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.

The Sound of Trees

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On Saturday I stumbled across a radio programme about trees, more properly a love letter to trees, or at least to the sounds that they make. It starts with Thomas Hardy’s assertion that it was possible to learn to identify trees by their sound alone, and speaks to arboriculturalists, poets and composers along the way to testing this hypothesis.

The Susurrations of Trees is the kind of programme that I most strongly associate with Radio 4 – though it’s particular use of music means it could have slotted easily into Radio 3’s output. A gently fascinating programme well suited to being background listening while you work on something else – something perhaps repetitive but necessary, that can be easily paused when the presenter tells you something particularly interesting you need to focus on. I found myself searching for a task of that kind barely a few minutes into listening, and ended up listening with my head out the window as I pruned back my winter-bare herbs, while Bob Gilbert’s reassuring tones drifted up to me. I needed to be able to concentrate on listening but also to be doing something with my hands.

It got me thinking about how different a process it is recording the sounds of the natural world as opposed to recording the human world. Despite having grown up in the countryside, I am primarily a recorder of urban soundscapes. Perhaps it was because when I first started to make my own location recordings, the sound of urban environments were more novel to my ears so more likely to pique my interest and therefore get recorded. I first started making my own recordings while at university in Bournemouth, where my locations for recordings were shaped and circumscribed by not having a car. If I wanted to record something or somewhere, I needed to be able to get there by public transport. The earliest recordings I have that were worth keeping were made inside Christchurch Priory and outside in it’s graveyard, though I distinctly remember filling in a risk assessment for taking the recorder out to record the waves on Bournemouth beach. This seems a sensible reason for why it rarely occurs to me to take my recorder when I’m driving somewhere, but associate it more with trips that involve at least a couple of forms of public transport.

So perhaps it would be more apt to say that I’m a recorder of in between places, transitory places, seashores, graveyards, and public transport. There are so few places that are truly one thing or the other these days. Most location sound recordists have a story about having to call a pause in filming because despite standing in a field in the apparent middle of nowhere due to a plane or a distant quad bike. (Aircon units are my personal bugbear – as if they don’t cause enough problems indoors, their outlets will often ruin the soundscape of an alley or wooded space behind a building with their omnipresence.) Equally though, for every time distant traffic has interfered with my nature recordings, I have been plagued by nature in urban environments – mostly seagulls, but pigeons, cats, dogs and once, memorably a heron, have all made my recordings seem rather more rural.

Last month I spent some time recording – or attempting to make recordings – in Merkinch nature reserve at the edge of Inverness. I probably picked the wrong time of year for it – I’d perhaps have had better luck in Spring rather than Autumn – but despite being a peaceful and pleasant place to walk and feeling like a respite from the surrounding city, the sounds of urban life were obvious and intrusive the moment I turned on the recorder. Recording nature requires much more stillness and patience than recording the human world. Man-made objects are far less likely to stop making a noise the moment you point a recorder at them. The audio cycles of clocks and traffic lights or automated announcements are much more predictable than those of birds or foxes or storms.

IFF19 @EdenCourt – Highlights

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Last but not least, we come to the ‘Highlights’ thread at the Inverness Film Festival. I only saw two of the films in this section, for all the reasons I’ve talked about before, but they were in fact both definitely highlights of the festival. Films that I’m unequivocally glad that I went to see and that I’ll definitely be disappointed to not see collecting some gongs come awards season.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la Jeune Femme en Feu)

This one most definitely deserved to be categorised as a festival highlight. The festival programmer introduced it as his favourite film of the year, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I’d certainly expect it to be a top five contender.

The film is lit beautifully, with at least half the film taking place at night and being lit by candlelight and firelight. There’s something about that golden light that gives the film a particular intimacy. As though we’re stepping into a hidden world, the world of eighteenth century women that only exists when men aren’t around, when they don’t have to perform. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that was quite so much about the female gaze. Marianne is forever gazing at Héloïse, first as an artist, then as a lover, but Héloïse is always gazing back, learning the artist as the artist learns her.

There’s also something decidedly gothic about the whole endeavour, the lies and misdirection, the mysterious death of Héloïse’s sister, the resolution of Sophie’s personal problem, the doomed romance and all those intimate moments in flickering light with dancing shadows. Thwarted love and old obsessions abound.
The acting is superb throughout, with the four central characters putting in very different but very nuanced performances, although Adèle Haenel is particularly compelling as the enigmatic Hèloïse.

It was also, oddly enough, one of the very few films I’d heard anything about before the festival programme was released, and the trailer only made it look more intriguing so it became a must see. I’ve never seen any of Céline Sciamma’s other films, but on the strength of this one I clearly need to track them down.

The Report

This film could quite easily be seen as a companion piece to Official Secrets, although it didn’t make me anywhere near as angry as that film did. I guess that over the years I’ve seen enough documentaries and fiction films that tell parts of this story that seeing it all laid out in one place was just depressing rather than enraging.

It must have been around late 2007, early 2008 when I first heard about ‘enhanced interrogation’, those weasel words that allowed both the US intelligence services and the US administration to tell themselves that what they were doing wasn’t actually torture. It was an innocent enough email with a link to the advert for Amnesty International’s new anti-torture campaign. It wasn’t, as I expected aimed at somewhere in South America, or perhaps one of China’s infamous minority crack-downs. Instead it was much closer to home. (If you feel up to it, look up ‘Waiting for the Guards’ or ‘Stuff of Life’ on Youtube, they burned themselves into my brain at the time.) So the hardest part of this film was not that the CIA did these things, it’s the way that they cling stubbornly to the lie that these techniques work, despite the overwhelming evidence, even in the face their own reports to the contrary.

Over the intervening years more and more details have trickled out into the cultural zeitgeist, so that it feels like old news, that we already know that the CIA has done – and doubtless continues to do – unspeakable things. Guantanamo Bay has been abbreviated to Gitmo and become a byword for the sins and failings of an administration – a particularly paranoid and jingoistic period in US history – and extraordinary rendition a veil that allows the maintenance of the lie that the US doesn’t use torture.

Over and over in the film we hear variations on that early legal justification the CIA gets: it’s only legal if it works. It’s both fascinating and horrifying just what can be justified if the stakes are high enough. The ends and the means indeed.

IFF19 @EdenCourt – New World Cinema

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I presume the ‘New Australian Cinema’ strand was originally intended to have more than two films in it, otherwise I’m not sure quite why it wasn’t folded into the ‘New World Cinema’ strand. (Does Australian cinema not count as ‘world cinema’? Apparently not, apparently it needs to be in a language other than English. In that case consider the emphasis changed here not ‘New World Cinema’ but ‘New World Cinema’.) However, the only film I saw in the ‘New World Cinema’ strand shared a lot of thematic similarities with the two films from the ‘New Australian Cinema’ strand, so I’m reviewing them all together.

The Nightingale

This film is a lot. It also needs pretty much every trigger warning imaginable. (Rape. Murder. Child Harm. Casual Homophobia. Pretty much every last white character is racist to a greater or lesser extent.) I was expecting it to be brutal but it was so much more brutal than I was expecting. Several people – maybe as many as half a dozen – walked out of the film and I was very nearly one of them. (I spent a good twenty minutes holding my coat in my arms, braced for the final thing that would cause me to lose faith in the film completely.) The first forty-five minutes or so of the film feel about twice as long as the rest of it, and if you can get through that then the rest of it is merely hard going as opposed to harrowing. When faced with the festival voting slip for this film I felt the need for a whole new category – how do you sum up a film that was clearly very good, and probably quite an important film, but which nonetheless you didn’t enjoy? That perhaps the whole point of the film was to be un-enjoyable.

All that said. It’s a beautifully shot movie. The forest feels like a character in it’s own right, dangerous, fickle and indifferent. It’s pretty rare to see an Australian film that’s not set in either urban Australia or in the dust of the outback. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Australian film where the weather was so unrelentingly grey and wet, and I’ve definitely never seen a film set in Tasmania.

Clare and Billy are the emotional heart of the film, both complex and flawed characters, they hate each other on sight, but over time and through adversary come to form a somewhat co-dependent friendship. Which sounds pat and heart-warming, but is actually much messier and far harder won, given that both characters have been thoroughly traumatised by their uncomfortably similar life experiences. (They’ve both been forcibly taken from their homes, relocated in a new life they have little control over, and seen their families murdered in front of them.) We’re reminded throughout that neither of them are speaking their first language – Irish and Palawa Kani respectively. The decision not to subtitle either of them when they’re not speaking English is an interesting one, that emphasises the use of shared minority language both to include and exclude, along with acting as a reminder of just how wide a gap in experience and culture Clare and Billy are communicating across.

The film is a damning indictment of colonialism in Australia, both the convict transportation and the treatment of the various aboriginal peoples who were there first. The colony where we start in the film mostly contains soldiers (who are brutalised by their superiors, each other and the whole structure of the military), convicts and recently freed transportees (who are brutalised by the soldiers, the forced labour and the precarious nature of what few rights they have) and the aboriginals (who are brutalised by both the other groups, have almost all been taken from their families, forced to live by white rules but must live outside white society) and who almost all drink far too much in a vain attempt to cope with the grinding dehumanisation of the whole situation. When we get to Laurenceton it may look much more shiny and ‘civilised’ – with it’s neat houses and cultivated fields – but scratch the surface and whatever colonisation has brought to the area it sure as heck isn’t civilisation.

Judy and Punch

Judy and Punch (Foulkes, 2019) manages to both deal with some overlapping themes (revenge, child murder, violence against women, murderously toxic communities) while being a completely different film in tone and message. Set in some nebulous time frame – possibly Elizabethan – and equally nebulous location – probably England but no two people have the same accent so who knows – but fundamentally none of that really matters. (The soundtrack for this film owes something to A Knights Tale (Helgeland, 2001) in attitude if not quite in sheer gleeful anachronism.) This is a Punch and Judy show so the characters are mostly archetypes, fleshed out and made human and messy. This is a morality tale. It’s twisted and strange and very funny. It is, in short: a delight.

It’s a film that is both very old fashioned and very much of the present moment. An exploration of what the casual brutality of the traditional Punch and Judy show might be teaching the children watching it, and also a mirror held up to the dangers of mob rule and trial-by-social media. As a film with actual witch hunts, it forces its audience to consider whose voices are being amplified and whose are being silenced. And it does it all while making the audience laugh and cheer along with it.

(Oddly enough, both The Nightingale and Judy and Punch share a Sound Designer, Robert MacKenzie, who has done excellent work on both films.)

Flatland

How to describe this film? It’s a film about love and about loyalty, what it means to belong and what it means to be a family. It also deals with the open wound that remains around the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and how much that really exists and for who. It’s a film about violence – both sexual and racial – and power. Who has it, who doesn’t and what the changes in those dynamics mean in real terms rather than pretty idealised words.

It’s a film about who we think we are and how close to or far away from that image we actually are. About what it really means to be free. It’s a very good film, but it’s not a film that offers easy answers for any of its characters or any of the questions it raises.

(All three films can be seen as having the same theme, but whether you read that as ‘men are terribly poor stuff’ or three different women declaring that that which does not kill them makes them stronger – or for that matter both at once – is very much left up to the viewer.)

IFF19 @EdenCourt – Documentaries

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This year’s film festival was a rather more spread out affair than it usually is, which for me had one main impact: it meant that although there were more than double the number of documentaries showing than there were last year, I could see almost all of them! Despite being minorly thwarted by a screening copy not turning up in time, I still managed to see a pretty varied selection of documentaries this year. If this year’s documentaries had a theme, it was telling stories that were more complex than they initially appeared. Documentaries that let you think you knew where they were going – that you knew these stories or recognised these archetypes – and then turned around and showed you that they were much messier and complex then they at first appeared.

The Cave

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve seen too many documentaries about Syria in the last few years. This one is about an underground hospital in Ghouta – near Damascus – and the film follows hospital manager (and mostly trained paediatrician) Dr Amani and her mostly female staff as they fight against the odds to tend to their patients and avoid getting blown up. It’s a fascinating concept – the full blown engineering works going on underground in the early parts of the film does more to demonstrate the organisation and extent of the rebellion than any claims or stats could – with likeable protagonists that you can really get behind and emphasise with, told in a compelling way.

I’ve seen dramatic, beautifully shot, drone footage of destroyed cities – of Raqqa, Homs, Aleppo and now Damascus – and the question that fills my head afterwards is no longer, how can the people possibly survive this? Nor even if the rebels still think the uprising was worth it. Instead I have to ask: what on earth Assad thinks he’s going to win at the end of this? Sure, he may win the war but at what cost, what will be left for him to rule over at the end of all this?

Scheme Birds

Often in a film like this the synopsis would say that Gemma dreams of something more than her estate, but Gemma doesn’t. Gemma is happy, Gemma belongs, Gemma loves and is loved, and she can’t imagine leaving this place. Gemma is fundamentally really young, barely more than a kid when she has her own baby. Yet in a way it is that same baby that makes her grow up and look beyond the world she’s always known. We learn early on that her own mother was a drug addict and hasn’t been part of her life since she was about 18 months old. Oddly enough having the baby makes her less, rather than more, empathetic towards her mother because she can’t imagine walking away from him. It’s wanting more for that little boy – more than fighting and drinking and prison and teen parenthood – that motivates her to change things.

(As a side note, there’s something about Amy that unnerves me. I recognise her, not her specifically – her mum’s probably my age – but she looks like someone else, someone I knew years ago. Someone I was at school with, or worked a summer job with, or a friend of a friend. There’s something about the structure of her face, the mannerisms, we never see her cry on screen but I can picture just how she’d look when she does.)

Be Natural

‘Be Natural’ was the instruction that pioneering film director Alice Guy-Blanche gave to her actors so often that she had it put on a sign on the wall of her studio in two foot high letters. Naturalism is in fact the thread that ties all her films together, despite being one of the first filmmakers to use film to tell stories rather than simply documenting activities, there is none of the stage-y overacting we now associate with early films. Her films exemplify the experimental and daring nature of early filmmaking along with the demonstrating the opportunities available to women in cinema before it was taken seriously as an art form.

The film is a systematic and detailed attempt to re-insert Guy-Blache back into the narrative that she has been systematically removed from. The film does an excellent job of illustrating a story that is by its very nature mostly about dusty archives and long-distance phone-calls in a compelling manner. The use of map graphics to fill in the gaps, really helps illustrate how often both the researchers (and Guy-Blache herself) criss-crossed the US and Europe trying to track down her films. The film has clearly been a labour of love for it’s own director, but the finished object is a compelling and convincing argument in it’s own right.

Shooting the Mafia

This was by far my favourite documentary of all those shown at this year’s festival. Photographer Letizia Battaglia is such a compelling presence that the viewer is drawn further and further into the story of her life and work. Having come to photography later in life – she took it up at the age of 40 in the midst of getting a divorce – her life experience straddles considerable political and social change in Italy and in Sicily in particular. Despite being in her eighties, Battaglia remains an intensely charismatic person – with such passion and rage lurking just under the surface – that it is no surprise that she still draws people to her with a fierce devotion. Through both her words and her pictures, she paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live in Palermo under Mafia rule.

The photos themselves have a stark and compelling beauty to them. They confront the viewer with the impact of the Mafia’s crimes. Not only in the photographs of crime scenes but also in the faces of the people around the bodies. The pictures of poverty, deprivation and grief tell their own story too. This is no Hollywood glamourized view of the Mafia, but a messy story of a messy world. One thing that Battaglia seems at pains to point out is that it is a mistake to think of her work as merely a historical artefact. Certainly things are much better in Palermo, but the fight against the Mafia goes on.

Silent Film Double Feature @InvFilmFest

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This year’s film festival featured not just one, but two silent film festival events. I’m not sure if this year’s festival offerings were disproportionately serious in topic in general, or just my choices were not the most uplifting options. However, both silent film events were spots of – much needed – light relief and joy for this viewer. They were both very different in tone and style – from the comedy shorts of Laurel and Hardy to the feature-length ‘historical’ drama of Rob Roy.

Laurel and Hardy

I’ve always had a soft spot for Laurel and Hardy. I’ve no idea how I first ended up watching a Laurel and Hardy film, only that I loved them. (Let us never speak of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, but it probably was the cause.) Their talkies were in pretty regular circulation on the television when I was a kid, burning Dance of the Cuckoos into our collective unconscious. (It was nostalgia watching Laurel and Hardy early one Sunday morning on BBC 2, as a teen that led me to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time – for years my favourite film.) But I don’t think I ever saw any of their silent films until I was an adult.

I’d developed a soft spot for German Expressionist filmmaking at uni but I didn’t really fall in love with silent film until I saw my first silent with a live musical accompaniment. It was a grey and miserable Sunday afternoon, in a large tent, in the middle of – I think – Glasgow Green, and Neil Brand was talking about – and vamping along on the piano to – a Buster Keaton film. The General if memory serves me right.

In the decade and a bit since then, I’ve seen a lot of different silent films, with a lot of different accompanists, but this was the first time since then that I’ve seen another silent accompanied by Neil Brand.

Watching Laurel and Hardy always makes me feel like a kid again, in the best way, – that giant custard pie fight sequence! – and this was no exception. There’s something so pure and simple about their humour; that means that their humour still works so perfectly and that allowed them to make the transition to sound in a way so few of their contemporaries did. The films may have been silent but I could hear their voices, clear as day, less in my head than in my heart.

Rob Roy

Second up, was the now traditional visitor from the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival tour, with it’s specially written score. This is the second year in a row we’ve had a silent movie with a new score from multi-instrumentalist David Allison and he’s exceeded himself here. I must admit to being a bit of a purist when it comes to silent film scores, if I’m seeing them live, I tend to prefer a live improvised piano score. I find alternative scores a bit hit and miss generally, either they are amazing and an utter joy to experience (the klezmer band that accompanied Salt for Svanetia were particularly awesome), or they just don’t work at all (looking at you, Moroder). But this definitely fell into the former category. It was adventurous, charming and very different – Allison appeared to be using an iPad as a synthesiser at one point – and most importantly it played the film straight. It would have been very easy to make this film seem silly, but instead it drew the audience into the story focusing on it’s earnestness and pathos, so that we were charmed rather than amused by it’s more ridiculous moments.

Accross Land and Sea @CircusArtspace

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In order to talk about this exhibit, I need to first talk about the space it took place in. CiRCus_Artspace is an artist collective based in the WASP studios within the Inverness Creative Academy. (Or, if you’re a certain age, the old Midmills College building.) Their stated purpose is to make contemporary art available to a wide Highland audience while also supporting recent graduate artists from the area. I’ve been in the space a few times now – and I’m always taken by the light in the space, both natural and artificial – but this was the first time I’d actually seen it with art on display. Being a largely crowd-funded endeavour, the exhibitions tend to have fairly short durations and necessarily limited opening hours – this is in fact the third exhibition that they’ve held in the space, and it was the first I’ve made it along to see. (I was particularly disappointed to miss the soundscape on the preview evening.)

Circus artspace

The exhibition itself was a coming together of three artists from across the Highlands and Islands who share an interest in traditional crafts and craft materials and are inspired by their surrounding landscapes and communities.

I was particularly taken by Vivian Ross-Smith’s work, which felt very much like a conversation between the contrasting ephemerality and practicality of traditional crafts and artistic practice. There’s definitely something about the work ‘Network’, made from preserved haddock skins and Shetland wool that has lots to say about both the bonds and fragility of rural communities – particularly island communities such as the one Ross-Smith grew up in on Fair Isle.

Sorting and GradingNetwork

I was also somewhat charmed by Patricia Shone’s time-based pieces that dominated the space and seemed to both compel and confuse visitors to the exhibition. In this case, time-based means that they were dried clay pieces that were either filled with water so that they would collapse over time or designed to dry out and self-destruct in the opposite direction.

Patricia Shone

Across Land and Sea ran at Inverness Creative Academy from October 11th – 20th 2019.