Pop-Up Opera from @ScottishOpera at @EdenCourt

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I suppose I really only have myself to blame for this one. At the start of the year, I blithely declared that I was going to focus on writing about art specifically, and performing arts – theatre, dance, classical music – more generally. So obviously after a reasonably healthy start to the year – some ballet, an opera, two classical concerts, and a couple of art exhibits – lockdown happened and i couldn’t go and see anything no matter how much I wanted to. Until this weekend. Almost exactly six months since I’d last seen any live music – I’d won tickets to the BBC Scottish Symphony and spent all that week expecting a phone call that the gig was being cancelled – I was back at Eden Court seeing some opera.

Scottish Opera are currently touring three condensed operas around Scotland and performing them out of doors. (Covering a wide range of potential audiences with Song of the Clyde to introduce younger audiences to opera, a light opera in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers and a more traditional opera in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.) A potentially risky move, I thought when I saw it announced, as September in Scotland and the Highlands in particular could go either way for an outdoor show. (I only ended up attending myself due to a last minute cancellation and deciding that even if it rained it was only half an hour, how wet could I really get?!) But they were in luck, last weekend they hit Inverness just as Summer gave one last hurrah, so it was in fact glorious weather to watch an outdoor show. I’m not sure how it works elsewhere, but here in Inverness the show took place in the car park behind Eden Court, using as a stage, the truck that normally appears full of props and scenery whenever the opera’s in town. Attendees showed their digital tickets on arrival, collected their stools and were guided to the appropriate coloured ‘pod’ – really an appropriately coloured hoop on the ground – blue for two people, yellow for four, scattered about a couple of metres apart and there we sat in the sunshine.

The condensed format of the opera made it perfect lunchtime viewing, half an hour of all the best tunes and jokes from a Gilbert and Sullivan production was just unadulterated charm. The cast consists of five performers, one narrator, two musicians and two singers, and they certainly showcased their respective skills and versatility – there was pathos and comedy, joy and rage, everything you could ask for in an afternoon’s entertainment. Well, maybe ice cream, I presume there was good reason that there was no snack concession on the go, but I did feel they missed a trick there.

So if you happen to be in one of the many places around Scotland that they’ve still to visit, then I highly recommend taking a punt on one of the shows, even if the weather is looking less than stellar, the sheer joy of the return to live in person performance more than compensates for getting a little damp at the mini-opera, just bring your brolly, and maybe also your inner child.

Quarantine Culture

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I must confess that I haven’t really partaken in most of the ‘quarantine culture’ events that have been thrown up in recent months. As I largely work in news these days, I found myself designated a key worker and in many ways life continued as normal, just with fewer colleagues, more remote working and some adventurous technical work arounds. (And lots and lots of hand gel and anti-viral wipes…) So unlike many people I wasn’t stuck indoors all day, needing innovative media to shake me from the malaise or distract from the same four walls. I spent all day trying to create some kind of normality for the listeners at home, so when I came home what i wanted was comfort viewing of my own. Which mostly looked like vintage cooking programmes, classic concerts, and hours and hours of Radio 3.

I’ve read and heard about all the dramas and comedies filmed in lock down, admired the innovation and resourcefulness of the makers and gradually come to accept that much like the hours of plays and Shakespeare that were also available, they just weren’t going to be part of my lockdown experience. That was until I discovered a range of short ‘culture in quarantine’ programming, from interpretive dance, to virtual art exhibitions to author talks. Perfect for short attention spans and dipping in and out of as the mood takes you.

Dance

Having been a dancer as a child, I’ve retained a deep love of dance and instinctively approve of it, however abstract or ‘interpretative’ it turns out to be. I do however have to be in the mood for it – unless it’s tap dancing, high quality tap dancing is always a drop everything and watch situation. I came to watching ballet in my late 20s so I gravitate to stories I know, as I struggle to follow the narrative – honestly I want to be down the front with the ten year olds watching the dancers feet. It seems that dance on the small screen shouldn’t work but the iPlayer has a selection of very different pieces with very different styles that really appealed.

There’s an amazing piece called Sofa Dance where a collection of acrobats turn their own frustrations at being cooped up into a delightful kinetic performance that makes a virtue of the confined space of the sofa to really explore the limits and possibilities of the form. Playful and entertaining it was the perfect duration to leave the viewer wanting more without getting repetitive. Another favourite was the Swan Lake Bath Ballet which should have been ridiculous but was actually sublime. Dancers from ballet companies around the world had come together to make something fun – and they were clearly having fun – that sounded like something from a comedy sketch, yet they brought such grace to it and took the work so seriously that it felt joyous rather than being silly.

Virtual Art Exhibitions

Over the last few years cinemas have increasingly tried to diversify their revenue streams by showing other kinds of art, with live theatre from the National or live ballet from Covent Garden. One thing I never quite got the point of were exhibition previews. Essentially an hour or so of wandering around an exhibition at someone else’s pace with someone else’s opinions. (There is perhaps a reason that I generally prefer to use an audio guide that I can stop and start at will, to a live tour when visiting a historic building.) Which may seem an odd perspective from someone whose first ‘steady’ job in this industry was with a company that made audio visual displays for museums, but those were designed to either enhance the wider exhibition or as a distinct element of the exhibition itself. They weren’t supposed to replace the exhibition itself. If they were going to appear on line they were either as essentially a trailer to encourage people to visit or to create a record of a temporary exhibition for the benefit of later researchers or academics. Preserving something ephemeral for posterity.

(But then, in terms of increasing the accessibility of art in general I prefer projects that bring art to audiences in rural/remote or disadvantaged communities than those that seek to bring people to the art.)

These virtual exhibitions on the other hand feel much more in line with the tradition of good audio visual displays, highlighting details and providing supplementary materials, such as interviews and film clips, while also making good use of a personable narrator to provide background information and tie all the threads together in a welcoming and accessible fashion. Successfully walking the line between tempting the viewer who may later get a chance to go in person to still attend, yet leaving those who can’t attend satisfied that you’ve had a good flavour of the exhibition.

Scenes for Survival

These were a collaboration between BBC Scotland and various theatre companies around Scotland (mostly via NTS) to create a collection of short theatre pieces, between 5 and 15 minutes long. The format is mostly monologues, but there are a couple of duologues thrown in for variety, and as such they’re quite intense experiences. The actors vary from famous faces to lesser known stage stalwarts to new faces that seem destined for great things, while the writers and directors are a similar mix of safe pairs of hands and new voices trying new things. They cover a wide range of topics and styles – I particularly enjoyed Babe Rainbow – so you can pick and choose as the mood takes you or let yourself ride the emotional rollercoaster by treating them as individual parts of a much greater whole. They’re releasing a few new ones each week – there will be 40 in total and currently there are 32 up, I think – so even if you’ve checked them out before, it’s worth checking back to see what else they have to offer.

Opera, in Scots

Of course it’s not just the BBC producing and showcasing great lockdown art. In June Scottish Opera released a short opera – just thirteen minutes long – called The Narcissistic Fish with a libretto in Scots. It’s a small but perfectly formed short film, with gorgeous music and visuals, cracking performances (both singing and acting) and fabulous sound design. It packs all the essential elements of a good opera – tragedy, comedy, death, love, secrets, betrayal and jealousy – into the hothouse of a restaurant kitchen, where tensions are high and the knives – both metaphorical and literal – are sharp. The use of Scots language helps add to the immediacy of the story, making it feel even more of this current moment than it would otherwise. It feels like an excellent entry point for young audiences who might not think that opera could be for them, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in giving opera a try but are reluctant to face a whole evening of historical drama in Italian to find out.

Virtual Theatre from @ScottishYT

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Back at the start of lockdown, I was delighted to hear about the sizeable chunk of theatre productions that were being made available for online streaming for the duration. I had delightful visions of using my free evenings to watch plays from the National Theatre and catch up on all the amazing Shakespeare adaptations I’ve heard so much about over the years but never had the chance to see. Like many other people I absolutely did not have the concentration for that and have instead been watching hours and hours of cookery programmes – with occasional art and design documentaries thrown in for variety – which has at least kept my lockdown cooking interesting and my food blog has certainly appreciated and benefited from the inspiration. Nonetheless, I was feeling vaguely guilty about all the great theatre I wasn’t watching.

Until tonight! Tonight was the third and final night of Scottish Youth Theatre’s run of their play Once You See The Smoke. They were supposed to be on tour just now, but instead they took the play they were supposed to be touring and adapted it/re-imagined it, for and through Zoom video conferencing. I was intrigued. Plus a few theatre buddies were enthusing about last night’s performance and also it was free, so even if I hated it there was nothing to lose.

Spoiler alert: I did not hate it, I really enjoyed it.

(I even went and made a wee donation to SYT afterwards in lieu of a ticket. Like all theatre organisations, they’re struggling in these troubled times.)

In these days of catch-up, streaming and non-linear viewing, flexibility it seems is key. However, one of the side-effects of life during this pandemic is that for many people time has lost all meaning which makes it easy to put things off with good intention and never get round to them or get round to them and find that they’ve expired. Having to register for a ticket by a deadline, and knowing that it would only be available at that one time as live performance, did an excellent job of focusing the mind. I had a ticket, I was committed, procrastinating was not an option.

A zoom seminar is certainly a unique and very different way to experience theatre, and not one which I’d want to permanently replace the theatre experience with, but it really worked to this play’s advantage. At once strangely intimate – as though the actors are performing just for you – and strangely alienating – you can never quite fully immerse and completely forget the moment that we’re living through.

I always dread the words ‘site-responsive theatre’ in blurbs because, depending on the site and the company, that either works really well or not at all. However in this case it meant that they used the quirks and charms of the video conferencing medium to make something really adventurous and completely of this moment.

If you’re one of the many people working from home and doing most of your meetings – and even socialising – via Zoom you’re probably familiar with Zoom backgrounds. (For that matter even if you aren’t I see that other video conferencing systems like Skype have started to introduce them too.) For the uninitiated, they are essentially a rough and ready back projection set up, which work better with a solid plain background behind you and really need you to sit still or you’ll sort of faze in and out of your background – to occasionally hilarious effect. The play makes really effective use of this feature. As the crux of the play is this smoke that some people can see and others cannot, whose meaning and presence shifts and changes with time and between characters, the play’s Greek chorus move in and out of their backdrop as they shift between perspectives and angles, emphasising the state of flux they exist in. The most effective use though is for the dance sequences where the dancers move in and out of their backgrounds in such a way that their backgrounds almost seem to take on a life of their own, as though they really are made of smoke that might swallow them up and smother them. It’s hard to imagine that any amount of clever tricks with lights and smoke machines on stage could have improved on that.

The company definitely use the medium to their advantage, pulling themselves into and out of focus, literally framing their performances to create different moods, and underline themes, illustrate intimacy and demonstrate increasing alienation.

Beyond the clever use of medium, the play itself is timely and compelling – the current pandemic only serving to make the issues all the more pressing – the characters are believably flawed and fallible, and their conflicts feel real to the point of touching nerves.

Over and over the play asks, ‘if your house was on fire, what would you do?’ Well our house – this planet – is most definitely on fire, so the question remains: what will we do?

Virtual @Tectonicsglas Festival

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This weekend is Tectonics weekend.

It’s not as though I manage to attend every year, or even most years, and generally I can’t make the whole thing so end up doing only the Saturday or only the Sunday. Nonetheless, I was originally supposed to be off this weekend and I’d vaguely planned on taking the long weekend and heading to Glasgow to attend. Then of course, everything changed in March and all those plans went to dust.

In common with many other small festivals, Tectonics has made a valiant attempt at creating a virtual festival over the course of it’s scheduled weekend. Unlike many other small music festivals, because the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is involved, most of the proceedings are recorded for Radio 3 and some of the performances even get filmed, so we aren’t talking a shoogly Youtube playlist with lots of unwanted feedback and peaking. All the strange noises are intentional strange noises!

In a nice touch, they’d laid out the virtual programme in the same style and structure as the actual festival programme normally takes, with artist talks and interviews – some archive and others clearly recorded on Zoom specifically for this event – early in each day, alternating concerts between the intertwining strands that would normally take place in the Fruit Market and the City Halls, with set piece concerts later and late night experimental DJ sets to finish it off. Giving the whole thing a feel of a fantasy line-up rather than an apology.

(To add to the verisimilitude of my own experience, I only discovered that the virtual festival was happening, a few days before, after spotting a stray post on twitter.)

One of the available gigs is Syzygys from 2018, which I actually saw live at the Fruit Market and were the highlight of that year’s Tectonics for me – the kind of gig that if you have to leave before the encore, makes you seriously contemplate missing your last train home just to hear one more song. They make such strange and wonderful experimental music, with such confidence and competence. However off the wall the results, it’s never random, the music has a clear internal logic that I appreciate – I find both serialism and minimalism compelling rather than cold when it comes to modern classical music – and there were definitely elements that were pleasingly reminiscent of the medieval end of Western Early music, along with some rather more learning toward the Middle East. Such a pleasure to hear their set again.

I was particularly delighted to see that the sound installations got their moment in the sun too, with extracts from Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums and Sounds from the Farmyard both of which I’ve written about previously – in fact at the start of the clip of the latter, the more eagle-eyed of you may spot me in the audience!

The whole programme has been a delightful companion this weekend, whether I’ve been actively watching concerts in the evenings, or letting the audio only recordings run in the background while I’ve been working from home. All the clips are available for the next 30 days, so if you didn’t get a chance to watch the festival as it unfolded over the weekend, you’ve plenty of time to enjoy something charming, challenging and occasionally baffling, in the coming weeks.

Art in 2020

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Normally, at this point in January I would be writing about the previous year’s documentaries. However this year I find I have nothing to say about them. It’s not that I didn’t see any great documentaries this year – Free Solo, Three Identical Strangers, Honeyland, Scheme Birds and Ghost Fleet were all worthy of note – rather that no wider themes emerged this year, if they existed as part of a larger conversation within documentary making then I have no idea what it was saying. Perhaps I’m just looking for meaning where there is none, or perhaps I need to look in other directions for a while. To that end I’m going to focus my attention elsewhere on the blog this year.

A few years ago – nearly a decade ago now, and isn’t that a scary thought – I set myself the challenge of writing about ten art exhibitions here on the blog. It was a really fun challenge and made me see a lot more art than I would have otherwise. Then, as now, the biggest challenge was that I can’t write about every art exhibition I see, because it’s only when I really love or really dislike art that I feel moved to write about it. (For example, I saw some art – ‘Proximities’ by Rod Purcell – yesterday at Upstairs that made me smile and that I really quite enjoyed – more than enjoyed, if I’d had enough disposal cash in my budget I’d have been tempted to buy a print – but it wasn’t art that left me with lots to say for good or ill.) Perhaps that’s actually the correct term for it, moved, did it move me or not, if I’m going to write about art it’s less about personal preference or taste more that the work changed my perspective on something either positively or negatively. I can’t force the response, as a dozen half-written abandoned reviews of perfectly decent art exhibitions ruefully remind me, the best I can hope for in those circumstances is that the mediocrity might annoy me into verbosity.

(The art I hang on my own walls is mostly canvas prints of photos I’ve taken on my travels, collages of art postcards that friends and relatives have sent me, and in an odd exception, a favourite web comic creator’s take on an art deco classic. I’ve seen some amazing, inspiring art over the last decade that has moved and engaged me, changed my perspective and challenged my unconscious prejudices but most of it I wouldn’t give house space to, even if I could afford it.)

I’m generally of the opinion of that very few ‘artistic’ experiences are ever wasted. Beyond my love of ‘bad movies’ and how much I’ve learned from things that provoked the reaction of ‘that was brilliant and I never want to watch it again’, there’s something about the accretion of ideas over time that build up in your brain and provide context for the other art you consume. An exhibition that on it’s own I had nothing to say about, may prove later to contribute ideas or stand in contrast to something else I see later. Sometimes art exists in conversation with another piece of art – whether as explicitly as the Monarch exhibition a couple of years ago or more subtly/abstractly – or as part of a wider movement. I suppose that’s why I like to try to see art wherever I go, whether the grubby immediacy of street art and murals, the colloquial pleasures of an unexpected exhibition of watercolours or landscape photography in a rural library stairwell, or an attention grabbing installation by a big name artist.

All this is a long way round to say that I’ve set myself a target this month to do something ‘arty’ each month this year – whether seeing an art exhibition, some theatre, attending a concert or a dance performance – and writing about them, getting some perspective on, and hopefully finding some inspiration from, taking the long view on the arts here in the Highlands and beyond.

Performance & Participation: art @Tate Modern

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I had plans for the blog this month. I was looking forward to writing some of my leftover prompts from Nablopomo. But life, as it does, intervened and among other things I found myself working in London for a week and didn’t get near a computer – unless you count using an iPad to wrestle a portable autocue into submission – all week. However, I did find myself with a couple of mornings free and with my colleague’s admonishment to ‘do something fun’ – I think he was more expecting me to hit Oxford Street – I headed out to see some art.

Tate Modern

Last time I was in London I made my first trip to the Tate, so it seemed appropriate that this time I should head off to the Tate Modern. I can’t really talk about the Tate Modern without talking about the building that houses it. Much as the structure and nature of the Victorian era buildings that house Tate Britain and museums like it inform the nature of the experience, the collection and reveal the times in which they were built, the repurposing of the old Bankside power station speaks volumes about the times and priorities that shaped it’s creation and collection. The building itself seems to exist both as a work of art in it’s own right – modernist almost to the point of brutalism in architectural style – and in dialogue with the wider art world, a physical embodiment of the question of what should a museum be and look like, along with wider questions about what is art?

After all the controversy about the new viewing balcony spoiling the view/privacy for the surrounding luxury flats, I had no choice but to take the lift right to the top and see what all the fuss is about. (You can in fact see right into people’s living rooms, but the flats are equally overlooked but neighbouring blocks of flats, as quite frankly, are most high-rise flats in London.) The view in the other three directions, however, is quite stunning. The birds eye view gives you a sense of scale about the place that you don’t really get from ground level, demonstrating how vast the place is while at the same time how unexpectedly close to each other significant buildings really are.

View from the Tate

One of my favourite exhibitions was the Living Cities gallery, in particular Kada Attia’s rendering of the ancient city of Ghardaïa in cooked couscous of all mediums and Naoya Hatakeyama’s light-box depictions of Tokyo’s night lights.

All the exhibits that I saw seemed to take on an element of foregrounding the relationship between viewer and artist. However, in Perfomer and Participant, this theme was made explicit. I particularly enjoyed the Krasinski room, less for the art itself – which is fairly simple – but because you could still interact with it, the each viewer’s experience was entirely unique and I took great pleasure on my return wander through, in watching how other visitors interacted with it. Whereas Lala Rukh’s Rupak was a strangely compelling, almost to the point of hypnotic experience a rare example of video art that completely captured me and held me hostage for the duration.

I feel that I would have got greater pleasure from the works of both Paul Neagu and Lygia Clark & Hélio Oiticica if I could have interacted with their works as originally intended. There was something decidedly odd about looking at art in glass boxes that was explicitly created to be interacted with, being at once told that the point of it was to interact with it, while at the same time being prevented from doing so. It makes sense, why you’re not allowed to touch these objects anymore, as they’re projects that the artist has finished and is no longer replacing/repairing or in some cases the artist has died and this is what remains of their work. Nonetheless it felt somewhat that the audience was being teased with the ghost of a time when this art had somehow more and less value at once.

I feel like I’ve been hearing about the Turbine Hall for the entirety of my adult life, and some quick research shows me that I’m entirely correct, as Tate Modern opened in 2000, the year I turned sixteen. When I was there, it was housing Kara Walker’s Hyundai Commission work, which I must say the pictures do not begin to do justice to the sheer scale of it. It is definitely a piece of art that takes advantage of the space available to it. (The first time I saw Kara Walker’s work was in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the best part of a decade ago, her stark silhouettes sprang to mind the moment I saw this fountain, her style remains so distinctive.) There was something slightly surreal to see the fountain surrounded by parents with buggies and toddlers carefully balancing their way along the parapet of it, but as that appears to have been part of the point of the work of art, that it exists in conversation with public fountains such as the Victoria Memorial, and should be interacted with in the same way.

Soundscapes and Binaural Radio

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Back in the late spring/early summer of this year, when I was gleefully falling down a rabbit hole of radio drama on BBC Sounds, I also took a detour into the non-fiction parts of its output. While the iPlayer algorithm has never really thrown me anything that I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon, Sounds regularly throws things into my feed that I wouldn’t have thought to go looking for but nonetheless really enjoy. Perhaps it’s simply a data volume issue, not only do I listen to more radio than television, perhaps more of the people who like similar content to me are using Sounds than are using the iPlayer? Alternatively perhaps the people making/programming Sounds are also radio geeks who listen to a similarly wide range of audio sources and genres so have taught their algorithm more realistic suggestions?

Soundscapes was one of those serendipitous discoveries – I seem to recall it being a ‘suggested listen’ after a slow radio episode recorded in a bog somewhere in Wales – as it’s a late night specialist music show out of Radio Ulster/Foyle so realistically something I would never have come across of my own volition. It’s mostly a modern classical music show, but it covers ambient and electronic music as well, and more importantly from my perspective, it contains a weekly soundscape. Usually the soundscape centres around an interview with someone – generally an artist or poet or historian, but also just people with interesting life experiences or specialist knowledge – layering their voice and the sounds of their environment/specialist subject, in with a piece of music. Sometimes they feel like very beautiful oral histories and other times like abstract art.

It somehow managed to feel both like very old-fashioned radio and also like something ground breaking and adventurous. Over a six-month period the show wormed it’s way into my affections, becoming my favourite regular radio programme that I looked forward to listening to each week. So naturally of course it came to an end in the autumn. (Although the show has finished, the soundscapes are still up online, and I highly recommend giving them a listen while you can.) The presenter Stephen McCauley has been rewarded with a longer more prime-time slot, and while I’m pleased for him, I shall miss this strange little show; it was like nothing else on the radio.

In search of a new radio love affair, I’ve recently stumbled across the show Between the Ears, which despite having run since 1993 and having its own podcast has completely escaped my notice. One of the driving forces behind the series is to make innovative use of sound in telling stories. At the moment they seem to be focusing quite heavily on binaural sound, which works better in some cases than others. While some episodes just feel like they’re in really good stereo, the episode Living in a Box felt as though you were in the protagonist’s head with him and M1 Symphony left me feeling as though I might drown in sound.

It’s also through this series that I made the surprising discover that Radio 3 are using binaural sound techniques to create a more immersive sound experience for the increasing number of listeners using headphones. I can’t say I’d ever noticed radio via headphones sounding ‘flat’ but perhaps that’s attenuation from years of listening to podcasts via either built-in laptop speakers or cheap ear buds. I certainly prefer to listen to audio drama with headphones, as it’s always felt more immersive, like I’ve stepped into another world.

I normally listen to Radio 3 output on an actual radio – either the hi-fi in my living room or the radio alarm clock beside my bed – so unless I’m listening to a podcast on a bus or train, headphones don’t really come into it. However, increasingly when travelling for work, I’ve taken to using the BBC Sounds app and the hotel Wi-Fi to enjoy whole radio programmes. Clearly next time I’m on the road I need to pack my good headphones and tune in with my phone to see the difference between stations!

I know that ASMR has become the go to trend/obsession for tech fixated Internet folks over the last few years, but for my money binaural sound is far more transformative. (Possibly because the actual ‘response’ part of ASMR doesn’t actually work for me, I find good ASMR soothing in the way a white noise generator’s rain sounds are soothing. The closest I’ve got to an actual ASMR experience is that binaural barbershop haircut you can find on YouTube.)

I was fascinated to discover the strides that have been made over the last few years to create immersive binaural sound for VR environments, combining the techniques of surround sound with binaural recordings to create a responsive sound environment. Personally I’ve always found the few VR environments I’ve tried out, to be quite disconcerting and alienating, but I can see how properly immersive sound could make it actually immersive. Also I appreciated Click presenter Spencer Kelly pointing out how sound could be used to draw the explorer’s attention in particular directions, which does answer a floating question about narrative that I’ve been left with after previous discussions on the increasing crossover between films and video games. How do you draw the viewer’s attention to the correct place to pick up narrative clues without breaking the fourth wall?

Also I clearly need to go back and watch that Doctor Who episode they did with binaural sound while wearing headphones, because based on a clip I just watched that’s a whole other level of immersive and creepy.

Random Acts: Film Fear

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The Random Acts strand on Channel 4 comes from the notion that in order to find a new/more vibrant approach to arts programming, you need not only television about artists, but also television by artists. The strand started in 2011 and has had six series so far. They incorporate visual art, music, dance, animation and spoken word performance. They feel exactly the kind of short film you’d stumble across by accident at some unearthly hour of the morning on Channel 4. (They are, as we say, ‘on brand’ in this sense.) I first came across this strand by accident while looking for horror movies to watch around Halloween, as it was the strange mini horror films that drew me in, it seems only fair to consider them first. All three films were showing as part of the Film Fear season on Film Four.

Stilts

In which a young man is trapped in an oppressive dystopia where everyone must wear huge metal stilts.

This is a deeply surreal film where I presume the stilts are intended to be a metaphor for something, but I’ve not the faintest idea what that might be. (Class or caste presumably, because the summary may say that everyone must wear stilts, but evidentially not everyone does. There’s clearly a class of people who don’t and are able to pick and choose who gets to join them.) Nonetheless it’s a beautifully realised dystopia, where everything is sized for people without stilts so all the stilted people are forced into the space between too high table and chairs and too low ceilings. It does a good job of creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia along with the arbitrary and restricted nature of life in a closed society. What does lie down that too short corridor to the outside world?

Satanic Panic ‘87

A short and gory comic horror that involves a satanic aerobics video that encourage two young heavy metal fans to open a portal into hell. I really liked that the hellish aerobic video was fronted by a demonically possessed perky blonde who despite the glowing white eyes really did look like she’d stepped out of an 80s aerobics video. Despite the lashings of blood in this film, it’s not actually that gory, and the decision to shoot through the ajar kitchen door allows the ‘sacrifice’ scene to be played for dark humorous effect. Our grisly duo frantically flapping tea-towels under the beeping smoke alarm as their sacrifice immolates noisily gives the whole thing a delightfully surreal tone.

Sweep Away Hungry Ghosts

Is a ghost story about Chinese filial piety and cross-dressing.

A young Chinese man is clearing out his late father’s house and keeping vigil at his alter through the longest watches of the night. He’s clearly conflicted in his feelings around the task, and struggling to reconcile the outer image his father showed to the world and the other version he has discovered through clearing out all the accoutrements of his cross-dressing. Despite, or perhaps because of, his attempts to burn the evidence, in the night he is visited by the ghost of his father – in genderbent form – and although at first he attempts to banish the ghost, he eventually accepts that he must take care of the ghost and array it as his father would have wished to be, only then can both he and the ghost move on.

(I don’t know a great deal about Chinese funeral traditions, so I’m not entirely sure, given the solidity of the ghost, if he’s supposed to be the ghost of the young man’s father or if he’s some form of walking dead, who objected to being arrayed incorrectly in death?)

It’s a haunting but lovely little film.

Take One Action! #TOAFF19

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The Take One Action Film Festival returned to Inverness, once again falling on a weekend that I’m working so I could only squeeze in two films again this year. Handily, I’m once again managing to add to my documentary feature film tally with these films even if I wasn’t able to lean quite as much towards the environmental films as I would like. Though Ghost Fleet is secondarily about environmental issues because it is over-fishing of waters close to Thailand that caused the boats to have to go out further and further out for longer and longer periods in the first place.

Facing the Dragon

Facing the Dragon follows the parallel stories of politician Nilofar and broadcast journalist Shakila, in post-US-withdrawal Afghanistan as they struggle to balance the responsibility they feel to the people they represent against the need to keep their children safe from harm. Both threads of the film really underline the fragility of democracy and the position of women in Afghanistan, alongside the constant danger that all politicians and journalists in the country face but which is even more intense for women in public life.

Director Sedika Majadidi is an Afghani woman herself, so understands intimately the pressures both her subjects face as women in public life. (This creates a certain solidarity and trust between director and subject that makes for a much more intimate portrait of both women.) Having spent a substantial part of her childhood and youth in the US she also has enough of an outside view to allow her to step back from the details of these lives and show how they fit into the bigger picture of life in Afghanistan.

My only real criticism of this film was that the copy that was screened in Inverness had terrible audio quality. There was a coating of hiss and crackle over almost the entire film that hung over it like an aural cloud of dust.

Ghostfleet

Ghost Fleet follows the work of the Thai NGO Labour Defence Network whose work started in trying to protect children from being drawn into sweatshop labour, and has evolved through helping men who’ve escaped from slavery in the fishing industry – mostly getting compensation for horrible industrial injuries – into straight-up rescuing people. We mostly follow Patima Tungpuchayakul one of the organisation’s co-founders, as she travels to various islands in Indonesia to try and bring home formerly enslaved fishermen home. Patima has this really calm presence – perhaps born of her certainty that this is the work she’s meant to do – that makes her a very reassuring presence, both to the former fishermen and to us as viewers. One of the strengths of her work is the trust built with the communities of those islands, the people who live around the predatory companies bases, who know how dangerous they are, often disapprove of them but feel helpless to stop them.

There something utterly heart-breaking about those men who’ve escaped from enslavement only to be stranded in Indonesia for decades, who’ve built lives and made families, yet remain desperately home sick. Their longing for home is almost palpable, but having lost most of their native tongue, many of them feel that they cannot possibly go. The question that comes up time and again is ‘do you want to go home?’ The three men they bring back from one island demonstrate the range of reactions to that question, the first man seems resigned as though he has nothing to lose either way, the second man is conflicted – reluctant to abandon the family he has made there, desperately longing for the home he left behind – while the third man is eager and delighted – literally jumping at the chance to return home.

The director of the Take One Action film festival does little introductions before all the films and she was careful to warn us that this film would be distressing and that we might find it hard-going. As a film about modern slavery it was indeed a distressing topic, and a deeply moving film, but I also found it to be an intensely hopeful film. I’ve had quite an intense couple of months documentary wise and while I’ve seen a lot of very good films many of them left me feeling sad, angry or both at once. This film however, left me feeling inspired and empowered, which I guess is the whole point of this film festival in the first place.

New Creatives: Films

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Last month, when I stumbled across the Two Minute Masterpiece thread on the iPlayer, I also came across the New Creatives scheme – with it’s twin threads of film and audio drama – that proved to be the English equivalent. Some further poking around revealed the Now and Next scheme which is a collaboration with Lux Scotland to encourage budding art filmmakers. (For some reason there doesn’t seem to be a Welsh equivalent scheme listed. I know there used to be a Welsh scheme, for the simple reason that a university friend of mine had a film screened as part of it.) I’ve been dipping into the films on offer at odd moments over the last few weeks so it’s high time I gave them some more concentrated attention.

Unlike the other schemes, the five filmmakers are based within different media organisations around England – each one acting as a regional hub – giving institutional support to young artists who might not otherwise get that. It certainly makes for high production values.

Blackfish

Blackfish is a sweetly sad piece of magical realism about a recently bereaved mother who finds a collection of photos from an alternative future, the life her son might have had. Are the pills cutting her off from a window into an alternate world that brings her comfort, or are they protecting her from something dangerous and helping her to accept reality?

It’s a gentle mediation on grief and it’s reality warping nature. It also feels like it’s passing comment on the dual roles that medication can play in the treatment of mental health on one hand to support people to live fuller, happier lives, but on the other to sedate into submission those society finds difficult.

(It’s also got an excellent central performance from Tracy Ifeachor who conveys the weight and depth of her character Helena’s grief without a single word of dialogue.)

Just what is swimming in her blood?

Greenlight

This is charming little lightweight short. Insomnia and insecurities feed of each other, from escapist fantasy into surrealist nightmare. It doesn’t have anything particularly deep or innovative to say about modern life, but its strength was in its simplicity. It had some nice, stripped back set-pieces, and it made me smile.

And through it all the flashing light of a smoke detector. He should be grateful it wasn’t beeping; now that really would be a nightmare.

Paper Skin

Paper Skin is the bleakest of all the films in this selection, but in a way that reflects the nature of our unnamed protagonist’s job. This is prostitution without any cinematic glamour or violence, its mundane and awkward and slowly grinding her down.

The film makes really clever use of framing and camera angles that reflect the nature of the interactions, the nature of these ‘sugar daddies’ and their willingness or inability to engage with what they’re actually doing with her. And perhaps also the amount of intimacy or detachment that she’s willing or able to deploy on the job.

Top Wavers

I’ve officially reached the age where youth culture just baffles me. Potentially, this film was saying something interesting about the importance of hair to the social standing of young men of African and Caribbean origin, and about living life second hand through social media. Over the film festival I saw documentaries from both Scotland and Northern Ireland, with working class accents needlessly – to my ears – subtitled, but I could really have done with them here.

All the same I’m glad they weren’t subtitled, because the people who really need to see this, the ones who don’t see people like themselves or their communities on screen would doubtless have been just as I was about those subtitled teenagers from Motherwell and Belfast. It doesn’t really matter that I couldn’t parse what this film was saying, because fundamentally it wasn’t talking to me.

We Got It Easy

Though on the other hand some parts of being a teenager really haven’t changed in the slightest. We Got It Easy is a scene from a musical, dealing with eating disorders, intersex issues, street harassment, bullying, body shaming, toxic masculinity, sexual assault, teen pregnancy and a whole other range of teenage issues. All the standard teen experiences in some cases exacerbated by social media and in some cases assisted by social media – giving them the vocabulary to identify their issues. It’s an odd little piece, and I don’t think it’s as clever as it thinks it is, but its heart is in the right place.