheal. As the original programme proposal focused on my other lockdown project – attempting to upgrade my Gaelic from intermediate level where it has plateaued these last few years – it seemed a fitting way to quantify my progress, with a proper translation and something ‘real’ to work towards. I expected the translation part to be the difficult bit – usually if I’m writing something in Gaelic I’m just, writing it in Gaelic rather than translating from English so I’m leaning more on vocabulary and turns of phrase that I’m familiar with and comfortable using. This was very different; a challenge but a good one, and one that I could easily get help and feedback on from fluent colleagues. The difficult bit was reading it aloud. One of the things about learning a language as an adult is that you don’t learn to read the same way as you would as a child. You learn to read in the sense that you can read words and understand what they mean, but you do very little reading aloud. You read aloud sentences you wrote and get your pronunciation corrected but you don’t start with first principals and phonetics, so you don’t really acquire an instinctive understanding of how sounds fit together in words. Which means that often I can pronounce all the words in an individual sentence perfectly well but stringing them together is a different matter entirely.

The other challenge that I kept running up against is that I don’t have a ‘radio voice’ in Gaelic. I’ve had feedback and tutoring from various colleagues who all say I’m ‘almost there’ both in terms of pronunciation and radio voice – apparently I slip into and out of it as I go, and I know what they mean. I suspect it would be less frustrating if my Gaelic radio voice was further away? If I listened back to recordings and thought it was terrible, or that it had potential but not yet, I could just ask someone else to voice it and that would be that. That state of almost but not quite there is deeply frustrating. (It feels a bit metaphorical for my level of Gaelic fluency too.) I’m trying not to be too hard on myself, as it took months of being a radio trainee, doing two hours a week of talking on the radio to find my voice in English and I definitely don’t get that much solid time speaking Gaelic every week, let alone speaking it into a microphone.

So that’s where that project is at the moment. Hopefully I’ll have a Gaelic version to share reasonably early in the new year but for the moment I’m focusing I can make the soundscape itself reflect the same core truths in a different way.

@AiMfilmfest – Short Film Competition

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I keep thinking that one year I’ll actually make it to some screenings at the Africa in Motion film festival in Edinburgh, to attend some screenings and discussion panels in person, rather than catching a film on tour when the films tour the country. (Though to be honest, that is one of my favourite parts of this film festival, that it tours its films round more provincial art cinemas.) I did not expect that in this plague year of ours, I would see more AIM films and events than I normally do by virtue of the film festival having gone entirely virtual. This was my first attempt at attending a virtual film festival and I must confess it took me a while to get the hang of it – films were mostly available for 48 hours after their ‘showing’ time, but keeping track of what was available until when and lining them up with what I was in the mood for on any given day was a bit of an adventure.

This is the thirteenth year that the Africa in Motion festival has a held a short film competition. The short-list this year comprised of 15 films from 12 different countries, from across Africa and further afield throughout the diaspora, whittled down from over 450 entries. There is both a jury prize and an audience award so all the online viewing pages have an option to rate the films.

I was working from home for most of last week, so I took advantage of that to watch a couple of short films each day on my lunch-break.

Ser Feliz No Väo (Happy in the Gap)

This is a documentary about Afro-Brazilian culture, assembled almost entirely from archive footage. It’s got some really nice use of archive to weave together several different themes regarding recent Brazilian history, but while I do feel like I got an insight into something I know very little about, I felt that the film itself needed a stronger narrative through line to hold it all together. It started off strongly but then drifted away a bit and I got lost.

Sun and Moon

A short but sweet little stop motion animation about a man playing chess with himself, alone in an Egyptian coffee shop – an ahwa. After he stares at the board for too long the pieces seem to come to life and enact an epic battle of good versus evil, seemingly playing out some internal conflict of the man’s own. The little plasticine characters we follow seem a little rough and ready, but that quickly becomes part of their charm. It’s a rather enchanting little film all told.

Roger

This one is a dreamy little piece about a jazz musician – Roger Kosa – as he struggles through the frustrations and mundaneness of life to find the transformative escapism of playing the piano. According to the film’s summary there’s a lot of other things going on in this documentary, but honestly I don’t think you would get any of it from just watching the film. Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t any good. It’s a dreamy and enjoyable watch, but it feels like the opening to a much longer documentary – or perhaps the trailer for it, and if it were I would definitely like to see the rest of that documentary.

Kauna Pawa (Invisibles)

This was hands down my favourite film of the shorts available to me – the first competition short that I rated five stars – a magical realist, surrealist fable. The score is excellent, almost doing the work of the absent dialogue, cueing us into the mental and emotional states of our two taciturn leads. It is beautifully shot, the use of colours, the shot composition – all the little perfect details – and the cinematography are just stunning. Doubtless helped along by the stunning dramatic scenery of Namibia – I always forget until I see it on film again how gorgeous those landscapes are, and wonder why more films don’t shoot there – and I loved the visual referencing of Mad Max: Fury Road which did in fact film there. Much like that film this one has an excellent line in show not tell – I don’t think there’s a single line of dialogue in the film – visually taking us on a journey with our protagonists, as they carry their literal and metaphorical baggage through the dessert and find closure together. It’s dreamy and strange and lovely – highly recommended.

Days, Nights: Queer Africa Shorts

These films were not were not in the short film competition but as short films on my lunch break was the order of last week I managed to squeeze in most of these too. These four films could not have been more different in style, tone and genre but they were all excellent little films. (I’d have given them all four stars at least!) From the sci-fi dystopia of 2064, to the London gangster buddies of Mandem, through the Sao Paulo scene kids of Bonde, and onto Ife which navigates the difficulties of being a lesbian in contemporary Nigeria; they all have very different perspectives on what being LGBT in different parts of Africa and the African diaspora means today and might mean in the future.

Serotonin

This one is a straight up art film. That’s not a criticism in the slightest, the film knows exactly what it is and fully commits to it, so while I was at times not really sure where it was taking me, the confidence with which it moved forwards allowed me to relax and just enjoy the ride. It’s beautifully shot, mostly in black and white, but with certain scenes in colour, and it really makes the most of that, to illustrate shifts in tone and mood. There’s also some lovely use of sound in the film, from the opening sound bridge to the recurring motif of the train coming ever closer.

I think it’s about the protagonist’s struggle with his mental health, choosing to pursue and hold onto the small joys in life, and not to be consumed by the struggles and darkness of life. I think. It’s all very metaphorical, but in an appealing way, rather than an irritating way, which given how many shorts I’ve seen that cover the same ground, is considerably harder than you’d think.

How to be at Home

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The other day, purely by chance, I came across a lovely little film about dealing with lockdown and isolation – How to be at Home. It’s a charming little animated film poem from the National Film Board of Canada, tender sweet and relatable. Having watched that it was all too easy to easy to slide gently into the fascinating depths of their website to watch more and more excellent animations. I think the last time I fell down a rabbit hole watching NFB short films, was when I was doing research on John Grierson’s work the best part of a decade ago, but I may have fallen down again since. They have a fair amount of useful resources, so I may have got distracted doing legitimate research – they do have a decent chunk of Norman McLaren’s work – or perhaps I’ve just been sensible enough to put their YouTube page in another tab and promise myself a browse when I was done with the current project and resisted temptation. However, as the only pressing deadline this month is to write a blog post, as many days in the month as I can, there’s really no reason not to head willingly down the rabbit hole.

In order to stop myself getting completely lost down the rabbit hole, I intended to focus on their most recent playlist, a collection of new animated shorts marking International Animation Day – called ‘Get Animated!’ Unfortunately the vagaries of film rights meant that my choices were rather paired down, with almost all the films that caught my fancy turning out to be not available in my location. Though I must give an honorary mention to the film Mamie that was both compelling and beautifully animated – for some reason I kept expecting it to be in French, it felt very French.

My travels have therefore been rather more haphazard. Yet, time and again, I keep coming back to the film that started me off on this journey. I’ve spent time watching lots of Andrea Dorfman’s back catalogue, which have all so far been charming with a clever twist. There is, nonetheless, something special about this particular film. Every time I watch it, I feel like a find another detail that makes me smile or brings a lump to my throat. (Remember how many people it takes to make a story, just to make a picture move.) It feels very much of this moment – how could it exist without this pandemic – but it also feels like a very necessary piece of art in a broader sense. When there is so much talk about the conflicting ways in which the Internet makes us more connected to each other than we’ve ever been and more isolated then we ever were. As though isolation was new, as though the urban isolation and alienation has not been a subject with newspaper columns as long as there have been newspapers – perhaps as long as there have been cities. Perhaps it’s just more visible now, or perhaps it’s just expressing a truth that we need to learn over and again, that we’re all connected and there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely.

How To Be At Home is a sequel to another film that director/animator Andrea Dorfman and poet Tanya Davis made a decade ago, called How to be Alone. You don’t need to have seen the first film to enjoy this one, but having now watched them both it is clear that the second film is very much in dialogue with the first one. As beautiful as the poem that the film is based around is, there are a couple of lines that felt like non-sequiturs in it, but that having seen the first film make perfect sense – they’re not non-sequiturs they’re call backs, little private jokes between the collaborators themselves and between them and their audience.

A really nice part of watching the films in the ‘wrong’ order is that you get to see how much both halves of the collaboration have developed as artists in the intervening years, the animation much smoother and more cleverly executed, the poetry somehow more secure in it’s vulnerability. (It sounds like Tanya Davis has read a lot more of her poetry out loud in the intervening years, that indescribable element of having found ones voice.) As though everything they’ve been trying to say in the intervening years has been distilled down into this one practically perfect piece of art.

If you enjoy this pair of films I’d also like to recommend you Flawed another animation by Andrea Dorfman that is available on the NFB website, though this one is in water-colour storyboard format. It’s really lovely too.

Waterscape @CircusArtspace

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I started writing this art exhibition review, the weekend after I saw it, when the official advice was to avoid pubs, clubs and concerts, anywhere with more than 500 people or that was confined and busy. (The Highlands had yet to have it’s first confirmed case of coronavirus.) An art exhibition, mid-week and off the beaten track seemed an ideal way to spend the afternoon on my day off – there was in fact, just me and the exhibition invigilator for my whole visit. By the Monday everything had changed and it felt weird writing this article. The exhibition itself had been wrapped up early. But part of why I went in the first place was because it might be a while before I could see another art installation and I was correct about that. This exhibition was definitely worth seeing and though circumstances cut it’s already short run down even further, it’s worth remembering.

For obvious reasons, I have fairly high standards when it comes to sound art installations. I get to see them so rarely and the subsequently high expectations mean that I’m all the more disappointed when the art turns out to be disappointing. For a while, a few years back, the best I could often hope for would be that the installation would be so rubbish that I would be so annoyed that I’d be inspired to make my own sound art in grumpy response.

Sometimes though, I come across a sound installation that is so good it inspires me for the opposite reason. Nicola Gear’s contribution to the Waterscape exhibition is definitely in the latter category. It’s an installation in the two parts. The first one Weather is around sixteen minutes long, broken into five movements (glacial melt, storm, shore, garden and pub) played over speakers in the exhibition space. The second part was installed on little portable MP3 players, with headphones so that you could listen just to it or to both pieces at once. The two pieces run in tandem to each other, you can stop and start the one on the player whenever you like and really play around with how the two of them interact with each other, moving yourself around the room, standing up or sitting down – I was alone in the space so I even tried lying on the floor, pretending I was in one of Marco Dessado’s boats on a loch somewhere – to really get the most out of the experience. If all art is changed by it’s interaction with the viewer, then it was true of this exhibit more than most.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend sitting on the floor between the two boats that make up the main part of Marco Dessado’s part of the exhibition, and listening to the headphones on one ear and the speakers with the other ear. The two parts of Gear’s installation interact in new and different ways on each loop. In the low slanting winter light, with the boats hanging close by at head height, you begin to feel almost underwater. Just lovely.

Waterscape ran at Circus Artspace @ Inverness Creative Academy from March 11th to March 18th – it continues, partially, online.

A three part collage. At the top a hand built boat lit by slanting sunlight, below a portable mp3 player and a speaker, then a small sound desk with a zoom recorder attached.

Waterscape Exhibition

Other Films @InvFilmFest

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I normally like to sort my film reviews for the film festival by the festival’s themes. Documentaries, short films, silent film, new world cinema, and perhaps a country or two in focus. However, no matter how organised I am, my taste is ultimately too eclectic to fit neatly into these categories, so there’s almost always an ‘other films’ section for the films I see and enjoy that don’t quite fit. This year that category applies to nearly half the screenings I attended as I wasn’t seeing enough films in any other given category to gather them together otherwise. There’s something about looking at the schedule for this year’s film festival that is short of like looking through a trick mirror. The scattering of themes, French, Canadian, documentary, like ghost trails of the larger, broader film festival that we might have had in another timeline.

Stray

This was a charming and meditative film, giving a dogs eye view of life in Istanbul. There’s both a warmth and a deep sorrow, to how it depicts the lives of both the dogs and the humans living rough on the streets of the city.

In some ways the film felt like a companion piece to Kedi from a couple of years ago, which focused on the relationship between the residents of the city and it’s stray/feral cat population. Istanbul, the film tells us, has one of the largest populations of stray dogs of any city, and despite various civic attempts to curb the issue, there are in facts laws against the impounding or euthanising of stray dogs – such was the public outcry against previous campaigns. This film is much less of a straight documentary than Kedi, as there are no direct to camera interviews, everything we learn about the human characters we meet is picked up in overheard snatches of conversations and arguments. We see the city and it’s humans much more through the dogs perspective than viewing the dogs through human eyes.

Part of the pleasure of the film for me, was trying to work out how certain sequences were filmed. Some sequences were clearly done with a Go Pro or similar harnessed to one of the central dogs. Other’s only seem possible if the camera operator was wearing the camera – perhaps a body camera at thigh height – and in some scenes the camera moves in ways I associate with drone cameras. But the real mystery is how they filmed it without impacting the reactions of passers by to the dogs. With the homeless kids, you can see that they got acclimated to the film-maker and just ignored them but with general members of the public most people never seem to even clock the camera, and when they do notice they don’t look to the operator the way I would expect. The eye-lines don’t work – I dearly want to know how they did it!

Mama Weed/La Daronne

This is a utterly charming and extremely French crime thriller comedy. Perhaps it’s just that most of the contemporary French films I’ve seen over the last few years have either been serious and realist or utterly ridiculous comedies that really didn’t work for me, but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a French film this much in years. It had exactly the right balance of charm, ridiculousness and real threat to work as both a thriller and a comedy. It feels a little as if the director watched all those ridiculous Luc Besson crime/comedies of the late 90s, early 00s and thought, yes but what if we did it properly rather than as a trashy B movie? (No shade to Luc Besson, I’m a fan of his work, but he has made some terrible movies – to the extent that sometimes I think he’s doing it on purpose – he’s good at action but comedy…less so.) But honestly Pedro Almodovar feels like the main influence on this film, and that’s definitely not a bad thing.

Isabelle Huppert, who learned Arabic for the role, is really convincing in the role, both as someone out of her depth just trying to help someone she feels she owes, and as having an utterly ruthless streak buried under all that frailty. The film is full of layers, it takes a lot of digs at the French establishment, the underlying assumptions about police violence and assumptions about immigrants and crime that it both sends up and uses to it’s advantage. (The moments of solidarity between Pauline and her Chinese neighbour Colette are all entirely based on a shared realisation for both women that they are alike, that the only way they can thrive as immigrants is one grift or another, that whether they’re honest or not the state will fail them.)

Nomadland

I think this might actually be the only time, in the five years I’ve been attending the Inverness Film Festival that I’ve actually attended a ‘Closing Film’. I tend to avoid them, as they’re usually films that are already feted and likely to do well on the awards circuit, and frankly there’s usually something else on at the same time that I’d rather see and that is less likely to return. But there was something about Nomadland that just appealed to me, so I snaffled a ticket and I’m glad I did. There was definitely something rather thrilling about seeing a film months before it’s official theatrical release, knowing that the only other audiences to have seen it were those at other film festivals – even if the presence of an actual security guard with night vision goggles on looking out for film pirates was initially a little off putting! This film also had the special feature of an introduction from Paul the programmer, who was doubling up as projectionist for the evening, and has hopefully now seen the film!

The film is a fascinating insight into a hidden part of American culture – that exists just under the surface of the one that most people see. The cast of the film is largely populated by actual nomads, people who live the life portrayed in it, and who make the film possible by their participation. It feels like the film is as much about them as it is about Fern, that it memorialises their griefs and valorises their strength, and that the fiction element simply provides a distance that allows for a more honest and less exploitive experience than a documentary might have provided. (It’s almost the opposite of The Florida Project from a few years ago and everything that annoyed me about that film.) I have to take a moment to just appreciate Frances McDormand’s acting here. It’s very, I guess egoless is the best way I can describe it, she’s method acting I suppose, really living and breathing that character, who seems lost and vulnerable but ultimately resilient. It’s the opposite of a scene stealing performance, more of a self-effacing one, where she makes the other characters she shares the scene with shine instead.

Someone asked me at the start of the week, does the festival have a theme this year, and I blithely told them no, it’s not generally a themed festival. However, looking back on the week’s films, they do feel as though they all share – or at least all the ones I saw – not quite a theme but certainly a common thread. All the features that I saw deal, to a greater or lesser extent, with the idea of what it means to be free. The line between freedom and insecurity; people trapped by debt, poverty, health issues, trauma, addiction or just circumstances outwith their control. (I keep coming back to that Beatles lyric: oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go. The double meaning that lurks within that phrase: both terror and joy.) I wasn’t looking for it, and I don’t know if it was intentional but nonetheless it felt very fitting for these strange times that we’re living through.

Canadian Films @InvFilmFest

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Today is the last day of the annual Inverness Film Festival so it’s high time I got some more film reviews up. First up, we have the Canadian films thread, which at first seemed rather unconnected in theme, tone and content, but on closer examination are perhaps more closely linked than I initially realised. I’m sure that in another year this would have been a rather chunkier film festival thread – and themes would have either been more obvious or revealed themselves more quickly as I watched – but as it was, it condensed down into the essence of a Canadian film theme, a comedy film in English, an art house film in Québécois and a film about indigenous issues. I only managed to see two out of three, but I think I saw the best of them.

And The Birds Rained Down

I think this might have been my favourite film of the festival, in fact, I think this might have been one of the best films I’ve seen all year. In a way it feels like the quintessential film festival film. A meditative film, in Québécois, about life, death, freedom and grief. However, the film has much deeper, darker themes, dealing in its own tender way with different kinds of trauma, the importance of intimacy and companionship and the vital issue of what choice and control mean in old age, both in life and death. It’s an oddly romantic film, though not really a romanticised one, more it’s a film that lives in the space where dreams – of freedom and independence, of travel and adventure, of lost love – meet reality, in the shape of social services, health issues and the way the modern world makes it increasingly hard for people to disappear when they need to.

Marie, as she styles herself, is the emotional heart of the film. Her whole life up to the start of the film has been subject to forces outwith her control – even her involvement in the events of the film is the result of her sister-in-law discovering letters from her in her late husbands papers and deciding to invite her to the funeral – and she starts the film, as a mostly a traumatised shell of a person, but slowly through the film she begins to regain control of her life and her destiny. It’s a fantasy of course, but anyone who’s had much contact with old mental health institutions knows that there are Marie’s everywhere, that they won’t get a second chance at their stolen lives and that even if they did most of them would be too institutionalised to cope with the world outside. But it’s a beautiful dream, and that more than anything else sums up the feeling of this film.

A Day In The Life of Noah Piugattuk

This film came via the efforts of the Isuma TV who are an online portal for Indigenous films and also apparently the only Inuit owned film production company. Interestingly when it was shown at the Vienna Bienelle, it was the first time an Inuit artist had featured in Canada’s pavilion there. More interestingly for me, was watching the credits and seeing the role call of Inuit surnames, not just a few key names, or just the on-screen faces, but across almost all areas and departments of the production.
The film is very much one about communication and what does or does not get lost in translation, so the use of subtitles to let the audience see that process is really effective. The other thing about the use of subtitles, is that the decision of what to subtitle and what to leave untranslated, especially when it comes to minority languages remains a very political decision. Ningiuq who acts as translator between Noah and the rest of his band and Boss the face of the white Canadian government, keeps insisting that he’s taking no side in this, merely translating what is said, and yet we see the things he omits – sometimes they seem like misunderstandings of his own, others deliberate attempts at diplomacy and defusing tension.

It’s also a film about standing on the edge of a great historical shift, of trying to make the best choices one can, for yourself, for your family, for your wider community and about whether you really have any choice in the matter at all. One of the interesting points that Boss makes a couple of times – and which isn’t really translated either time – is that he’d much rather be out here hunting and making his own rules too but that the world is changing, and they are all of them subject to forces outwith their control.

Come to think of it, while these two films seem like they couldn’t be more different if they tried, they do deal with a lot of the same issues, right down to the role that anthropological oral histories play in both films.