Autumn Docs

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Autumn is upon us, and once again, as has become an odd sort of tradition on the blog, I find myself writing about having a documentary binge session. There’s something about the turning of this season that seems to bring on an urge to watch documentaries. And not just because we’re three quarters of the way through the year and I find myself looking at my progress towards whatever target for documentary watching that I’ve set myself that year with mild panic.

Autumn is the season of documentary watching for me, and this year is no exception.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Here’s a confession. I’ve never seen the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2006. I was aware of it – it was hard not to be – but I never saw it. Mostly because, well, I didn’t need convincing about climate change. We were a recycling, composting, growing our own vegetables, using energy saving light-bulbs type household when I was growing up. In general, I go to documentaries to learn about something I don’t know very much about. So I went to see the sequel – in the cinema no less – pretty much by accident.

The film is both deeply depressing and also surprisingly hopeful. The predictions for climate change from the original film turned out to be underestimations rather than overestimations. Everything has gotten much worse. But on the other hand, the innovations in renewable energy technology are really quite extraordinary, lighter and smaller and cheaper is the motto all round. As with a great deal of life in general at the moment, it could be summed up as: everything is terrible, but there is still hope.

Salute

Salute is a documentary about the background to one of the most iconic photographs of the 1960s – if not the entire 20th Century. That moment at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, on the winner’s podium after the men’s 200 metres final with Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing heads bowed, fist raised with Peter Norman wearing his Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with them.

It’s a very Australian film, but the advantage of that is that it doesn’t shy away from showing the civil rights movement in Australia. Nor does it shy away from providing the context of the protests and state violence that took place in Mexico City in the run up to the Olympics. The film doesn’t cover the aftermath of the protest in great detail – perhaps because the director feels that story has already been told – focusing instead on providing both historical and personal context for the three participants actions. Indeed all three men point out in different ways that there were lots of layers of meaning and nuance to the protest, but that no-one seem interest in hearing their reasons or letting them explain, being more interested in demanding ‘how dare they’. Perhaps that’s the driving motivation of the film, of giving them a platform to explain in their own words.

At the heart of the film, is the friendship formed between these three athletes, their shared athletic prowess – as of the film’s release, Peter Norman still held the Australian record he set that day – and their shared moment of protest that destroyed all three of their careers in athletics and agreement that it was worth it. That it made a difference.

It feels particularly relevant in the wake of the recent spate of sports protests in the states and the continuing disproportionate approbation that is being heaped on the athletes involved for acts of quiet, peaceful protest on a public stage. Everything old is new again.

Murder on a Sunday Morning

This one was a discovery from the Storyville archive. When I was looking up which year An Inconvenient Truth won the Best Documentary Oscar, I glanced at the rest of the list for the 2000s to see how many I’d actually seen and spotted this film. The name was familiar and when I went and checked the iPlayer I was pleased to discover that it was one of the films available. Though only until this weekend, which seemed like a sign to watch it, if ever there was one.

Once I got past the weirdness of the cameras in the courtroom element, it was a really engaging watch. It helps a lot that the Public Defender who we follow Patrick McGuiness through the trial is an engaging presence who appears genuinely righteously angry about the miscarriage of justice he’s fighting to keep from happening. (That he keeps investigating after he’s cleared his client to find who really did commit the murder, says a lot in his favour.) It also helps, in a way, that the police detectives on the stand are almost cartoonish in their smug complacency, if this was a docudrama you’d tell the actors to dial back the air of lazy entitledness one of them in particular exudes. It doesn’t seem to occur to them to actually have a strategy to properly defend themselves with. They fully expect the system to protect them.

The boy at the centre of the documentary, Brenton Butler, remains something of an enigma throughout the film – for obvious reasons, he isn’t interviewed – we see him through the eyes of his parents, his defence team and the police reports. The only time we hear his own words are as a witness on the stand, as a witness to his own mistreatment at the hands of the police. He comes across as quiet and polite, and more than anything, so very young. Strangely after all that we now know about the extent of police violence in the US, its not the photos of the bruises nor the testimony of intimidation and violence that was most disquieting, but rather the shots of this young boy – just fifteen years old – in shackles.

One of the toughest things about watching the film, in the light of the current political unrest in the states, and the recent visibility of wider police violence and the way it disproportionately targets African-Americans, is that this film was made in 2001. It’s not an obscure film – it won an Oscar for crying out loud – and yet this topic still gets an incredible amount of push back.

Inside Job

Speaking of Oscar winning documentaries, Inside Job won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2010. Given that I was following the crisis itself fairly closely – I’d not long graduated from university and was working in financial services call centres and watching the number of media jobs available reduce at a terrifying rate – and how much I’ve watched and read about it since, it’s unnerving how much new information I gleaned from this documentary and how furiously angry it still makes me. Perhaps it’s a side effect of having literally watched the value of people’s pensions drop, of having had people cry down the phone at me about their mortgages and being utterly helpless to help them. It’s so strange seeing the greed and entitlement of many of the financial advisors I dealt with on a day-to-day basis all those years ago, writ large on senior executives and regulators.

That bone deep frustration I had back then is evident throughout the film, almost every time we hear the director on camera pressing his line of questioning, as so many of his interviewees squirm and prevaricate, his frustration and incredulity is clear. This is a documentary that is politely and firmly, utterly furious, we should be too.

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Sounds of the City

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Last year I started making monthly posts about the audio projects and productions I was working on or enjoying each month. Despite being a highly enjoyable project, I somehow fell off the wagon back in April last year and never quite got back into the swing of it. As I seem to have fallen back out of the habit of writing anything at all here, I thought it was high time I resurrected the project.

I started this year with lots of plans and schemes for sound related projects that I would do this year and naturally life happened and most of them fell by the wayside. One of the major problems I have with making New Years Resolutions is that its easy to get half-way through the year and realise that you’ve not got round to half of them and just give up for the year. To tell yourself that you’ll ‘try again next year’. It’s easy to let it become a vicious circle of ‘next year I’ll write more’ or ‘next year I’ll do more field recording’ instead of just getting out there and doing more of the thing.

One of my plans for this year was to go out making field sound recordings more often. I started out with good intentions in January spending an afternoon making some field recordings and setting myself the target of doing that once a month to get myself into the habit. Of course the danger of starting that kind of challenge in January is that, well, it rains a lot in Scotland at the best of times and its really easy to find excuses/reasons to not go out sound recording. It’s entirely reasonable to not go out when you know your recordings are going to be ruined by howling wind or pouring rain. And then with the spring work picks up again and so the world turns.

It’s also all too easy to get hung up on getting the ‘perfect’ recording. Finding the perfect spot and the perfect conditions is all very well when you know the place well but sometimes it can interfere with getting anything recorded at all. And then there’s the ever present doubt of whether a sound is ‘interesting enough’ to be worth committing all that time and energy to capturing properly.

Last month I found myself in Budapest for a long weekend and I made the last minute decision to take my sound recorder with me. Being in Budapest neatly overturned all my doubts and worries about the ‘usefulness’ of the sounds I was recording. Almost everything I saw and heard in Budapest was new and different. The rattle of the trams and the chiming of the cathedral bells, even the buzz of conversation on the street was worth recording because it was unique to the place. I spent some glorious hours puttering around on public transport recording the sounds of engines, echoes and announcements.

I’ve long known that the world sounds different through a microphone and headphones, but I’d forgotten how differently you’re viewed when you’re wearing headphones and holding a microphone. In general there are two different responses to the giant headphones and a microphone, either people want to talk and to hear what you’re recording or you become completely invisible. In Budapest I became invisible, when I wasn’t focused on what I was doing, I watched people recognise what I was doing and – sometimes visibly – categorise me as harmless and ignore me. Even the dreaded ticket inspectors didn’t bother investigating what I was up to, apparently holding a microphone was a license to wander and lurk. The hawkers and street people, ignored me utterly, perhaps they’d learned by experience that I would likely be delighted to listen to their patter, but only interested in recording it. It was like slipping on a disguise or a costume, one that allowed me to shed my tourist skin and blend in as just another piece of street theatre.

I got some lovely recordings of trams and metro trains, of fountains and church bells and street performances. A small flavour of the city. Every time I look at the file marked ‘Budapest’ I feel inspired, I feel delighted, I feel…like I need a bigger memory card for my recorder…

On the Roof of the World

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This a review of a film thread in two parts. It originally ran during the Inverness Film Festival back in November so the first two films that are covered are films that I saw during the festival. The second two films were shown in January this year, films that I wanted to see but that I couldn’t schedule in because they clashed with other commitments. As I’ve previously noted here, I tend to pick my films during the festival based on what I think it’ll be my only opportunity to see. However, Eden Court does seem to use the festival as a test screening for lots of films, so if a film sells out at the festival they usually get it back. While I knew they were getting Eagle Huntress back – the one single film that most people have asked if I saw, or expressed disappointment that they missed seeing, at the festival – but I was surprised and pleased to see Black Hen make a second appearance.

Paths of the Soul/Kang Ripoche

Is a lovely meditative film about going on a pilgrimage. It’s not clear watching the film, whether this is a documentary or a drama and it appears that the lines have been intentionally blurred. (Perhaps as a side effect of the compromises required getting a film so explicitly about spirituality in Tibet past the Chinese censors.) If they’re acting then it’s the most method performance I’ve ever seen.

Not being of any particular religious persuasion, I’d never really given a lot of thought to the physicality of going on a spiritual pilgrimage. Essentially just going on a very long walk to a significant place, which, like any epic journey, gives you plenty of time to reassess your life and place in the universe. Physically tasking but easily comprehensible. Apparently not in Tibet! When the blurb talked about physical pain, I imagined blisters and sores from walking for hundreds of miles in all weathers. Walking is the very least of it. Early on there are fascinating scenes where the pilgrims prepare their equipment, the long aprons of animal skin, the wooden paddles that they wear on their hands. And then they walk, prostrating themselves every few metres in prayer.

There’s something gloriously pragmatic about this act of devotion, tilling fields as payment for food and shelter, washing cars and taking labour jobs when they run out of money. Even the decision to go on the pilgrimage is made without fanfare, several quiet discussions about who will go and why, with each discussion setting off others until the group is formed.

Zud

Is far and away the bleakest film in the series. Whereas all the other films, while showing considerable hardship and poverty, also find a great deal of joy and hope in the lives of the people they portray, Zud is fairly consistently bleak.

Set on the Mongolian Steppe, after the loss of much of his parents livestock, young Sukhbat is pulled out of school and given the responsibility of breaking a wild horse in order to race him, in a last ditch attempt to turn the family’s fortunes around. Ultimately I think the film is trying to say something about the clash of tradition and modernity, or the way that despite the march of progress, subsistence farming is still a brutal way of life. However, it was gloomy to the point of grim and something of an exhausting viewing experience.

The Black Hen/Kalo Pothi

Is a sweet, episodic film about innocence, friendship across cast lines, loss and growing up. Oh, and chickens as a vital source of food, currency and status.

The film has a constant undercurrent of vague threat. Being set during the recent Nepalese Civil War/Maoist Insurgency. There are Maoists lurking about on the edges of the film, but they’re very much an ambiguous presence for most of the film. (The only time we see actual violence, the boys are explicitly somewhere that they shouldn’t be – to the extent that they’ve been warned off by soldiers at a check point – even the one kidnapping is a fairly bloodless affair.) The passing bands of government soldiers appear equally if not more threatening to day-to-day life. The film ends on some stark facts and figures about death tolls, refugees and child soldiers, but the only young people we see actually recruited seem to go willingly – Prakash’s sister seems more motivated by the desire to have a regular wages to support her younger brother. In fact as the film progresses and we see more and more the hardships and indignities that Prakash has to endure because he’s an ‘untouchable’ her decision to join the Maoists seems increasingly understandable.

The Eagle Huntress

The Eagle Huntress is an oddly charming little documentary film. At first it seems like it might be one of those clichéd ethnographical efforts that fetishize a ‘lost’ or ‘dying’ way of life. But instead we’re taken right into the action; the protagonists talk to each other and the camera with a frank and disarming honesty. The film is both a delightful coming of age story and a sweet father-daughter bonding adventure.

One of the best parts of this documentary, as a document of these people and their lives is the way it portrays normal life for them. The practicalities of their existence. The stolid acceptance that this is the way their life is now. (The children all stay in dormitories at the school during the week as they live too scattered and nomadic lives to be able to travel to school each day. The deep sibling-like bonds between the girls formed by having grown up together like this.) The combination of the traditional and the modern – trucks with hand crank engines, solar panels to run electricity off, the transistor radio that is the centre of their connection to the outside world – and the way those intertwine with each other. Modern thermal base layers under more traditional garments, the way they seem to have taken what they need from the modern world and used it to preserve their nomadic way of life.

(I like the way the film carefully phrases her status among the other Eagle Hunters. She is the first woman to compete in that particular competition, but they carefully do not call her the first woman to be an Eagle Huntress. The phrasing suggests a fine line being walked, that enough people have suggested there have been others, whether or not they have been acknowledged as such. An acknowledgement of sorts that they can’t prove they existed but they had enough reason to suspect they did and don’t want to erase them if they did.)

I have to wonder, given the focus on her femininity, the little details of her messily painted nails, her long hair and the hair ornaments, at whether previous Eagle Huntresses have always just pretended to be boys. There’s something defiantly girly about the way she presents herself. There’s a telling little exchange between Aisholpan and her mother, her mother commenting that they should have cut her hair shorter, and Aisholpan assuring her that its fine, because she has girl hair. There seems a wealth of unspoken subtext there, not least a determination that she’s not going to pretend that she isn’t a girl. There’s something determinedly ordinary about how she’s portrayed in the film, yes she’s physically strong and tough but that’s a product of the life she lives. She walks a fine line of being both deferential and defiant in her attitude to her fellow hunters. There’s something about the way she stands at the competition registration table, surrounded by all these men, head and shoulders taller than her, that little raise of her eyebrow at the ‘young girl’ comment combined with a placid smile. There’s something, delightfully unsophisticated about the way she expresses her emotions, her open affection for her bird, her honesty about her nerves before the competition, her infectious joy at her successes and her raw frustration at her struggles hunting in the wild.

The old men, the elders of the sport, are so ridiculously stereotypical in their responses to her existence. It’s not remotely difficult to see why she might struggle to take their approbation seriously. It’s all too easy to imagine them in another documentary complaining about how young people don’t want to take up their traditions. Their sour grapes response to her success makes her victories taste all the sweeter to the viewer at home.

12 Films Project (Part 3)

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New Year; new challenges. Plus ça change, as they say. I was looking for a new challenge to keep me writing here regularly, when I remembered about the 12 films project and having felt rather uninspired in my film choices last year, I wanted to diversify my film-watching. Shake things up a bit and try new, or at least different, things.

There’s a considerable part of me that is deeply disappointed that, the best part of eight years after I first did this challenge, this kind of project is still necessary. Yet in these troubled political times, it somehow feels more relevant than it ever was. That we see the world from different perspectives, that we are reminded that people who don’t look or think like us are people too. That their stories are important, and equally deserving of being heard.

To this end, I’m aware that in previous years my challenge films have leant toward those produced outside of Hollywood and Europe, which is both a natural product of my own film preferences and unfortunately plays into certain stereotypes about the kind of films that fit into this kind of challenge. So, this go round, I want to seek out films that qualify but are either in English or from other European countries. Films that you wouldn’t see the title of, and presume that they would qualify.

The Sound of Arrival

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Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016) is one of the cleverest and best executed big budget science fiction films I’ve ever seen. To me it is science fiction in its purest form, taking an idea or a theory and extrapolating the consequences.

Arrival is a film that lives in the hinterland where language and science meet. The fascinating mysteries of how our brains are affected by the languages we speak. Thousands of words have been expounded on whether and how our way of seeing the world is influence by the languages we speak. (Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages by Guy Deutscher is a pretty accessible look at the subject if you’re interested.) And the answer is currently, mostly, we don’t really know. Or at least we can’t actually prove anything. Subjectively, I can say that yes, I absolutely do think and see the world differently in Gaelic than I do in English – whether that difference is merely in perspective or an actual neurological change is one for the scientists to argue over, but nonetheless it’s a large part of why this film worked for me on an intrinsic level.

What I wasn’t expecting was to be blown away by the sound design. I have a long established pet-hate of the ‘turn it up to 11’ school of blockbuster sound and while some of that can be mitigated by a bit of common sense in the projection box of your cinema – I recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD and can now appreciate why it won prizes for its sound editing, but in the cinema my ears were ringing too much for me to notice – there is very rarely any deftness or subtlety to enjoy.

The sound department for this film appear to be mostly French and entirely brilliant. I love that they devoted two separate Sound Designers to the aliens. One for the alien’s themselves and one for their shell ship. The world inside the Shell Ship felt utterly sonically alien, the sense of a sealed environment, an initially claustrophobic but later quite sheltering – womb-like, is presumably what they were going for – soundscape, draws the viewer into the subjective view of the scientists. The aliens are rather cephalopod-like and their vocal language owes a great deal to their Earth bound equivalents. A kind of alien whale song that presumes that the gaseous environment that they inhabit would work like water does for sound here on Earth. (A small niggle, our vocalisations, designed for Earth’s atmosphere, and should surely therefore be as incomprehensible to them as their language is to us?) Strange, yet believably, organically so. The soundscape around them feels, rich and complex, yet spare and subtle. It envelops us yet never overwhelms, in a film so much about language it is necessary that there is enough space given to the dialogue and it manages that with such deftness that you barely notice it – a sure sign of the skill of the sound team if ever I saw one.

A related, but arguably odd observation I couldn’t help but make is that the sound felt French. I spent a lot of time expecting people to break into French. I’m not sure quite how to explain why it felt French, given that I didn’t realise that it was directed by Denis Villeneuve going in – and he’s French Canadian anyway – but I wasn’t remotely surprised when I watched the sound credits and saw all those French names scrolling by. Perhaps it was the restrained yet passionate performances from the cast. Perhaps it’s just that film like this could only have worked being filtered through a bilingual director’s vision. Whatever the reason, the film feels like its being experienced through the filter of a language you’re almost fluent in but not quite. A gorgeously alienating experience. The film in general feels like it should be a much smaller film than it is, having the general ambience of a mid-budget sci-fi film – one big enough to afford decent CGI but small enough to actually be about something. It feels like the kind of film you see by accident or have to hunt down one of the only three screenings it gets anywhere near you. (The closest film to it in terms of atmosphere, that I can think of, is the Korean monster movie The Host/Gwoemul (Joon Ho Bong, 2006) which has the most organic use of CGI I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.) Not the kind of thing that will be showing every night for a week and the usher will tell that they’re extending the run for because its been so popular. It’s a rare gem of a film and I’m glad that it’s getting a wide distribution because it absolutely deserves to be seen widely; I’m just a little surprised.

Radio Drama: Returning to an Old Friend

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As much as I’ve been revelling in the recent rise of audio drama podcasts – in the diversity of stories and genres that this has also caused – I’ve rather been neglecting audio dramas from more conventional sources. Some of this has been for good reason – there was a definite need for new and innovative takes on audio drama that narrative podcasts have taken up and run with – but some of it was just because it had suddenly become much easier to find recommendations of things I would enjoy. Many moons ago, in an interview for a radio internship, I accidentally established myself as ‘the illusive Radio 7 listener’, I really don’t think the gentleman in question meant it as a compliment but nonetheless it was a distinction I wore with pride. So it makes me particularly wistful to think that since Radio 7 became Radio 4 Xtra, I’ve barely listened to the station. Occasionally I would put see a link to an interesting audio drama, bookmark it for later, but by the time I got round to it, it had expired.

In a happy confluence of events, I stumbled across a new one that took my fancy at the beginning of November – an excellent excuse to write about radio drama for Nablopomo if ever I saw one – in the shape of an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s How the Marquis Got His Coat Back which is the follow-up to Neverwhere a story that I love dearly already. Even better it was a stand-alone drama rather than a series, so no excuses there. (With sound design by Dirk Maggs! How could I resist.) And then finally a friend – who listens to screeds of audiobooks – has recently got into radio drama and was looking for recommendations, there was a time when I’d have been able to give her a list off the top of my head. All in all it was high time I got back into it.

On a purely performance basis, I was delighted that they got Patterson Joseph back to play the Marquis. My introduction to the strange and wonderful world of Neverwhere was the mid-90s TV series and the actor and the character are indelibly bound up together for me. (Whenever I read the book, I hear the Marquis’ lines in his voice.) To the extent that it would occasionally throw me off when listening to the recent Neverwhere adaption. I liked the way they handled the change in actors – both deft and knowing – and the way the voices of the two brothers complimented each other. Excellent casting work there. (For reasons unknown, Adrian Lester’s radio voice reminds me somewhat of Paul McGann – no bad thing in my opinion, as I could happily listen to the latter read the telephone directory – which I presume is stylistic thing, pitch and timbre and so on, given that Lester is from Birmingham and McGann from Liverpool. Either that or RADA does really odd things to Northern English accents.)

I think my favourite thing about Dirk Maggs’ radio drama adaptations is that he knows what to leave out. For all that I haven’t read the original short story that the play is based on – I understand its now often included with editions of Neverwhere, but my own copy was purchased nearly a decade before the sequel was published – I’m sure there must have been plenty of scenes cut along the way, but you don’t feels their absence. Like all of his adaptations that I’ve previously heard, it feels like a complete, even when I know where the seams should be, in the moment I cannot see where they are. A fealty to the essential essence of the original text; rather than the every word of it. This is reflected in the sound design, there’s a sparseness to the soundscape that conjures up perfectly the feeling of the locations the Marquis traverses, while leaving the aural foreground free for the actors to do their part. To let the dialogue sparkle and the performances shine.

All in all, it felt delightfully like stepping back into a familiar, if half-forgotten, world, not entirely unlike putting on a much beloved coat that you’d temporarily misplaced.

It’s Got Knitsonik On It

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I accidentally gave myself a bit of writers block last week, as I had two more posts I wanted to make about the Inverness Film Festival but wasn’t feeling at all inspired to write them. Therefore I couldn’t write anything else until I’d written them. Completely logical.

Yesterday, I finished catching up with a really interesting sound-related podcast, Knitsonik, so I decided to write about that instead – and hopefully kick the writer’s block to the curb while I’m at it.

Approximately a year ago, at a friend’s birthday party, I got into a discussion with someone about my twin passions of sound design and knitting. Now the relationship between these two things is completely clear to me, but is not something that is always obvious to other people. In fact, until that point the only person I knew who really shared these as twin, interweaved passions, was my former tutor from my masters course Gary Hayton and he’s now a Textile Artist who applies Fibonacci number sequences to knitted fabric. So to casually meet some in everyday life who not only didn’t think it was an odd combination of passions but did in fact tell me they knew someone who had done their PHD in that sort of thing and that they had a podcast about the subject. The idea that there were enough people into both of those things to sustain a podcast was both surprising and delightful.

(The exception is generally if you’re really into maths. Maths geeks – and occasionally engineers – who knit will nod understandingly and talk to me about Fibonacci sequences and the golden ratio and then be horrified that I’m not only not a maths geek but that I don’t actually like maths. Most sound designers seem to come from either a maths/engineering background or a music composition background, I’m neither, I’m first and foremost a craftsperson. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I was altering a knitting pattern the other week – I didn’t have any graph paper to hand so I used an excel spreadsheet – that I realised that I visualise knitting designs the same way that I design soundscapes. Interchangeable blocks that layer and interweave to create something new and unique.)

Having spent the early months of this year clearing out my backlog of podcasts, I was able to justify subscribing to a few new ones and Knitsonik was naturally among the first to be chosen back in March. Why did it take until now for me to work my way through the backlog? Certainly not because the podcast isn’t interesting. It’s not even that the episodes are long, though that does mean I need to carve out time specifically to listen rather than sticking them on in short periods between other things. The problem with the podcast is that it’s…well…too interesting and inspiring. I couldn’t binge listen to it, because I came out of each episode really wanting to go and do some field recordings or make some sound art. Around 50% of my sound recording field trips this year, were as a direct result of listening to this podcast. I’d sit down with a pot of tea and some knitting on a Sunday afternoon intending to have a binge listen and a couple of hours later I’d be standing somewhere unexpected wearing my giant headphones, recording an interesting bird noise or weird echo and wondering vaguely how I’d got there.

I keep forgetting how much listening to other people be passionate about sound design and sound art stirs up my own passion for the work. (You would think that the exponential increase in my sound production work when the hospital radio station I used to volunteer with had an artist in residence would have clued me in but apparently not.) Sound is, in many ways, quite a solitary pursuit. Anti-social even. You spend a lot of time listening really hard to your environment; it’s quite hard to do in company unless you’re working on something that specifically needs another person to achieve. (The idea of embedding sound in a place, or in objects of the place the sound originates from, is increasingly important to me, especially since I relocated to the Highlands.) It is, therefore, quite easy to feel isolated in your work. Especially, if you don’t live in a large metropolis with an established community of sound artists. Even having an outlet like this blog, it can feel a bit like no-one’s listening.

Therefore, it’s been great to have this window into someone else’s sound projects, their passions and quirks, especially that rare confluence of viewing sound design/art as a craft with all that that implies. And oddly comforting to know that someone else finds sheep noises just as compelling and comical as I do.

Perhaps, if this year’s project was to write more about sound, then next year’s project should be to send more sound out into the world. Not just the stuff that I get paid to make, but the little projects that I make just for the joy of making soundscapes too.

IFF16 @EdenCourt – Documentaries

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I saw two feature-length documentaries at the film festival this weekend, and I’m not sure they could have been more different if they’d tried. One bittersweet and desolate and the other gentle and hopeful.

16 Years Till Summer

One of the difficult things about living in the Highlands, is that the sparseness of the population means that the six degrees of separation idea is really more like three. It gives documentaries made here about people from here, a certain immediacy that I doubt they’d have otherwise. I’ve not lived here particularly long, but not withstanding that, I regularly know someone who knows someone involved – whether on the production or as a contributor. It’s altogether more unnerving when, as with this film, you recognise someone’s face and cannot figure out why.

That aside, 16 Years Till Summer is a compelling, poetic film about the possibility of redemption and forgiveness – both as something you earn and as an act of compassion. In many ways the film is like an impressionist painting or poem, between the way it has been shot, the long takes and silences, and its hyper-real use of sync-sound and the charming score. Even if, as I found myself discussing with a friend I bumped into at the screening, they managed to make one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland look bleak and depressing.

There’s something almost inevitable about the film’s conclusion, that we spend the duration of the film hoping against hope, along with the filmmakers that our protagonist will make good. Will find it in himself to be the man he believes himself to be, rather than the man he is. Perhaps that’s truly what makes him so familiar, because most of us will know someone like that, a charming dreamer who is great at find opportunities to try and turn their dreams into reality, but even better at self-sabotaging themselves and screwing up those opportunities. It’s just that most of those screw-ups don’t end up with other people dead.

Kedi

Is a film about the cats of Istanbul. Thousands of feral cats – I’ll call them feral rather than wild because they are definitely domesticated they just don’t live with individual humans – rather made the city their home for centuries. The film looks at the lives of these cats and their relationships with the humans around them. The film is mostly shot from either cat level – even for the interviews we are mostly looking up at the interviewees – or in aerial views of the city, it really is a largely cats eye view of the city.

At least on the surface the film is about cats, looking at the city from the perspective of cats and through the lens of cats, reveals a very different Istanbul to anything I’ve ever seen before in films about the city. On a deeper level, this is a film about community and how the city is changing and what that means for all its inhabitants whether they have two legs or four. It touches gently on all sorts of issues, of gentrification and class, culture and language, food and family, all of the gently allided by the presence of the cats. People talk about the things that are important to them, that shape their lives and their fears, sometimes poetically and others bluntly, but always under the umbrella that they’re talking about cats. The cats give them a cover for talking honestly about community and the city, about mental health and poverty, and most of all about human and animal kindness.

It’s a lovely, insightful film and, naturally, despite not speaking a word, the cats are the personalities that stay with you.

Mini City/Land of Giants Exhibit @EdenCourt

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Another chunk of the festival of architecture has arrived in Inverness, this time in the form of the Mini City/Land of the Giants exhibition. I stumbled over it by accident at Eden Court the other day, they often have exhibitions tucked away upstairs and I spotted it by chance glancing down into another half-hidden gallery from half-way up the stairs. (One of my favourite things about Eden Court is all the fabulous little nooks and crannies that it has, it’s great fun to go for an exploratory wander and find somewhere to curl up with a book and a cup of tea, but its also really easy to miss something really interesting for approximately the same reasons.) Tucked away in the gallery next to the Bishops House part of Eden Court is a fascinating little exhibition.

Mini City/Land of Giants Exhibition

The exhibition itself features scale models of buildings, campuses, sites and homes, both built and un-built, most of them local but all of them created by local architects and model makers. (For the purpose of this exhibition ‘local’ means ‘North of Scotland’ which appears to cover, the Highlands, Islands – Hebridean, Northern & Western – Moray, Aberdeenshire – in fact quite far south given the inclusion of Perth Concert Hall.) They were mostly created in the process of designing the buildings and some of those that have made it into full-sized three dimensional space, are accompanied by photos of the finished buildings in situ which adds a pleasing symmetry to the process.

Forestry Commission Campus & Perth Concert Hall

They’re almost all mounted on piles of wooden pallets, which you’d think would look really messy, but actually really enhances the feeling of constructed reality and impermanence of the models themselves. The models – with a few notable exceptions – were created as part of a design process, to demonstrate a design in 3D space, to show a more realistic view of how its features will interact with the wider landscape. Mostly, they were never meant to be seen by more than a handful of people – in some cases, just a few architects and the client. There’s something secret and special about seeing these artefacts, ghosts of buildings as they might have been or might yet be. It feels like a peak behind the curtain of the architectural design process, a drawing back of the veil that enhances rather than undermines the magic.

Am FasgadhOn StiltsArnish Buisness Park

IFF 2016 @EdenCourt – Short Docs

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I did intend to see both sets of short documentaries that were showing at the Inverness Film Festival this year, but circumstances conspired against me. (I did, however, get a lovely walk in the Autumnal sunshine yesterday morning as compensation.) Handily, the screening that I did see was the one that contained almost all of the short documentaries I was most interested in seeing. If I could only see one of the screenings, I’m glad it was this one.

The Bell Ringers

The first documentary in the collection is a little slice of life film, about people learning to be bell ringers at St Andrews Cathedral in Inverness. It’s an interesting enough little piece as it is, but mostly it made me want a documentary more about the history of the bell ringers, I wanted more than anything to know more. It also reminded me that a couple of years ago I started some research work, towards making a radio documentary about the Bell Ringers at Dunblane Cathedral – now I really want to make that documentary!

Dear Peter

Dear Peter is, I think, the third of Scott Willis’ documentaries that I’ve seen now – he worked at Eden Court for a while which sort of makes him a local film-maker – so I’m starting to recognise his style of film-making. They tend to focus on an interesting character that Scott’s met – and they tend to stand or fall based on the nature of the friendship that forms between film-maker and subject. This one works really well, I found it compelling and lovely, perhaps most of all because I’m also the sort of person who, if they found a collection of art postcards in a bookshop – all addressed to the one person – would want to track that person down and interview them.

Sheepo

The shortest film in the collection – Sheepo is probably the film that I would most whole-heartedly recommend. There’s not a lot to it and it’s certainly not going to change the world, but it was by a long way, the most fun. It was brilliantly shot, did nice things with sound and had an engaging and amusing protagonist and subject. Who knew competitive sheep shearing could be so much fun?

With The Rising Tide

I’m not sure why I like documentaries about boat building, but I really love documentaries about boat building. There’s just something about the type of person who is willing to spend the time to hand build a wooden boat that seems to make them a compelling subject for a documentary and this one was full of those people. Young and old, male and female – and quite frankly the lassie from Plockton neatly articulated everything I love about woodworking – the sense of community, of building something together, something greater than themselves oozed out of every moment of this film.

With the Rising Tide is a gorgeous lyrical film, with an interesting approach to sound. (Even if said sound did make the sound designer in me twitch to get at the sound mix to mellow out some of the more jarring audio cuts.)