Autumnal Art

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As part of my Nablopomo writing, I’d planned to write an overview of some of the art exhibitions that had been running over the Autumn locally. I ran out of time before I could get round to writing them up but that’s no reason not to finish it off and share it even if it no longer counts towards the challenge. 

Three way collage of ‘the painted line’ exhibit sign and two art billboards.


NOTICE

Over the Summer Circus Artspace ran a project where three artists were assigned to work with three different local organisations to make a piece of art together that would be displayed on billboards throughout Inverness during October. The billboard that loomed largest in my imagination of this exhibition was the collaboration between Frieda Ford and Highland Pride, partly because it was sited on the lawn at Eden Court so I saw it several times a week, whenever I went to see a film, or grab a coffee, or if I took a short cut through their ground on the way home from work. But also because I had a wider sense of it as part of the collaborating organisation’s wider engagement work – there were consultations and surveys flying about on social media, and they had a big in person awareness event to mark the billboard’s launch. (Which makes sense, while the other organisations deal with a fixed and circumscribed community, an organisation like Highland Pride are going to particularly want to engage with the members of the community that they don’t know about for this kind of project.) Even the medium of digital collage feels particularly suited to a collaborative project. The billboard I saw the next most regularly was the one I had the least context for, the collaboration between ¡P/HONK and SNAP (Special Needs Action Project), which I wondered about every time I passed it as walked up or down the Market Brae steps. Their page on the Circus website says that they specialise in getting their audience out of their shells and creating an environment for other people to be themselves and have fun, which seems an ideal outlook for working with young people with additional needs – their billboard feels very much like a facilitation project, of being a conduit for the kids’ artistic expression. My favourite was always going to be Jacqueline Briggs collaboration with HiMRA (Highland Migrant and Refugee Action), which seems unfair to the other artists as I already love her work. For an artist as young as she is, she only graduated from art school in 2016, she already has a quite distinct art style of her own, that I find both really lovely and arresting. So of course that was the one I had to go out of my way to make sure I saw, despite being in arguably the most prominent position just outside the WASP Academy building at Midmills in Crown. This billboard was a product of workshops with the Syrian community in Dingwall – about culture and food and architecture – and it feels very much like a product of translation and interpretation. 

I find the whole concept of using billboards as an art sharing platform particularly interesting, using a medium of commerce and mass media to disseminate public art to an audience that might otherwise never engage with it. (I like the idea of using the now ubiquitous nature of QR code to provide context for those whose curiosity has been piqued, though I’d be interested in seeing what the engagement levels were for the different billboards.) I do think though that whatever the individual artist strengths of the three billboards, they work more effectively seen together, comparing and contrasting their approaches and methods of collaboration. 

Highland Threads

I stumbled across this online exhibition completely by chance – ironically when checking the opening hours for the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery – and clicked through expecting a small exhibition. However this was clearly not a quick and dirty, ‘let’s put something together quickly during lockdown so we can say we did something online’ effort.  

Apparently this launched back in April, which makes sense, it’s a lovely companion piece to the actual museums, a tempting teaser to lure visitors back out to museums once they open again. It feels as though someone had an in person exhibition all planned out and then put real care and effort into how they could go about making it an online exhibition, and more than that have it really benefit from being online rather than in person.

The exhibition features fourteen objects, one each from fourteen different Highland museums, each one acting as a flag ship for it’s home museum. Each item’s homepage features a short but informative description of the item and it’s historical and geographical context, along with a slide show of still images, some archive audio recordings and a little film of the item of clothing, displayed in it’s best light. The films in particular are worth a watch in fullscreen, for although they’re really just a catwalk spin of the items of clothing in question, they allow for a close up examination of all the little details and embellishments of the item. A close up that you could never get of an item in a glass case or pinned to a display board. For example the Ullapool museum’s item is a yachting jumper, it’s navy blue with an obscure combination of letters embroidered neatly on the chest. It looks like a thousand other sturdy, mass machine knitted jumpers of its era worn by thousands of men of my parent’s and grandparents generation in jobs requiring manual labour. (The predecessor of the now ubiquitous polyester sweatshirt.) I’d likely have walked right past it in a physical exhibit, but here, it’s given a real chance to shine, placed in it’s historical context, with fascinating photographs, interviews and other historical documents that tell the intriguing role played by the men of Lochbroom in crewing the racing yachts of the interwar period. Up close and lovingly lit to it’s best advantage, the apparently plain navy reveals itself to have waves woven into the pattern, a little detail like the names of the yachts embroidered on them, that indicates that this was work wear that the crew could be proud to wear. The unassuming jumper reveals an insight into the importance of this work to the local economy and to the racing yacht culture. Allowing it to hold it’s own among the rather fancier items on display from other museums. 

The Printed Line

This is the current exhibition at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, it’s a selection of printed line art works from the Arts Council Collection from across the 20th Century that’s been on a somewhat extended tour of the UK – I was amused that it had just two stops in Scotland one in the museum closest to me, and the other in the local museum of my childhood – as coronavirus caused a bunch of it’s expected displays to be cancelled or rescheduled. The exhibition looks at how various artists have used varying printing techniques to exploit the potential of the printed line. 

There are some lovely examples of how just a few straight lines, carefully chosen and positioned, can become really effective studies in perspective, that sometimes seem to change with the position of the viewer. However, my favourite part was the accompanying video from the Arts Council illustrating the various techniques used to produce the different works on show, wood cuts, etching, dry point, screen printing, lithography. (There’s an artist I follow on social media whose working videos of her linocut technique I find very soothing, but I’d never really linked it in my head to ‘wood cuts’ that people talked about in old books, that they might exist on a ) It was particularly interesting to see how the different techniques impacted on the styles of the artists using them – the way lithography opened up the opportunity to artists who normally worked in charcoal or wax crayons to make multiple identical copies of their work without having to give up their preferred artistic medium. 

The screen printing demonstration stirred up fond memories of designing and printing t-shirts with a silk screen in second year art. I’d all but forgotten the unit until I saw the video, paging through books of fonts and magazines, cutting and tracing until I had a template that I was satisfied with and then printing a two colour t-shirt. It was such a fun project, since then I’ve preferred collage and stencils to freehand drawing, finding it easier to get what I see in my mind’s eye down on paper that way. Perhaps that’s why I prefer sound design – with all it’s assembling, cutting and amending of found or collected elements – to composition which feels much more as if it needs to come from whole cloth.

Walk Cheerfully @EdenCourt

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Almost as though the folks at Eden Court heard me lamenting the lack of silent films at the film festival a couple of weeks ago, a Japanese silent film with live musical accompaniment popped up in the cinema schedule. Despite Japanese films and silent films being two long standing cinematic loves of mine, I realised that I’d never actually seen any Japanese silent films, so clearly I needed to rectify that. Add to that the fact that Walk Cheerfully (1930) is an Ozu film, then well, how could I resist.

I got into Japanese cinema in a different way from most of the other genres that I fell in love with in my teens. In typical teenage fashion though, it was because I had a crush on someone who was really into Japanese cinema. Being a film student at the time, I spent the whole of that winter break reading every book on Japanese cinema that I could get out of the university library and watching every Japanese film I could get hold of cheaply. Unfortunately, being that it was the early 00s and the era of the ‘Tartan Asia’ releases, the crossover between the ‘classic films’ that the books talked about and the films I could actually get hold of was not particularly high. I saw a lot of Kurosawa and Miike films – often with my crush, though it turned out we were both more into geeking out about Japanese cinema together than snogging – but the films I longed to see, that remained tantalisingly out of reach, or at least budget, were the films of Yasujirô Ozu. For a while it felt as though Tokyo Story (1953) was taunting me as it seemed that every time it was screened somewhere I would try to go and then be thwarted. Screenings were cancelled, leave was cancelled, once memorably a storm caused all the trains to Glasgow to be stopped.

The film itself is a fascinating artefact, part 30s gangster flick, part romantic comedy, where our hero Kenji, a small time hood – he and his tiny gang seem to mostly be stealing wallets, Kenji and his brother Senko share not only a tiny apartment but it appears a bed too – is trying to go straight to win the heart of an honest girl with whom he’s fallen madly in love with and the pitfalls and struggles he faces along the way. An interesting point that another review of the film brought to my attention is that Yasue and her family are the only non-Westernised characters in the film, living in a traditional house, wearing traditional clothing, and by implication adhering to traditional Japanese values and honour. Whereas all the criminals, and their victims – even Yasue’s sleazy boss – are dressed and living as though they could be bootleggers in an American film of the same period. We’re told early on that this film is set in a time of great economic hardship and societal breakdown, and clearly the costumes are meant to stand in somewhat subtly for the moral degradation brought to the country by modern life in a newly globalised world. There are some fabulous beautifully choreographed sequences with the gangsters, that make them seem as if they’ve escaped from some kind of Hollywood musical before they were even a thing, as though they’ve decided to make their desperate, precarious existence glamorous if it kills them. Everyone is tap dancing on the edge of ruin and trying to scrape a better life however they can, often by sheer force of will. It’s a slight film, somewhat melancholic, but a charming and strangely hopeful one too.

Then there was Silvia Hallett’s accompaniment, which in the tradition of the best silent film accompaniment this was not just performing a basic score. It seemed largely improvised, so able to respond not just to the film playing on screen, but also to the benshi performance as well. She played a whole variety of instruments – some traditional, both Western and Japanese, some electronic – certainly but also provided a whole array of sound effects throughout the film that altogether felt more like she was performing live sound design!

Because my passion of Japanese cinema predates my passion for silent film, I clearly hadn’t paid much attention to Japanese silent cinema traditions – and in my defence I think most of the books I read in my research binge all those years ago, mostly focused on post-second world war Japanese cinema – so I was completely unprepared for the benshi performance from Tomoko Komura. Unbeknownst to me, Japanese silent cinema didn’t go down the inter title route, and instead had live narrators who performed dialogue, provided plot summaries and generally brought the piece to life. Apparently at the height of their popularity, the best benshi were paid on a par with the screen actors, and were just as much of a draw for audiences. I can absolutely believe that, because Komura’s performance was a tour de force, giving the whole film an atmosphere and vivacity that I would definitely seek out again. It was both a delight and a revelation, on a par with the first time I saw Neil Brand improvise to a Buster Keaton film for upending my ideas of what ‘silent’ film can be and do. Just excellent.

Alone in the Trees

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During the summer, I stumbled across a call for contributors, for a sound art project that would be part of the Sanctuary Labs festival that takes place in the Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park each September. Sound artist Claire Archibald was looking for female audio contributors to share their memories/thoughts/emotional responses to the idea of being a woman alone in the woods and thereby create site specific installation that would be a ‘lone woman wood’ for festival goers to experience. Having grown up in a house surrounded by a small wood, the project immediately caught my imagination.

The project call out had a variety of prompts to get potential contributors thinking about the project’s areas of interest. One of the prompts involved pieces of music or field recordings, and I was reminded that I made a variety of field recordings in various woodlands over the pandemic. I’ve talked before about my adventures recording at the Merkinch Nature Reserve and down by the canal and used many of my recordings on the Ness Islands in my Out of Doors Soundscape last year. However, they weren’t the only woodland recordings. Back in April when only essential travel was allowed, I found myself in Portree for work, and took great pleasure in gathering some early morning field recordings, including in the little wood above the bay and behind the hospital. (There was a path, up the side of the hill into the trees, with a bi-lingual sign: how could I resist?) But the recordings that came immediately to mind were ones I made before that when we still couldn’t go anywhere at all, and my regular walks around Inverness, uncovered a pocket woodland just off an otherwise suburban street. Aultnaskiach Dell is a pocket wood, a rare urban community buyout, and the unusual geography of the place means that as soon as you get into the Dell proper, all sounds of the outside world disappear. As though you’ve stepped through a portal into a rather more rural area, or in my case, it felt like I stepped through a portal in time and space, back into the woods of my childhood. The perfect place for a bit of forest bathing, if that’s your thing. Even just listening back to the recordings I took that first day is transporting and soothing, like being wrapped briefly in a bit of another, safer, simpler, time and place. I knew they were the perfect recordings to accompany my forest thoughts.

Even after having filmed a short horror film in a forest as a student, I’m still less unnerved by the thought of being alone in a forest than many other people I know, regardless of gender. (As I write this it occurs to me that that is not the only time I’ve worked on a film in the forest. When I was still freelancing a few years ago, I did a short stint working on the kids show Raven in the woods near Lagganlia in the Caingorms.) After all, to me, the real fear is not that you’re alone in the woods – it’s that you’re not alone in the woods.

In the end they received 140 submissions across 11 different languages. Enough that each of the 17 trees that they were using as anchors could play a different loop of sounds, so that no two wanders through that wood would be the same, with the sounds combining, collaborating or clashing in different ways depending on the route the visitor took or the time of day they visited. Although I knew from the start that with the festival taking place at almost exactly the opposite end of the country from me, I was unlikely to be able to attend, and even if I were the chances of hearing my piece in situ during the short window I would have been able to be in the actual location, I was still a little sad to have to miss out on experiencing it first hand. The little snippets I got to experience second hand through social media, only succeeding in leaving me wanting more.

Documentaries @Invfilmfest

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There were so many documentaries on at the Film Festival this year and I was pleased to note that they were scheduled in such a way that if everything had gone to plan, I could have seen almost all of them. Unfortunately, world events beyond my control meant that I was unable to do my usual full on festival experience and instead had a rather more limited schedule – with the days when the majority of the documentaries were on being almost entirely out of bounds to me. Yet the documentaries that I did see, were lovely and well worth tracking down.

The Last Autumn

My first documentary of the festival, and an unexpected extra film that I squeezed in at the last moment before work on Saturday. It was an extremely autumnal day that matched the mood of this film really well.

The film follows the day to day life of a farming couple on an island at the very north of Iceland, throughout the final Autumn of the keeping sheep. As in many similar communities across Northern Europe the sheep traditionally spend the summer grazing on the hills above the community and are brought down in the Autumn to overwinter in the valley. (One of the last places where they still do this in Ireland has turned this event into something of a festival that acts as a tourist attraction, in order to keep it viable.) As less and less young people from the community go into farming themselves, or are able to come home specifically to help with it, more and more farmers are giving up their sheep as they get too old to tackle the hill. The trick, according to the film, is to give up before you can no longer get up the hill to help. I described this film to a colleague and she said, with a wry smile, that we’d made that film ourselves, in a dozen different ways, in three minute chunks, over the years. It’s true, it’s a familiar refrain here in the Highlands, of young people who go away and don’t return, or if they do return only for the holidays. 

The film has no narration, and very little dialogue, so most of the commentary on events comes from radio programmes playing on the radio from what I presume to be the Icelandic equivalent of Radio 4. There’s much talk on the radio about language, about the steady creep of English into everyday life, especially among young people. That too is an all too familiar refrain here, and for me a far greater worry than the potential end of hill sheep farming – agricultural has changed many times before and will doubtless change many more times in the future. If the way of life is inevitably changing is it possible to unshackle the language from the lifestyle? Can the language survive without it? If the language is to survive it must somehow remain the language of both those who leave and those who stay. And if that is a struggle in Iceland, where the language in question is the majority language rather than a minority language, how much harder is for those of us fighting for minority languages? The film and it’s protagonist remains stubbornly hopeful, despite everything else. 

I was reminded strangely of Sleep Furiously – while it’s a very different film from that one, the was something of the tone and the atmosphere that put me inescapably in mind of it. This film felt like an elegy, marking the passing of a way of life, not just for the sheep farmer whose last autumn in the job we’re following, but for the wider community. The film feels at peace with that change, there’s no resentment or anger in this film, just a sense of inevitability, that the world is changing and that that’s okay. Which could be a really depressing outcome, but feels strangely reassuring. 

It was also showing with a Scottish short film, Confluence, about a luthier – that’s someone who makes and repairs violins and fiddles to you and me – Charlie Webster, in Abriachan, above Loch Ness. It’s a film about someone who’s found a new way to make a life and a living for himself in a remote area and that despite the impact of the pandemic, is full of hope. It’s a gentle meditative piece with lovely music that made the perfect accompaniment to the documentary. 

Becoming Cousteau

Unlike many of the audience for this film, I didn’t grow up with the films of Jacques Cousteau, my view of the underwater world was shaped the BBC’s Natural History department, and largely – though not exclusively – narrated by David Attenborough. It’s not that I didn’t know about Jacques Cousteau and his films, but I always knew them second hand, at a distance. Through references in children’s nature programmes, but mostly I think through the filter of Luc Besson’s Atlantis (1991) – which I definitely need to rewatch now, in light of seeing this film. A friend who also saw this film at the festival, enthused to me about having loved Costeau’s films as a child, about how they had shaped her view of the natural world and particularly the underwater parts of it. It very much felt that this film had been made from that perspective, or at least from a place of real affection. That’s not to say that it’s a film which shies away from it’s protagonist’s very real flaws and mis-steps. It just presents them in a very non-judgemental way – probably inevitably given the heavy involvement of the Cousteau Foundation in the film – dealing with them as matter of fact parts of who he was and what he did, without implying that they should undermine his legacy. Which is honestly quite refreshing in these days of extremes in interpretation, many documentaries of this ilk would either completely ignore those flaws, or make them the whole focus of the film. 

In truth, I had no idea how truly groundbreaking those early films were, that time and again they’d had to invent solutions to problems because they were pushing up against the limits of what was previously possible, breaking barriers and records at every turn. How much both marine biology and underwater filming truly owes to Cousteau and his colleagues. That in it’s own way is one of the film’s great strengths, for all it’s a biography of one man, it puts him in context, giving credit to his colleagues and companions without which he couldn’t have achieved so much of what he did. 

This documentary felt both timely and deeply frustrating, with COP 26 taking place down the road in Glasgow, knowing that he spent the last twenty odd years of his life campaigning for environmental protection. 

Film Festival Highlights @Invfilmfest

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For once, my favourite films at the Inverness Film Festival were largely in the ‘Highlights’ thread of the festival programme. Given how circumscribed by events beyond my control my film selections were this year, I’m amused to note that my favourites all turned out to be films I’d made a note of during the preview screening, as things I particularly wanted to see.

At some point over the course of this year’s festival I came to realise that the festival had a theme, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, and that the theme was hope. Back in 2019 I concluded that the festival that year was full of brilliant films, but my goodness they were grim. This year, that was not the case – and honestly after the way the last couple of years have panned out, I don’t think I could have coped if they had been – perhaps this year’s films haven’t been quite as ‘blow you away’ good as the 2019 selection, but no matter how dark or sad things got in any film, there was always hope remaining. I didn’t walk out of any feature film at this year’s festival without hope for the future in my heart.

Petite Maman

When I was child, one of my favourite genres of stories, were time travel fantasies. It’s an oddly specific kind of story that there were a surprisingly large number available. These books involved time travel but no time machines, and weren’t portal fantasies because even if the travel involved going through a particular door or geographical location the other place they arrived in was always this world and not another world. The time travel was usually preceded by some dramatic emotional upheaval, a death in the family, a parental divorce or some other crisis that meant the travelling child and all or part of their family had to leave their home and decamp to an unfamiliar locale. They almost always involved the travelling child befriending another child from the other time and helping them resolve some event that either impacted or mirrored a problem affecting them in the present. The other child almost always turned out to be a relative – an uncle, grand-parent or occasionally a more distant ancestor – of the protagonist child. I loved those stories, and they almost never got adapted into films.

I suspect that Céline Sciamma loved those kind of books too – she is, after all, only a few years older than me – and was likewise disappointed that they never got adapted into films. This film feels like a love letter to those kind of books, almost the platonic ideal because it isn’t an adaptation of any one of those books, more a distillation of the best of them. (Casting a set of identical twins to play the central characters is just perfect.) I’m not sure that you could call it a children’s film – though I think the kind of child who loves those kind of stories would love it and there’s nothing in it that makes it unsuitable for a child – but it is a film for adults who loved those kind of books, and longed for screen adaptations that did them justice. It’s heartwarming and bittersweet, and just perfect at what it does.

Flee

I saw this film with an extremely select audience – it was playing opposite Mothering Sunday (Husson, 2021) which looked very heritage and Sunday evening literary adaptation, and suffered for it – but that shouldn’t be taken as judgement on the film, it absolutely deserves to be seen by lots of people. I’m not a hundred percent certain whether I should be writing about this film under the category of documentary or not. Officially it’s an animated documentary about the true story of how ‘Amin’, a former classmate of the director, came to arrive in Denmark as an unaccompanied teenage refugee from Afghanistan some twenty years ago. There’s a certain amount of archive footage used to illustrate the historical and political background to events described, but most of the film is animated and necessarily subjective, it’s about the experience of being a refugee. It’s about how it feels on the inside not about how it looks on the outside. Pseudonyms are used and voices disguised – some of the cast are simply credited as ‘anonymous’ – because the film is in it’s way a confession. The story it tells is one that needs to be told, for the sake of Amin’s sanity and peace of mind if nothing else, but it’s one that could destroy the life he has built for himself, so it is one that needs telling with even more care and caution than that which would normally be required in telling a refugee story properly. It’s a strange sort of comfort knowing that Amin co-wrote the film with director Rasmussen, to feel that it really is a collaboration, and that for at least once in his life, Amin gets to be in charge of his own story.

(Amin is about my age. There are a lot of tiny little cultural references in his story and in the archive pictures that are familiar from my own vastly different childhood. In many ways time moves strangely in this film, but nonetheless, that stuck with me throughout the film: he’s about my age.)

The film reminded me initially just superficially, but as the film went on more substantially, of the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir (Folman, 2008). There’s something about the way the animation technique foregrounds the necessarily constructed nature of the reality the documentary is portraying, at once creating an intimacy and a necessary distance that wouldn’t be available otherwise. All memory is subjective, being at once intensely personal and collective. Combine that with trauma and the kind of lies people have to tell – whether to themselves or other people – to stay alive, and it becomes difficult to imagine how you could tell the story in a other way.

Apparently there’s going to be an English language dub of the film – possibly with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Riz Ahmed who were both executive producers for the film – but I feel it would lose something in the process. There’s something about how Danish Amin sounds in the film that works on a subconscious level, reminds you throughout that Amin has been in Denmark for twenty years, that it has become his home as well as his refuge, the place where he belongs.

Adam

This was a beautiful tender, heartbreaking film, about family and community, love and grief, pregnancy and motherhood.

There is so much unspoken in this film. At the start both woman are very emotionally closed off – one because of grief, the other from the stress of being heavily pregnant and homeless – and slowly, cautiously, with many fits and starts and a couple of outright regressions, they begin to open up to each other. Food sits at the heart of the film, Abla runs a bakery and while her grudging and eventually wholehearted allowing Samia into the kitchen might sound like a clumsy and awkward metaphor for opening up her affections to Samia, it practice it is both fitting and entirely natural in execution.

Most of the talking in the film is done by Wardia, Abla’s young daughter. It’s Wardia who first takes an interest in Samia, who acts as go between and says all the things that otherwise cannot be said with a child’s clear eyed honesty. The relationship that evolves between Wardia and Samia is one of the film’s great strengths, with Samia becoming something between older sister and aunt to Wardia as the film progresses. It’s a remarkably restrained performance from the young actress, being both charming and blunt enough to be believable as an actual child – the unspoken asides and facial expressions are priceless and joyful – and helpful to the plot without being either cloying or irritatingly wise beyond her years.

The film may largely be about the importance of having relationships where you can say all the things that society pressures us not to say – about life, death, pregnancy, love, grief and society – and how freeing it can be to finally speak those things out loud, but a great deal remains unspoken in the film. Right up to the last moment you can feel the pressure of all the things that Abla and Samia aren’t saying to each other, perhaps could never say to each other. (It feels like there’s a ghost of another film within this one, where the four of them stay together and form a new family, where the relationship between the two women, whether platonic or romantic is the centre of the film, where it is enough for them both. However I don’t know enough about the practicalities of life in Morocco to know whether either of those outcomes would be remotely practical or believable.) The ending is deeply ambiguous for both women, will Samia give Adam up or keep him, will Abla continue the work of unwinding enough to let in Slimani? Will they ever see each other again? Perhaps that’s the best ending director Maryam Touzani could give the audience, there could be no ending to this story that satisfied every audience, so perhaps it is kinder to leave it open to interpretation, and let every audience member invent their own afterwards for the characters, choose whichever fate makes them happiest.

Three cinema tickets, alternating between blue and yellow.

Afternoons in Iran @Invfilmfest

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I noted in my review of the Film Festival Preview, that I was most excited for the ‘Afternoons in Iran’ thread at the festival. Annoyingly, I wasn’t able to manage the whole season of them, but the ones I saw, did not disappoint. I’m particularly hoping that today’s film The Wasteland comes back again at some point in the future.

Hit the Road

Our first Iranian offering is a road trip across Iran, with a family stuck inside an increasingly claustrophobic borrowed SUV not helped by their number including a small child who is necessarily oblivious to the very serious errand they’ve set out on, and the sickly family dog in the back. The family patriarch having his leg in a cast so being unable to drive – and therefore unrepentantly backseat driving – doesn’t help much either. It’s not entirely clear why they’ve had to set out on this road trip, other than that the oldest child needs to be smuggled out of the country – though quite why is kept, perhaps deliberately unclear. Big brother is largely stoic and tense except when the tension occasionally gets to him and mostly takes the form of him resentfully exclaiming that he’s not a child – which of course are the moments when he seems most like one. He keeps trying to convince the rest of the family to turn back, to let him go to meet his fate alone, which he considers safer for both them and him. Perhaps he also feels like he cannot help but fall into this child role on this family road trip, that it would be easier for him to be brave and face the dangers to come, if he were alone.

I saw another review describe the smugglers in their sheepskin balaclavas as comical, but honestly I found them pretty creepy emerging from the mist – if they’d been in the hills of the Lake District instead of Iran, I’d have fully thought we’d side steeped into some strange folk horror film.

This film contained was one of many excellent child actor performances at this year’s festival. Little brother is a vivacious unsurpressable bundle of joy, a much needed antidote to the tension between the rest of the characters on the road trip, but also a complete liability on the very serious errand that the rest of them have embarked upon. There are some deeply surreal moments in the film – including some references to 2001: A Space Odyssey some of which are sublime and some of which are downright bizarre. However little brother provides a handy excuse for these, as it feels as though at those points in the film we – and perhaps, reluctantly, the rest of the characters too – are being pulled into his point of view and being forced to see the world through his eyes, with all it’s strangeness, passions, joys and confusion.

The Iran of this film is also a very different Iran from the one I’ve previously seen on film. The Iran of other films has been a very urban Iran, mostly Tehran but sometimes other cities or large towns. Films were the claustrophobic presence of others – others who you couldn’t be certain if you could trust – close by was part of the atmosphere. This is a film about wide open space, highways through small towns, and villages hidden in the hills, where the absence of other people is the real threat. Our protagonists are in themselves very urban – even the shininess of their borrowed SUV seems to mark them out as outsiders and make them look suspicious.

There is No Evil

This is a film about what it means to live in a country with the death penalty with compulsory military service and where ‘criminal’ can mean anything the powers that be deem it to be. The film is told in four episodes, each one a different perspective on what it means to execute someone

The first episode is a real study on the concept of the mundanity of evil. (The opening in particular really plays with your expectations, and the mundane anonymity of the underground car park, of the urban space that could be anywhere really emphasises the whole ‘this could happen anywhere with a few wrong turns’ element.) Following this man as he brings home his extra ration of rice, collects his wife and daughter from school, his salary from the bank, bickers with his wife in the car, does grocery shopping for the family and his mother in law – the tender care for his mother in law as he takes her blood pressure and helps her back to her seat – eats pizza in a chain restaurant that could be anywhere in the world. The mundanity of his night shift as we struggles with the early hour, makes his coffee and presses the buttons that control the machines that do his job, and then the grim revelation of what that actually is all the worse knowing that this is just a normal day at the office for him.

The second episode involves half a dozen men sharing a bunk room, at first it seems as though they are prisoners, condemned men, and in a way they are. They are all on military service but the duty that they have been assigned, and which they are taking seemingly arbitrarily assigned turns, is to be the one who pulls the stool away at executions. (For which they are rewarded with three days of leave.) All the men are archetypes in their way and the arguments between them run the philosophical gamut of those around the death penalty, military service, the nature of crime and punishment, how the personal and the law collide, free will and personal responsibility. (Added to the mix and the tension is the part where one of the men had previously refused to do it and has been punished with the doubling of his service, something that has visibly traumatised him.) What will he do when the call comes in the morning? Ah, well, that would be telling.

The third episode revolves around a soldier on leave – significantly three days leave – visiting his girlfriend intending to celebrate her birthday, and ask her to marry him, only to find the family preparing a funeral for a family friend and neighbour. The friend, a beloved and respected part of the community, was a political activist who had been been in hiding from the government for many years, and until his death the family had hidden his existence from the solider. (Whether because they didn’t trust him or because they wanted to protect him from having to make a difficult moral choice is left ambiguous.) This one also features a very different Iran, a lush rural landscape, of forests in which someone could disappear and hide from the state for a long time. This, of course is an episode about consequences, where the soldier has to face that the people he has ‘pulled the stool away’ in return for extra leave, were all real people with real families who miss them and are devastated by their loss. And also for his girlfriend who cannot help but count all the times he’d had three days leave with her and what that might mean for who he truly is as a person.

The final episode is about the long term impacts of these actions, and relies for our sympathy for our protagonist on what we have learned about the system. (He could conceivably be the same man as in the second film, twenty years later.) Unlike the young woman he is trying to make his peace with, the audience knows why he has no drivers license and cannot leave the country, why he lives in the middle of nowhere, practicing as a doctor only to villager who don’t have the luxury of caring that he has no clinic only that his treatments work, and must rely on his pharmacist wife for medicine for his illness. How circumscribed not having completed his military service has made the rest of his life and all the things that he has sacrificed to make a decision that even in the face of her wrath and condemnation, he cannot wish to take back.

Common Sound – The Scottish Ensemble @EdenCourt

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A couple of weeks ago, on short notice – and if my decision to go to the concert was not quite spur of the moment then the day off that facilitated it certainly was – I discovered that the Scottish Ensemble were playing in Inverness and decided to go. Held on the actual stage of Eden Court’s Empire Theatre – with the safety curtain firmly down, the ensemble gathered at the front of the stage while the audience sat further back in the depths of the stage, on the kind of staging that you might normally expect a choir or orchestra to use, in a strange almost reversal of roles. The show is a collaboration with Radio 6Music’s Nemone Metaxas, and used both music and compelling spoken mediations on psychotherapy, music theory and the lived experiences of both audience members and musicians to explore what live performance in front of an audience means to both the performers and the audience.

It was a particularly intimate experience as a concert. There can’t have been more than sixty people in the audience with the ensemble barely further than social distancing rules require away from the front row. I wasn’t in the front row – and I think that I agree with the usher who suggested that it might be a little overwhelming to sit there – but even from a couple of rows back I could see clearly the expressions on the players faces, concentration and intensity certainly, but also the changing emotions provoked by the ideas and responses shared by Nemone between performances. (The heady mix of pride, embarrassment and delight flickering across a young violinist’s face sticks with me in particular.) I was both surprised by the location and also unsurprised, knowing their penchant for playing concerts in less usual venues – the first time I saw them perform it was a free concert in Leakey’s Bookshop with the players scattered around the shop’s balcony.

The last time I saw the Scottish Ensemble live, they were doing a programme of Baroque music, which at the time I’d just rekindled my interest in – always having been fond of it as a hold over from it being my favourite style to work in when we had to do composition exercises in Standard Grade music at school – thanks to The Early Music Show. It seemed fitting then to find – amid a programme of largely modern classical music – to find a piece by François Couperin nestled in amongst them, a composer whose work I only recognise from being a regular listener to that radio show.

A particular pleasure for me was hearing them play Caroline Shaw’s Plan and Elevation, even if I did spend most of the duration of the performance trying to place what that wonderful piece that they were doing such a lovely version of was exactly. (I know this piece, I love this piece, what on earth is it?) In my defence I’d only ever heard it played by a string quartet – the Attacca Quartet, who commissioned it, if I remember correctly – and it’s a very different experience performed by a full string ensemble, it’s a very powerful piece in it’s original form, but in this variation it was almost overwhelming in a good way. It was definitely something special to see that piece performed live to be able to see the skill involved in rendering that music in reality. Even the pieces that weren’t quite my thing, were a fascinating watch, precisely because you could see close up, the effort and innovation required to make those pieces work for strings.

It feels remiss of me not to note, that for readers who would still be uncomfortable attending indoor concerts – even small ones such as this – or who live too far from an urban centre to be able to go and see them in person, the Scottish Ensemble do still have some online performances available on their website. In particular I’d recommend their collaboration with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, of Philip Glass’ Symphony No.3: Travelling Dreams. A really lovely virtual train journey through a fantasy landscape, it’s only sixteen minutes long – comprising in truth just the third and fourth movements of the symphony – but well worth digging out the good headphones to get all those lovely nuances and richness of sound that both they and Glass do so well.

Take One Action Returns! #TOAFF21

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To my delight, the Take One Action film festival arrives in Inverness and breaks with tradition by not taking place on a weekend that I’m working. Actually it also breaks with tradition by arriving in Inverness at the tail end of October rather than in the latter part of November. I presume this was so that it could be part of Eden Court’s wider ‘Climate of Hope’ season but could equally have been with the aim to catch the audience when they were thinking about environmental issues in the run up to COP26 and were not yet jaded by all the coverage and compromises. Whatever the reason, it meant that I could actually have seen all five films if I wanted. (I only didn’t go to see The New Corporation because – as it’s subtitle an unfortunately necessary sequel implies – it’s really dispiriting to go see a sequel to a documentary you saw twenty years before and know that so little has in fact changed I saw it in a freezing cold and mostly empty screening in the MacRobert Centre when I was a student. Though I imagine its even more depressing to need to make said film.) It was a bit of a treat to be able to be picky and prioritise films based on preference – I usually pick the environmentally themed films, but they were all on that theme this year – rather than when I wasn’t working.

Living Proof

This was an interesting film, that made excellent use of it’s archive source material from the National Library of Scotland. It uses the archive – mostly public information and marketing films with some news reports and community donated footage – to tell the story of the economic and industrial development of Scotland and the Highlands in particular since the Second World War.
The part that fascinated me the most is that the vast majority of the footage is from films that were made with some sort of agenda, whether establishment or corporate, to change minds or otherwise sell some sort of idea – the anti nuclear campaigners are the most explicit in trying to influence their audience, but some of the others are about as subtle as a brick in their own efforts to get their message across. It was definitely interesting to see how large the dreaded issue of ‘development’ has loomed across this whole period, both in the Highlands and across the wider Scottish landscape.

The film came with an introduction from director Emily Munro so I know there was a lot of other subtler stuff going on in the film that I don’t feel really came through on screen. However, it was in it’s own way an inditement of just how male dominated Scottish public life was during the twentieth century – grey men in grey suits indeed.

Living Proof (Trailer) | TOAFF21 from Take One Action Film Festivals on Vimeo.

The Ants and the Grasshopper

In some ways this film reminds me quite a bit of Thankyou for the Rain, which I saw as part of Take One Action back in 2017. About a Kenyan farmer turned climate activist and his work changing life in his community and taking his story and experience to the Paris 2015 Climate Change Conference.

Something that I liked better about this film was that Anita and Esther felt more embedded in their communities than the other film’s protagonist Kisulu. While he felt more like a lone force of nature changing his community around him, they felt more woven into a wider community of people striving to change their own locality for the better, and the wider world in turn. In many ways Esther is a similar kind of force of nature person, but we mostly follow Anita’s perspective and we see Esther’s impact filtered through her perspective and through the impact that Anita knows Esther had on her own life and work.

There’s no cathartic moment of achieving major change in this film. There are small victories certainly but mainly it is a film about the slow steady work of changing hearts and minds. The drip, drip, drip of a thousand small conversations with neighbours and colleagues, day in day out, to slowly change attitudes and build communities for change. It’s there that Anita’s greatest victories are achieved and in a way that’s the real message of the film, I think. That the rest is up to us, the audience to take up the work and do the slow grinding work of changing hearts and minds one conversation at a time.

The Ants and the Grasshopper (Trailer) | TOAFF21 from Take One Action Film Festivals on Vimeo.

The Last Forest

First up, this film came with an accompanying short film that’s worth noting. Sky Aelans is a film from the Solomon Islands that seems to have been made largely to celebrate the Solomon Islands government acknowledging the sovereignty of the indigenous peoples who live in their rainforests stewardship over their own land and putting appropriate environmental protections into place. It was nice to have, for once, a good news story about rainforest protection. To see joy and triumph on their faces, rather than anger or stoicism in the face of great injustice.

The Last Forest itself follows the intertwining story of Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa – who co-wrote the film – and his campaigning work to protect their forest and the every day struggles and conflicts of other Yanomami people. The film mixes an observational style that feels almost documentary-like with what are clearly staged dream sequences that illustrate both the creation story of the Yanomami people and the major role that the spirit world still has on their day to day lives. The film mixes both elements together with ease – at one point a young woman waits patiently for spiritual guidance while Davi discusses the incursions of prospectors into land further up the river with other community leaders over a ham radio. Mostly though it is an ode to community, to their achievements large and small and what they might yet do together. At it’s heart it is a film that deals with what all minority communities deal with in the face of an increasingly global world, what to take from the new world and what to keep from the old one, and whether a compromise is even possible.

The Last Forest (Trailer) | TOAFF21 from Take One Action Film Festivals on Vimeo.

Nablopomo again

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It’s Nablopomo time again, and this year I really feel like I need it. I’ve written substantially less this year than last year, and writing has definitely been haunted by the sense that if I wasn’t going to write as much or as often then any post needed to be ‘worth it’, more substantial with something important to say. Last year all art or words created in the face of a global pandemic felt important and worthwhile – a light in the darkness – this year that feeling was absent and I really missed it.

Despite having low expectations for last year’s challenge, I ended up making a decent showing with nine film blog posts and three food blog posts which feels a bit like a metaphor for last year’s writing in general – not as much as I’d have liked but pleasingly more than I feared. Honestly the return to ‘normal’ has been harder on my writing output than expected. We’re well into the second half of the second year of the pandemic and being caught between pandemic fatigue and having much less free time as life returned to ‘normal’ writing about art or films has been harder than it’s been in a long time. I’ve found myself really enjoying art that acknowledged the strange changed world that we’re living in now – art that even if it didn’t directly engage with the pandemic, was visibly changed or adapted to accommodate social distancing or other safety measures. External validation that we’ve all been changed by it.

So the plan for this year’s Nablopomo is to write about all the things that bring me joy – or that cause other strong emotions – especially the ones that I’d feel a little guilty about devoting a whole blog post to outside of this month. We all need a bit more joy and a bit less guilt in these troubled times.

(A note for new readers, the forgetful, or the merely curious NaBloPoMo is a sibling challenge to Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where bloggers post every day for the month of November, instead of writing a novel.)

IFF21 @EdenCourt – Film Festival Preview

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It’s that time of year again, the Inverness Film Festival is returning. Not quite the way it was in the before times but certainly closer to that then it was last year. As part of the returning normality the Film Festival Preview screening happened again, though it was not the packed affair that it normally is – busy certainly, but not the kind of affair that I can only get into because I only want one ticket. As always it was a selection of trailers for films showing at the festival themed by the threads of the film festival with introductions by the film festival programmer Paul MacDonald. As much as I am a sucker for a good trailer, I’m really there to hear the programmer’s thoughts and reasonings for the choices. I sincerely doubt that I’m the only audience member who takes an enthusiastic Paul reaction as a more reliable review that any gushing blurb in the programme – or in Sight and Sound for that matter – or number of film festival prizes.

This year’s recommendations come more with the carrot of ‘this has a great performance by that actor’, or this is the new film by the director of this previous IFF favourite film. Which I appreciate, I’d likely never have booked to see Petite Maman if I hadn’t been informed that it was the new film by the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Sciamma, 2019) which in turn I likely wouldn’t have picked without Paul’s recommendation that it was one of best film’s he’d seen that year – it was definitely the best film I saw that year.

Normally many of the films would come with recommendations from other – larger, more prestigious – film festivals but while all of the European ‘big three’ ran in more or less truncated forms this year, and awarded prizes, there is no real sense of films coming with an accumulating buzz. (This year’s IFF features this year’s Palme D’Or winner along with two films that won the Golden Bear at Berlin over the pandemic but There is No Evil (Rasoulof, 2020) is showing as part of a wider season of Iranian cinema that I’m personally pretty excited about rather than as a garlanded star.) With that in mind, this year’s festival is much more about previews and first chances to see than it is a chance to see the cream of that year’s festivals. It’s worth noting that a surprising number of films didn’t actually have trailers yet – that’s how new they were – and some of those that did came with the caveat that they were ‘works in progress’, the final trailers that accompany those film’s general releases may well be very different. A reminder, if we needed it, that it’s been a funny old year and a half for the film industry.

(Oddly enough, the biggest absence from the usual schedule for me, is that the Bo’ness silent film festival hasn’t run these last couple of years – well a much reduced online version did run – so there’s no newly restored/re-scored silent film for us to enjoy at IFF this year.)

As always, I’m more excited by the films showing in the documentary and new world cinema strands then any award winners. The whole point of seeing films at a film festival for me – and handily also for many of the friends I tend to see films with at the festival – is to see films I otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to see. As fun as it was to have seen Oscar winner Nomadland (Zhao, 2020) before it won the Oscar I generally don’t expect to have an opinion about any awards category except Documentary. (Crossing my fingers that Courage is one that comes back.) This year looks to be a vintage year for documentaries at the film festival, though frustratingly some of the best coincide with the times I absolutely can’t be at the cinema. Nonetheless there’s some great stuff that I can go to see – and I’m definitely much more excited to be seeing Becoming Cousteau (Garbus, 2021) after having seen the trailer.

However far from normal this year’s festival will still be, I can feel myself getting excited already, and that was worth the price of admission to the preview screening all by itself.