Tectonics 2022

After two years of being a purely virtual endeavour, this year’s Tectonics was live and in person once again. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m actually quite a fan of virtual festival, and the way that they open up more unusual or specialised events up to audience that couldn’t normally access them, for geographical, financial or other reasons. However, it was undeniably better to be at the festival in person again. It was definitely a smaller scale festival than it had been in the last few years before the pandemic – there were no late night sessions this year – and apparently until a couple of months ago they weren’t even certain that they’d be able to run it in person which no doubt impacted various parts of the festival. There are undoubtedly elements of the festival that just don’t work as well virtually: the sound art installations in the Recital Room – this year a piece called Noiseem by Japanese artist Fujiiiiiiiiita involving a self-made pipe organ, some aquarium bubblers and some hydrophones – are notably more engaging in person.

The weekend got off to a promising start with Silvia Tarozzi in the Grand Hall. All the music was taken from her 2020 album which was apparently inspired by the work of Milanese poet Alda Merini, and based on this concert is well worth tracking down. The band were a delight, their little interactions and asides were a delightful reminder of the sheer pleasure of live performance both for audience and musicians. They were an excellent choice as an opening act, being avant garde enough to be constantly surprising and delighting the audience but not so left field that they would alienate someone not there to see them specifically. I felt like they set the tone for the year’s festival, finding joy and pleasure in the absurd and experimental, rather than taking it all too seriously.

Oddly enough, in the best part of a decade of attending Tectonics, both in person and virtually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a concert that featured either of those stalwarts of electronic/experimental music the theremin and the prepared piano. Yet on Saturday two different acts were using the theremin and on Sunday two different acts used prepared piano in very different ways. Despite my longstanding fondness for the theremin, while I was delighted to see it in action, I was considerable more excited to see the prepared piano. Particularly James Clapperton tackling Janet beat’s tape machine and prepared piano extravaganza, Piangam, perhaps because a theremin is an instrument that while decidedly esoteric and arguably hard to master, you don’t get on stage with a theremin unless you’re already confident you can use it, but if you’re using a prepared piano, especially when you’re going to have to change the preparation between movements, during the piece, there’s far more danger of something going wrong, or at least not turning out the way you hoped.

It was as always a please to see the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in all their glory, I take particular enjoyment in watching an orchestra tackle something esoteric or at least outside their wheel house – though at this point I’ve seen this orchestra wrestle with more avant garde and modern classical music than I have the more traditional fare, to the point that it was downright weird to see them play Tchaikovsky a couple of years back. This year was no exception with their Sunday session being a particular joy. A lot of this year’s orchestral pieces had a heavy influence of the natural world, as though a lot of composers had spent an unexpected amount of time outside by themselves lately and been changed, or a least influenced by it.

And I can’t really talk about this year’s festival without taking about Janet Beat whose work was at the heart of this year’s Tectonics. I managed to miss the interview that Radio 3 did with her over that weekend – she’s in her 80s now so isn’t performing any more – but it’s always a delight to discover new female electronic music pioneers, especially Scottish ones! There were two sessions specifically revolving around her work one on each day of the festival. I preferred the Sunday session in the Grand Hall, with it’s focus on showcasing her compositions, rather than the one on Saturday that was more about showcasing her influence and impact on other musicians. I’m sure the Saturday session was great if you knew her work and could read the interactions and influences going on there, but as someone who had been previously been unaware of her work, I think I’d have got a lot more out of it if they’d been scheduled the other way round.

Nearly every time I’ve attended Tectonics in person there’s been a stand out performance, something almost transcendent that makes everything else, good or bad, fade into the background of memory. It almost always happens in The Fruit Market – not that every session there is stand out, I’ve seen my share of duds in there too – and nearly always a piece that takes into account and advantage of the space itself. This year’s was no exception, Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh’s collaboration with members of the BBC SSO was something extraordinary. This is apparently her first work for orchestral instrumentation, but you wouldn’t know, it really exploited the potential of both the instruments and the space, using timbre and exploring sound waves – it felt very much like someone had thought hard about attack and decay in sound wave and decided to play with it – to delightful effect, and leaving the audience feeling a little unmoored in time.

I’ve done my share of sitting on the floor of The Fruit Market at Tectonics, I’m short enough that if the artist isn’t performing on the actual stage I need to be at the front to see, but tall enough that unless I get there first I can’t do that without looking obnoxious, so cross legged on my coat it is. (I’m not as organised as the woman who was sitting along from me in this session, who’d brought her own cushions – I salute that level of commitment!) But this is, I think, the first time I’ve attended a session where it was not only permitted, but actively encouraged. To the extent that the two or three people in the middle of the circle who chose to remain standing were definitely being glowered at by their neighbours.

The musicians were arranged in a wide circle, with conductor Ilan Volkov on a small low podium in the middle and the vast majority of the audience sitting on the floor – or on one of the handful of chairs provided for those who would struggle to get back up from the floor once they got down there – around him and facing out to the musicians. It was immersive and strange and wonderful and would have been a perfect end to the weekend had there not been another session after it, which I felt suffered in comparison to it’s immediate predecessor which was in fairness a very hard act to follow.

Collage of three photos,clockwise from top i) band performing on stage, ii) south asian gongs on decorative rack, iii) hydrophones in a perspex cube lit from below

Velvet Queen: A Film about Patience, Observation, and also Snow Leopards

Velvet Queen: Snow Leopard (Munier/Amiguet, 2021) is a documentary about snow leopards and also very much not about snow leopards. It’s a film about nature photography and about film making, about observing and being observed, about what it means to be a human in a wild landscape, both part of and separate from nature. The snow leopards are kind of a metaphor for a bigger theme about dreams and the modern obsession with ticking off experiences but they’re also very really creatures, beautiful, shy and dangerous. It’s a gorgeously shot, dreamy film, that lulls the viewer into a very meditative state of mind, while at the same time peeling away the glamour of filmmaking to show just how much of nature photography and film-making involves sitting very still and very quietly in one spot for long periods of time, making your peace with the fact that the animal may not show up at all, while at the same time staying alert so you don’t miss it if it does appear.

Probably my favourite part of the film was the way that it gradually revealed increasing amounts of detail as it went along. At the start of the film, the cinematography focused almost entirely on the landscape; all dramatic landscapes and vistas. We know there are humans in the landscape too – the very first scene of the film is an exchange between two of the local Tibetans being mildly concerned these odd Frenchmen are going to get eaten by wolves – and occasionally nomads drive their domestic herds through the valleys below but always from a distance. At first we only see birds of prey soaring over peaks and packs of wolves chasing herds of yak and antelope on distant slopes. Gradually as our protagonists begin to get their eyes in, we start to spot the smaller animals: the pikas, Tibetan foxes and antelopes, Pallas cats and smaller birds of prey. At one point Vincent tells a story of a previous photography trip he’d taken into these mountains, where he hadn’t seen any snow leopards, or rather thought he hadn’t, until looking back at a photo he’d taken of a falcon discovered that there was also a snow leopard in the photo, just peeking over the ridge, almost perfectly camouflaged looking straight at the camera. He hadn’t seen the snow leopard, but it had certainly seen him. As the film progresses Sylvain becomes increasingly adept at spotting the signs of the larger animals, at one point, they explore a large cave, identifying the preferred spots where various predators of varying size have made dens over the years. There’s some particularly lovely shots late in the film of yak charging along the horizon, where the combination of light, movement and distance, gives them a beautiful lack of definition that makes them look like animated cave paintings, as though we’re looking into the past and seeing something both metaphorical and true.

At the same time as the landscape becomes increasingly populated with a whole food chain of different animals and birds, the sheer remoteness of the landscape is undercut, most particularly by a delightful scene where they spot four young Tibetan children out exploring who – despite their careful camouflage – spot the camera crew easily and clamber up to find out what they’re up to. Unsurprising really, if these mountains and valleys are your world, the locations of both play and work, then being able to spot that something is observing you from above can be the difference between life and death. Knowing when to hold your ground and when to run away when it comes to dealing with predators is a recurring theme throughout the film. As is the idea of being unknowingly observed by thousands of birds and animals every day, not just in this remote high landscape, but every day in the rest of the world, even in the places we think are most under human control, the natural world is constantly butting up against and around us.

We don’t actually see the snow leopards themselves until quite late in the film, when both Sylvain and the viewer have almost given up and made our peace with never actually seeing more than a brief glimpse via a trail cam of the central creatures. However, when they do show up, they are well worth the wait and as much as the film is almost the epitome of ‘the journey not the destination’, the confluence of patience and luck that gets us to the destination is pretty satisfying as a viewing experience.

Other Pleasures @glasgowfilmfest

While the majority of the films I saw at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival – and isn’t that a lovely phrase to write, normally I’d only manage a couple of films at this festival in total – were firmly within the confines of two of the festival strands, I did see a small assortment of films that didn’t fit into either of those categories. Films that I didn’t pick for logical reasons but instead because something about them – the description, a post on the GFF twitter feed, the trailer, or even just that this might be my only chance to see them on a big screen.

One Second

I have a funny feeling that this wasn’t the film that I meant to see, that when I was flicking back and forth between the schedule and the film blurbs I mixed it up with another film, because this very much wasn’t the plot I was expecting. It’s a good movie and I’m glad I watched it, but I ended up watching a historical drama – does it count as a period piece when the era is the 1970s? – when I was expecting a crime thriller. As much as the film does feature an escaped prisoner, this being the Cultural Revolution, he’s quite clearly in prison for political reasons, rather than for the ‘fighting’ for which he’s supposedly doing time. Also, given that the film was apparently originally selected for the Berlinale and then withdrawn for ‘post-production problems’ that seem to have been code for censorship reasons, I’d be interested to know what subtler political statements the film is making about present day China that are not obvious to the less informed viewer. On the surface it’s as much about children paying for their parents mistakes as it is about anything else and no less moving if that’s all that really is going on.

It’s a film that really illuminates both just how vast China is as a country – the dessert between the two ‘work unit’ locations we move between in the film seems like it could go on forever – and how claustrophobic life in that time was – everyone in the film is trapped within their assigned role to a greater or lesser extent. After all who needs walls or guards or fences when you have gossipy neighbours and miles of dessert?

I had presumed early in the film that the circulating films were meant to sugar the pill of the propaganda newsreels, that they showed first so that people wouldn’t leave as soon as the film finished. But it turns out that the townspeople are so desperate for an escape from their lives that – regardless of their grumbling about having already seen the film many times – they will watch it over and again if given the chance. Just as our fugitive, Zhang Jiusheng, could happily watch the damaged fragment of newsreel featuring his daughter, over and over, in a loop all night, so the audience would watch anything the projectionist screens for them just as long as they can escape their day to day lives for little while longer. Finding a little freedom in the only place they can.

Love, Life and Goldfish

This film is a delight. Probably my favourite film of the festival, this is a film that commits utterly to it’s concept. I should make clear that the concept is completely ridiculous, being a musical comedy set in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere where the vast majority of the population are obsessed with goldfish. Specifically goldfish scooping – a part of Japanese culture that had totally passed me by but that much like the film both baffles and delights me.

The film is gorgeously shot, the colours are so vivid, the sets and locations are a visual treat – the contrast between the crushingly mundane and the vividly fantastical is perfectly handled. More generally, the film walks the perfect balance between playing it’s concept straight and not taking it too seriously. Both characters and cast seem to have the attitude of yes this is very odd, but this is our life deal with it. In fact of all the things that our ‘hero’ Makoto Kashiba does that his new colleagues find to be ‘odd’ the bursting into thematically appropriate song is the very least of it.

Fascinatingly to me, our hero, the character that we follow throughout is not the ‘romantic hero’ of the film. He absolutely thinks he is and resists that furiously – he is repressed to the point of comic disaster – but it turns out that he’s the catalyst for change both in himself and for the people he meets. His happy ending is absolutely what he was hoping for, but really not what I was expecting from the genre. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many old-fashioned Hollywood movie musicals, because I definitely had narrative expectations, some of which the film played with in a pleasingly meta fashion, but others it just totally ignored. It turned out to be something stranger and better than I was expecting.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Showing as part of the GFF’s Winds of Change Retrospective Season – where they’re screening great films from 1962 in the early morning slot, for free, you just turn up on the morning and if there’s space you get in! – this was the one film of the season that I was really excited to see. Like most film students, I got a little obsessed with the Nouvelle Vague films for a while though it was more through the medium of Cahiers Du Cinema than the films themselves as the films I could see were limited by the choices of the university library and what fellow film students had that they were willing to lend me. As a result I’ve always known Agnès Varda’s work more by reputation than in actuality.

When the Film Festival’s Co-Director Allan Hunter did the film’s introduction, he pointed out that Varda’s work has more in common with that of film makers Allan Resnais and Chris Marker than it does with the work of the more famous Nouvelle Vague directors like Truffaut and Goddard that she’s so closely associated with in most people’s minds and I have to agree, there’s an intimacy and a painterliness to this film that fits better with those films. More Left Bank than Right Bank if you like.

So when the opportunity to see probably her most famous film – on film even – I couldn’t resist, and it was well worth it. Apparently Varda herself called this film a portrait of a woman painted over a documentary about Paris, and I can see what she meant. It looks very much like an observational style documentary, just the protagonist we’re following as our guide through that world is an actress, interacting with other actors, saying scripted lines. You can really see Varda’s experience as a photographer and a documentarian here, her focus on faces and spaces, letting the story tell itself and giving things space to unfold ‘naturally’.

This is definitely one of those films where I felt that I’d seen a lot of the ideas and style choices before, but that also came with the knowledge that most of those films were in fact referencing – or at least influenced by – this one. The cliches aren’t cliches, this is where those cliches came from originally.

Glasgow Film Fest: African Stories & Documentary Edition

In a change from your regularly scheduled film festival blogging, I’m sending you dispatches from the Glasgow Film Festival this month. Early in the pandemic I had the idea that I’d celebrate the end of the pandemic with a wee trip to the Berlin film festival, but as things have continued to make international travel unwise, I decided to take the safer option of the Glasgow equivalent. Despite having lived in the Central Belt for most of my life, and even worked in Glasgow for a while, I’ve never really done the full festival experience. (I used to do the Short Film Festival instead, cramming as many screenings of short films into a weekend as was reasonably possible.) Unlike the Berlinale, this festival is only spread over two cinemas, both of them just off – opposite ends of – Sauchiehall Street, which significantly increases my chances of still making the screening in the not unlikely scenario where I turn up at the wrong location for the screening in question. With so much choice on offer I decided to focus on two of the festival’s threads – African Stories and documentaries – in an attempt to narrow down my options, and several of the films I saw qualified for both categories.

Blind Ambition

This was the first film I saw at the festival and also the first to qualify for both categories. It was introduced as a ‘feel good documentary’ which I feel set it up for failure. It’s an interesting and quite charming underdog story certainly, but this was also a film with quiet undercurrents. The film follows the fortunes of a team of Zimbabwean sommeliers as they prepare to compete in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championship. (I should clarify that the tasting is blind, not the tasters, the wording of the blurb was not as clear as it could have been.) All four of the team members are charming and compelling on screen presences, and for all that they’ve all been through some fairly harrowing experiences, it only shows in how determined they are to succeed against the odds. They seem to worry most about letting down the people who crowdfunded their trip to the competition, but the pride of their sponsors in both Zimbabwe and South Africa that they got as far as they did, is the biggest endorsement of both their countries that the film could possibly give.

In a lot of ways, this is a film about telling stories. The four young men at the centre of the film, are all of them trying to reshape their own stories. All of them are refugees from Zimbabwe, determinedly building new lives in South Africa, yet they are all of them immensely proud to be representing their homeland, pleased to be able to upend some assumptions and prejudices about Zimbabwe both in South Africa and beyond. There are also a lot of other people in this film trying to tell other stories through and around these young men. One of the wine experts interviewed in the film, Jancis Robertson, explicitly comments on the overwhelming whiteness of the culture and that if they want the industry to be more diverse and less insular they can’t just talk about it, they have to do something to attract new blood to both the competition and the wider industry. It’s also nice that we see that their story doesn’t end with the competition, we see little bits of their post-competition lives, the doors that its opened for both those competing in the competition and the careers of the team members themselves.

Rebel Dread

If the intro to Blind Ambition promised a ‘feel-good’ documentary and the film itself didn’t quite deliver on it, then Rebel Dread was the opposite, the intro gave the impression it would be a serious, slightly worthy documentary and it turned out to be an irreverent and delightful journey through Don Letts’ life and career. Thankfully the audience clearly got what they were expecting – a not insignificant chunk of the audience were clearly there because they’re a fan of his 6Music radio show – and the packed house laughed, cheered and heckled along as appropriate.

The film definitely benefits from having the man himself front and centre, narrating his own life story in a disarmingly honest and unpretentious fashion. Possibly I’ve seen too many documentaries lately where the documentary makers have attempted to render themselves invisible, to create the impression that we are watching reality and that could have really done with a voiceover to keep the structure in place, so it was quite a relief to have a strong narrative voice to guide us. All documentaries about individuals are in their way dialogues between the story the people making the film want to tell and the story the subject(s) of the documentary want to tell. Perhaps inevitably with a film about someone as involved in the music and media industries as Letts this was a film that acknowledged that and even played with it a little. He comes across as quite the raconteur and something of a jack-the-lad – and how often is that a role working class Afro Caribbean blokes are allowed to play in the narrative? – but also as someone who has had to work hard to be taken seriously and respected professionally, and having achieved that, doesn’t need to take himself too seriously personally.

This is a film made with a great deal of affection for both its subject and the wider musical scene of the time, but without having rose tinted glasses – or if it does have rose-tinted glasses, this film is looking at us wryly over the top of them.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda

You may, if you’re the kind of film fan who spends a lot of time in the more esoteric parts of YouTube watching the delightful weirdness that exists in the parts of the industry where people have much larger imaginations than budgets, be familiar with the films of Wakaliwood. In which case the characters of this film will need no introduction. If you’re not, then the important thing to know is that Issac Nabwana is a Uganda low budget action film director who has become something of an internet sensation. The film is the story of the unlikely friendship and working partnership between him and his producer, displaced New York film nerd Alan Hofmanis and their attempts to take Nabwana’s films to the next level.

I was reminded somewhat of a film I saw a few years ago The Prince of Nothingwood about an Afghani film star and producer, making films on a tiny budget largely through force of personality. And perhaps this film would best be described as a cross between that and Talking About Trees a film about Malian film club trying to put on one of their members film in an old abandoned cinema. Another film about people who love films and filmmaking so much that they will try to build a whole film industry/culture in their home country against the odds largely through sheer force of will. It’s also a fascinating look at the reality of what the ‘democratisation’ of film making the digital revolution is supposed to facilitate actually looks like outside of the major film-making centres. There’s something both poignant and defiant about watching a film crew roll out an immaculate green screen backdrop over a set that is simply a blocked off street strewn with rubbish and bordered by an open sewer. (Also Dauda the one man props department is an old school ‘mad engineer’ making props, models and occasionally who vehicles out of cobbled together parts, I can only imagine what wonders he could create with an actual budget.) The electricity may be unreliable and the sanitation non-existent but they’ve got themselves a couple of decent digital cameras and a refurbished laptop that will run editing software and the world is almost their oyster.

(The film makes a couple of explicit digs at the wider international film industry and its snobberies, noting that they’d have an easier time getting funding if they were making ‘serious’ films – about the horrors of the civil war or the grind of local poverty – aimed at the film festival circuit, rather than making fun overblown action movies – primarily aimed at a Ugandan audience and secondarily aimed at an international action movie audience. Apparently cartoon violence is more offensive to certain funders than poverty porn.)

At it’s heart I feel that this film is about two men in their early forties from opposite sides of the world, facing up to the decision of whether to keep pursuing their dreams or settle down. It’s a mid-life crisis of a movie and it absolutely shouldn’t be as charming as it is. There’s just something about the pair of them, their odd couple dynamic, their unswerving devotion to making these charming B-movies that charmed me against my will. And maybe, just maybe they’ll manage to charm the rest of the world, if only just enough that none of them have to give up on the dream.


This one swings in the opposite direction to Rebel Dread being the only film I saw as part of the African Stories thread that wasn’t also a documentary.

Sambazinga is a 1972 film – though it was banned in Portugal until after the 1974 Carnation Revolution – set just over a decade before at the start of the Angolan War of Independence covering the inciting events that led to a prison raid in the eponymous part of Luanda. It follows to contrasting paths of a married couple, first following construction worker and secret revolutionary Domingos as he is arrested, beaten and taken to jail to be ‘interrogated’, focusing on the solidarity between him and his fellow prisoners, and the capricious violence of his captors. The other path we follow is his wife Maria, as she travels from prison to prison occasionally being helped, occasionally being outright abused but mostly just being lied to and sent from pillar to post. As you might imagine from a film about events that prompted the kind of protests that when crushed start widespread civil unrest, this doesn’t end well for Domingos.

(There’s an interesting moment during one of the interrogation scenes where it becomes quite clear that the element the white police officers are most upset about is that one of the members of the revolutionary group – and we only really see them producing leaflets, they seem as interested in forming a workers union as they are in overthrowing the colonial government – Domingos is part of includes one of his white colleagues on the construction site. It seems to offend them on some deep level that they can’t articulate and at some points it feels like they’re attacking Domingos less for what he himself may or may not know or have done, but as a substitute for his unknown colleague.)

One Take Grace

This was my final screening of the festival, and I think both the film and I lost our way somewhat about two thirds of the way through this film. It started off promisingly, dark, strange and compelling, with a strong narrative voice courtesy of it’s protagonist Grace. Grace is a magnetic presence, drawing your attention and holding it. She’s a woman with the kind of history that could make her the subject of pity, but she has no interest in being seen as a victim. She doesn’t want her audience to pity her, she wants them to listen to her, to give her space to her story in her words. I don’t know the story behind the documentary but it felt as though director and subject had met in a professional context – Mothiba Grace Bapela to give her her full name, is an actress having changed careers in her forties – and decided her colourful life-story ought to be a film. There are various points in the film when we see Grace on film sets and stages where she seems very much to be in control – there’s a whole sequence where a younger woman that I think is the director is playing a younger version of Grace while Grace gives her direction – so it very much feels like a collaboration between the two of them. Even the POV shots of Grace at work as a cleaner, just the fish-eye body camera view of the inside of a house, with Grace’s lightly scathing commentary are both clever and compelling, adding to the sense that the documentary wants to put us in her shoes. There are some brilliant visualisations on past events, spare, hand-drawn animations that provide just enough distance from the awful reality of the stories, that the whole process seems therapeutic for, instead of exploitative of Grace herself.

At some point, around half way through the film we discover that Grace has been diagnosed with cancer and as her treatment progresses, so the film begins to, not quite fall apart but to lose focus. As though the film cannot quite hold together without Grace’s drive and creativity, it becomes a documentation of her illness and recovery, but the story they were trying to tell in the first place has got lost somewhere along the way. (Understandably subsumed in Grace’s energy being focused on surviving and being there for her children.) The documentary is fairly experimental in style throughout, but it seems like it needs Grace in the driving seat with her full attention on the project to keep it being good weird rather than bad weird. As it is the film sort of drifts to a conclusion, seemingly a little bereft now that Grace’s attention has moved on to other projects.

Tramway Art

For some reason I always think that The Tramway is further out into the suburbs than it actually is, when really it’s literally beside the first stop out of Glasgow Central on that line. It’s probably something to do with my having a complete mental block on which station is which on the East/West/Pollockshields/Pollockshaws vector and in fact, the ticket machine made a spirited attempt to sell me the wrong ticket, repeatedly selecting Pollockshaws East instead of Pollockshields East! Nothing like getting off at the wrong station – or realising too late that the train stops at the wrong option – and having to walk back, to confuse your sense of distance. Regardless of the reasons why, I always feel the need to be seeing several things to make the trip worthwhile and so it was on this trip.

Bring Me To Heal

This is a really compelling piece of art – from Anglo-Scottish/Ghanaian artist Amartey Golding – two companion piece films, one with storytellers/crafters around a fire, the other a visual reclamation of space and objects from a notoriously colonial museum, the V&A in London. The first film features the shared task of braiding the costume together, and also of sharing a fable between the three men around the fire. Both the fable – The Horse and the Goose – and the costume were constructed specifically for the film, but they have clearly been crafted with particularly care and skill, because they come together in such a way that they feel both organic and ancient, as though the artist has called up something old and forgotten.

The accompanying still images are deeply compelling in their own right, though I think they gained a great deal from being viewed after their moving counterparts. They were displayed in a really clever way, I’m not sure how they did the lighting, but it was done in such a way that the pictures seemed to glow from within – I initially thought they were on light-boxes but I don’t think that’s how it was done – despite being in a room that was otherwise in almost complete darkness. Speaking of meanings being transformed by context, the hair suit that the artist’s brother wears in the film, is also on display in the exhibit and on it’s own, without the context of the film, I found it quite creepy in a folk horror sort of way – I was reminded of seeing the Burryman costume as a child – and it was all I could do to not beat a hasty retreat without watching the film. I’m glad I didn’t though, as contextualised by the film, it’s a beautiful piece of art and craftsmanship.

Calling for Rain

Based on a Cambodian mythological poem Reamar – the Cambodian equivalent of the Ramayana – the film tells an environmental parable for children. It uses various animal spirits – embodied by dancers wearing woven vine animal heads – to represent the different actors in what becomes a parable of climate change. (Looking at the heads out of context they also have potential to be considered foreboding, but having seen them initially on the heads of the dancers they seem charming instead.) Artist Khvay Samnang makes highly site specific art, in sites of potential or ongoing environmental degradation/polluting so the landscape in which the piece is performed is as much a part of the work of art as the dancers themselves. So as much as I generally prefer to see dance works performed live, I can see that it would have lost something in translation if it had, even before we take into account the practicalities of this pandemic world.

As messy as it undoubtedly was, I approved of the decision to have rain baths on either side of the exhibit space, there’s something about the water actually falling from the ceiling of the space that really added to the atmosphere and immersiveness of the piece. The piece is essentially an extended rain dance, and what is a rain dance if it doesn’t call forth actual rain. I also enjoyed the choice – that I suspect Tramway made as it was present in both exhibits – to include a nest of cushions on the floor so that young visitors – or for that matter those of us who like to sit on the floor in the middle of installations – could fully embrace the experience and get comfortable with the art.

(From a purely technical point of view, I do love it when audiovisual art works are beautifully made. I understand intellectually why the kind of artist that specialises in ‘confessional’ art likes to do the shooting themselves regardless of technical aptitude or experience – that quest for authenticity. I guess my grounding being in film, a necessarily team effort, I don’t see collaboration or even just hiring a specialist to do what you can’t, dilutes or compromises the ‘artistic integrity’ of an work. But I digress, these artists were clearly unencumbered by such issues and their works were stronger for it. Perhaps that has something to do with their wider artistic working practices being more suited to collaboration.)

Bring Me To Heal ran at the Tramway, Glasgow from 4th December until the 6th of March, Calling for Rain is running at the Tramway, Glasgow until the 27th of March.

3 part collage - two shots of the masks from 'calling for rain' and one of garden installation the top of a man's head with a top knot emerging from water

Netflix Docs

With cinemas once again off limits for a fair chunk of the start of last year, I decided to make a concerted effort to catch up on at least a respectable chunk of the documentaries available on Netflix while I had the chance. As dubious as I’ve been about Netflix having gone on a campaign to make a name for themselves in both funding and distributing documentaries, I accept that the main way that most people see documentaries is on television. Even for a dedicated documentary feature film fan like myself, who regularly seeks out documentaries at film festivals, or even just my local art cinema, the vast majority of my documentary watching is on the small screen. (And realistically, as someone who doesn’t own a television that’s mostly been streamed, since around about the dawn of the iPlayer.) There are definitely documentaries that really benefit from being viewed on the big screen – Free Solo comes immediately to mind, and while I certainly enjoyed The Dawn Wall on the small screen I did wish I could have seen it full size – but in general it’s a genre that I’m happier to watch on the small screen than most others.

As the vast majority of US documentaries don’t make it to UK screens until they’ve been nominated for a major prize – in most cases unless they’re a break out hit, or they get an Oscar nomination, it’s unlikely they’ll show up here outside of the film festival circuit – my opinions on the Oscar documentary category will be shaped mostly by whether or not I liked the one nominated documentary I’ve actually seen, and catching up, despite my best efforts is often a frustratingly lost cause. But now, theoretically it should be easier to do, though I suppose I won’t really know until we get a ‘normal’ Oscar season where I can got hunting ahead of time and prepare to have opinions.

I’m delighted that feature documentaries are starting to gain their own cult audiences on streaming services. My Octopus Teacher was an utterly charming nature documentary that would likely have passed me by had not it been the topic of delighted water cooler chatter.

Oddly enough one of the best documentaries I saw all year was a 2004 film about percussionist Evelyn Glennie, Touch the Sound which had some genuinely gorgeous sound design. (Definitely worth putting the good headphones in for, though it’s quite an immersive, almost overwhelming experience through headphones, it’s well worth it, just maybe turn the sound down a bit to start with, that big drum at the start is a lot otherwise.) It was a really compelling look at an artist at work, and one of the best attempts I’ve encountered at using sound design to get the audience inside a musician’s head. I stumbled across it quite by accident while looking for something gentle to watch while feeling rather burnt out from the news cycle and it fit the bill admirably. Understated and very good at what it set out to do, highly recommended.

In the middle of December, I realised that I was five documentaries short of my target for the year – twenty feature length documentaries – and given that it’s become something a tradition for me to spend the last week or so of the year trying to cram as many feature documentaries in as possible, I decided to make a determined go at it. I ended up watching a run of documentaries that proved to be accidentally on a theme. This is particularly easy to do with Netflix as once you’ve finished a particular film it will immediately offer you more films that you are statistically likely to watch. In this case they were all already on my mental list of documentaries I wanted to watch, in what I thought of as two separate streams, but that proved to be interconnected.

The first stream was a three film run of films about social media manipulation. I started with Coded Bias which is largely about facial recognition and the problems of systems in the US being programmed by a largely homogenous group of programmers – mostly white and male – meaning that they often struggle to identify faces that aren’t widely represented amongst that group. It travels through the dangers of these supposedly ‘impartial systems’ simply absorbing the structural bias and discrimination inherent in the the data that they are trained on, onto the utterly dystopian ubiquity of facial recognition systems in China and their tie in with their social capital system. Then we had The Social Dilemma that was consuming so many column inches with arguments and counter arguments last year. It’s a bit…simplistic in it’s arguments, very didactic and a bit overdramatic – subtle in making it’s points this film is not – but it definitely makes it’s points clearly. Though for me, the real power to the arguments was in the number of interviewees who’d worked for these companies and left, lining up to admit that they’d tried to create something good and made a monster. There’s a particularly depressing sequence about a time when one of the contributors had essentially laid what they were doing wrong and the harms they were causing, his essay/manifesto had essentially gone viral within the company – with people all across it contacting him to thank him for saying ‘out loud’ what so many of them were thinking/fearing – yet within a couple of weeks everything was business as usual, corporate inertia winning the day. Which as someone working in news media, watching scandal after scandal be exposed to no real impact is relatable to a painful extent. The third film of this thread, that really tied both threads together for me, was The Great Hack on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s a film of many different faces, that clearly evolved as revelations from various whistle blowers come forward and investigations revealed further information that seem to sideswipe even the whistle blowers. At it’s heart its a film about the way that power and money corrupts and co-opts people and the dangers of hubris when combined with powerful new technologies. Taken together all these films feel like a parable of the dangers of thinking that you’re too smart to be fooled and that you can manipulate people to make them/society ‘better’. That is, after all the story of so many politicians, you start of wanting to make a better world and get co-opted into the system. Why would we think that political systems wouldn’t learn to co-opt social media to it’s own ends? The problem with ‘move fast and break things’ is that while sometimes you break things for the better, but sometimes you break things for the worse.

(It also ties into Knock Down the House on a different level because it’s star whistle blower had started out doing social media for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. Kaiser’s asked at one point how she ended up working for the Republicans and essentially her answer is that they were the ones willing to pay her. Her parents lost their home to medical debt, so she left non profit work and took a corporate job to help, and went down the rabbit hole. And if that story isn’t emblematic of all that’s rotten in the state of US politics I don’t know what is.)

The second stream was kicked off by Knock Down the House about first time candidates standing for congress during the 2018 US mid-term elections. All four of the candidates are women, from a diverse set of backgrounds, part of a wider movement not just to change red seats to blue, but to change the type of Democrat in congress in a bid for wider change. (It was particularly jarring to see Joe Manchin in the news just before Christmas proving just why they were campaigning so hard to unseat him in this film.) It’s quite fascinating to watch how these campaigns work at the grassroots level where they’re explicitly refusing corporate money so they aren’t beholden to anyone but their electors, in a system that is so very reliant on money. Though their use of social media to level the playing field in some ways definitely feels different in the aftermath of watching the other thread of films. And then it felt only right to take another run at The Edge of Democracy which I bounced off earlier in the year, that covers the dramatic upheavals in Brazil’s political scene over the last decade, with historical context. I hadn’t really expected this film to tie in quite so much with the rest of the films, but social media mobs and manipulation, along with creeping authoritarianism turns out to a big part of that story too. I found it particularly fascinating to see how late in the game Jair Bolsonaro came to the fore of the crisis the film depicts given his current prominence. It’s strange how differently both those films seem now after having seen The Great Hack than they would have been before that story came out.

Autumnal Art

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.


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

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

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

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.