3. Free Solo

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Free Solo is a climbing documentary that is really something special.

Oddly enough, I’ve actually seen quite a few climbing documentaries over the years – despite being the kind of person who gets vertigo at the top of a set of stepladders – and one of the commonalities among a lot of them is the focus on one extraordinary climber who is pushing the boundaries of mountaineering or climbing in general. This film is sort of that kind of film – Alex Honnold is definitely that kind of character for good and ill – and at the same time it absolutely isn’t that kind of film.

What the film does different that, for me, is at the heart of what makes it such a compelling film and why it lingers in the thoughts for days after watching, is that it puts Alex and his climb in context. Not just in terms of climbing El Capitan, or even in terms of free soloing – essentially climbing alone with no ropes or other safety equipment – as impressive as those things are, but as a member of a community. Throughout the film the camera pulls back to reveal the team around him, both the film crew – all experienced climbers in their own right – and the other climbers he trains with in the run up to his climb. He may be a bit of a loner living in a van and preferring to climb alone, but he is not alone, he has a mum and a girlfriend, friends and mentors in climbing and while climbing is his life, there’s more to him and his life than just climbing.

Co-director Jimmy Chin has some very frank discussions about responsibility and safety throughout the film, along with his acknowledged fear of seeing Alex falling through the frame and knowing that will mean that he’s falling to his death. (The flip side of this is shown in Alex’s admission before his first attempt that he’s made his peace with the fact that he may well fall to his death doing this, but that he can’t yet make his peace with the crew, his friends having to watch him fall to his death. Given the state of his ankle at the time of his first attempt, I genuinely believe it is that thought that causes him to abort the attempt and in doing so likely saves his life.) That sentiment is repeated throughout the film by both the crew and fellow climber – he’s going to do this whether I help him or not, and I don’t want him to die so I’m going to do everything in my power to help him be as best prepared as he can possibly be.

I really wasn’t prepared for how emotionally invested I was going to get in this film, or the sudden heart-stopping realisation I had during his first solo climb that I didn’t know if he’d made it, if he was still alive.

The film slowly builds that emotional investment throughout, by way of situating him a person who is cared about by those around him. We see the building relationship he has with his girlfriend Sanni, the place he has in the community of climbers – eating and playing with their families – and with the film crew. It would be easy for a film of this kind to feel voyeuristic but the film has a nice line in the power of looking and looking away. There’s some really effective use of graphics throughout his second attempt that both give an effective sense of the scale of the climb while also giving the viewer a much-needed release from the building tension. Tense is definitely the operative word during that climb, giving us both gorgeous vistas that emphasise the scale of the task and the achievement of it and tight close-ups that lay out the sheer skill and tenacity of Alex as a climber. Counter-intuitively though, some of the tensest moments are when we are pulled right back from the action, watching instead the impact that the climb is having on the film crew, on the way that one of them in particular (Mikey Schaefer) is so overcome with fear and concern for Alex that he can barely look through his own viewfinder. His pained looking and looking away is both deeply effective in its own right and strangely cathartic for the viewer, as though given permission to look away, to feel our own fear and acknowledge that we have come to care – and fear – for our protagonist too. It also – spoiler alert – allows us to share in the equally visceral joy in his victory, to cry and cheer along with the crew that he’s achieved his dream.

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Docs of 2018

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It’s late January, which means it’s high time I got round to doing my annual review of the year’s documentaries.

2018 was a seventeen documentary year. One year I may make it to 24 documentaries in a year – two documentaries a month isn’t that hard a target – but the nature of documentary release schedules over here creates a feast or famine situation – I saw six documentaries in the cinema during November. However, overall, I must confess that I found a lot of the documentaries that I saw during 2018 to be…underwhelming. There were some good and compelling documentaries, but there were very few that blew me away, or even made me want to enthuse about them to fellow film buff friends and colleagues. There were definitely some gems – Nae Pasaran, City of Ghosts, Rebels on Pointe, RBG, The Devil We Know and Story Telling for Earthly Survival stood out for me – but I don’t think I saw anything that made me actively annoyed, as I was watching Roller Dreams last year, that more people weren’t there to see it.

Despite having actually watched a decent number of eligible documentaries during 2017, only one – An Inconvenient Sequel – was nominated for either a BAFTA or an Oscar. (Though it turns out that one of the films I watched this year was BAFTA nominated last year.) Likewise in 2018 only one film that could have been eligible is up for either an Oscar or a BAFTA – the admittedly excellent RBG. Though I do note that I had at least heard of most of the documentaries nominated for BAFTA this year, whereas most of the Oscar nominations I hadn’t even heard about, which likely means they’re not out here yet.

Oddly enough, all the documentaries I saw this year were fairly recent documentaries, nothing made longer ago than five years ago. I’m not sure what that says about my documentary viewing in general. Well, I do know what it says to a certain extent, it says that I’ve watched almost all the documentaries that I had been collecting on DVD over the previous few years, which is definitely a good thing. However, I think this year I’ll try and mix things up a bit more, try and see some more classics so I can focus my contemporary documentary watching on films on topics that really excite my enthusiasm.

Slow Radio

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It’s almost the end of November, and where has the time gone? There were so many more articles I was going to write for nablopomo and it feels like the month went by in a flash. The temptation to panic and try to squeeze as much in to the last few days of the month is almost overwhelming, but sometimes, when you instead just take some time to pause and reflect for a while, you end up achieving much more. Much like taking the time to check out Slow Radio this afternoon, actually caused me to be far more productive than I would have been otherwise and inspired an article for this blog!

I’ve always liked the concept of Slow Television more than it’s actual execution. Perhaps because the slightly meditative state of mind I have to be in to enjoy it, is something that nature documentaries give me. Unless I’m loaded with the cold – in which case I want my television viewing to just gently waft over me.

Slow Radio on the other hand works much better for me. Perhaps because I’m more accustomed to having the radio on in the background while I do something else, so the slow gentle unwinding of the episodes is a more natural fit for my brain. I can listen closely to the narrated episodes if I want to, or just let someone’s lovely voice drift over me. Secure in the knowledge that the content will be interesting if I tune in, but that I’m not missing anything vital if I tune out for a little while.

I listen to Radio 3 for much the same reasons that some people listen to ASMR podcasts and videos; I find their output deeply soothing. I used to subscribe to the Front Row podcast, purely to have a backlog of Mathew Sweet to talk me to sleep whenever I needed a little outside assistance. One of my other favourite podcasts, 99% Invisible did an episode on that other great friend of insomniacs across the British Isles, The Shipping Forecast, and it has that quality too, slow, soothing and slightly strange. (Somehow deeply arcane yet utterly mundane, all at once.) It is pleasing to know that in these days of ever faster and ever louder content, that people making radio still remember that there is an audience for something slower and quieter and have found a way to make space for it. Radio 3 is a bit of an oddity in these times and it’s something of a pleasure and relief to see them embracing that oddity and taking that as licence to push the boundaries in their own unique way. It reminds me of that odd delight of the early days of DAB radios, when someone came up with a channel that was nothing but birdsong that ended up with something of cult following for a while. Fundamentally though, I can’t help but feel that this is the kind of thing that public service broadcasting does so well, giving the audience not necessarily what they want, but instead striving to provide what they didn’t realise they needed.

As a sound designer, I’m delighted by both the concept and the execution of Slow Radio, the combination of experimentation and carefully craft on display is a pleasure to behold. As a listener it’s just a deeply soothing – if occasionally decidedly odd – experience, like being wrapped in a warm fluffy blanket of sound. The perfect accompaniment to a cold winter’s evening, tucked up with a hot beverage and an actual fluffy blanket.

The Return of the Take One Action Film Festival #TOAFF18

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Once again, I seem to be attempting to see a year’s worth of documentary films in the last quarter of the year, in fact I suspect I’ve seen nearly as many documentary feature films this month as I have the whole rest of the year. I’m not entirely sure that it’s just me, I think there’s a definite skew of documentary film release dates towards the latter part of the year. I feel a bit cynical suggesting that it’s anything to do with the upcoming awards season, but surely if it wasn’t we’d see a flurry of documentary releases in the aftermath of the Sheffield Documentary Festival in June instead?

Regardless of the above, the end of November marks the annual visit to Inverness of the Take One Action mini film festival. I usually go for the environmental themed films at this festival and this year’s selection looked to have some cracking offerings on that front. (The trailer for Anote’s Ark in particular, looks worth tracking down.) Unfortunately, due to work commitments, those weren’t the films I ended up seeing! Instead I saw a couple of documentaries that could be considered to belong to the genre of ‘one person against the world’. But what they actually do is subvert this cliché, by giving these – often charismatic and also important in their own right – figures and place them back in their own context, showing the support structures and the colleagues that have pulled them up and held them back in turn.

Naila and the Uprising

I knew very little about the film before going in, only that it was about female empowerment against a wider activist movement. The wider movement in question in this case is the first Palestinian intifada.

The film uses animation to portray segments of the stories that by their very nature have no illustrative footage. Including those of imprisonment and torture, which allows the film to address the subject directly without making it feel exploitative of the activists past pain. The animation manages to be almost poetically beautiful without either obscuring the truth with rose-tinted glasses or undermining it’s point with too much gory detail. It’s impressionistic in all senses of the word and all the more powerful for it.

It’s both fascinating and somewhat depressing to see how much hope and activism there was towards real change during this time, even in the face of so much violence and oppression. To hear from all these clever, passionate women who stepped up into leadership positions during the latter part of the intifada only to be side-lined completely during the peace negotiations and within the new government. Lingering underneath all the interviews, is that feeling of an opportunity lost, the ghost of another solution that might have been, and whether that might have been a better more lasting solution.

Silas

Silas in turn is about an anti-corruption activist in Liberia. It’s also a fascinating look at Liberia itself, in the aftermath of a brutal civil war, and in all it’s contradictions. It’s a refreshingly honest look at the compromises and sheer volume of persistence required to make a lasting impact on any one cause. We learn early in the film, that Silas and his colleagues at SDI have been long-term activists, and that their research and activism around illegal logging had been instrumental in helping bring former dictator Charles Taylor to justice. The film’s central focus is on the campaign to protect one particular community from the predations of a multinational logging company, as a prism to look at the wider issues within Liberia, along with the ways in which the international community both interferes with and turns a blind eye towards these issues.

2. Widows

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When I first saw the trailers for Widows earlier this year, I had two main thoughts, the first one was predictably enough, how cool a movie it looked, quickly followed by the growing feeling that I’ve seen this movie before. Wasn’t that the plot of one of those Lynda La Plante dramas in the 90s? (Okay, I admit it; I also thought two female-led heist movies in one year? Hollywood you are spoiling me! I do love a heist.) Turns out it was actually from the 80s but they must have re-run it when I was a teenager in the late 90s because I was definitely too young to have watched it the first time round. But the important bit, was that yes, it was the same story – enough of the same story that La Plante gets a story credit – which made it an interesting choice as the follow-up film for Steve McQueen to have made after the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave. Yet in another way it’s a film that fits perfectly into McQueen’s filmography, which has always had a focus on bodies as political and interaction between politics and identity.

For all that Widows is set in Chicago, there’s something fundamentally British about the film and it’s preoccupation with class over race. I’m not sure you could see this film and think the director was from the US. Perhaps it’s better to say that this is a film about the immigrant experience of America. It’s a film of outsiders looking in; that contrasts the story of the American Dream with the generations long struggle of immigrants to both belong and become ‘respectable’. (Never more viscerally than in the stand-off between Veronica Rawlins and Jamal Manning early in the film, and all the layers of meaning to his chilling comment of ‘welcome back’.) It also highlights how fragile the realisation of that dream truly is, how easily it can be pulled out from under you, and all the ways your past can be used against you or simply catch up with you.

It’s really interesting to see the younger Mulligan consciously make the choice to offer a truce to his rival Manning in the aftermath of his own father’s bitter rant. An unspoken acknowledgement of Jamal’s earlier argument that the move from crime to politics is both a well-trodden path and one his own fore-bearers made. (Given the amount of Americans I have seen playing ‘Irish’ gangsters with correspondingly terrible accents, it was a strange pleasure to see the two major Irish-American characters played by actually Irish actors who’ve made their careers in Hollywood. I also suspect that there was a little quiet commentary on the fact that there are still a statistically significant percentage of the much-maligned ‘illegal immigrant’ populations in the US are Irish.) It does make you wonder how differently that whole scene might have gone if Jack Manning could have said that out loud in a way that Manning could have heard. That despite all the superficial differences of race and class and respectability, they are fundamentally the same kind of people, men cut from the same cloth.

All of the women involved in the heist are trying to pull themselves upwards – however different their methods – and that is fundamentally what ties them together. One of the eponymous widows, Linda, has a line when she opts into the heist where she says that ‘if this thing goes wrong, I want my kids to know I didn’t just sit there and take it, I did something’. And that attitude seems to apply to all the characters we follow in the film, rich and poor, they all feel trapped by their lives and they all want to fight back against that. Fundamentally that feels like the theme of the film, people kicking back against a world that fundamentally doesn’t care about what they want and will crush them if they stop fighting for a moment.

This is a film with layers, and the more you dig in the more you’ll find; just as surely as the wheels within wheels that the characters keep discovering and revealing, will crush them if they stand still for a moment too long.

IFF18 @EdenCourt – Other Pleasures

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During last year’s film festival I organised my film reviews using the festival’s own themes – Highlights, New World Cinema, Documentaries, Altered States and Shorts – which worked well as my viewing centred on a couple of the categories allowing me to corral them neatly. However, this year my viewing was rather less thematic as I saw a rather more disparate selection of films. So I find myself with three remaining films to write about that don’t seem to really hang together. However, arguably, these three films epitomise the theme of the films I saw over the course of the festival. Which is that of the importance of love – whether romantic, familial or platonic – and it’s absence, to our lives and how they interact with the world around us.

Capernaum

I picked this film out from the program because I’d seen Nadine Labiki’s first feature film Caramel several years ago, during my first run through of the 12 films challenge. And the film certainly lived up to my expectations even if it could not have been more different in subject and tone. It’s a film about poverty and exploitation, about cruelty and kindness, the price of survival and whether or not it is worth paying. Caphernaüm, we are told in the opening title, means chaos and that’s as apt a description as any of the world the characters inhabit. An invisible world of desperate poverty, petty crime, illegal immigrants and refugees.

Capernaum is like Caramel in one important aspect, in that it is a film about love and the lack of it. Most of the action is driven by Zain’s on-going quest to be a good older brother, first to Sahar and then to Yonas. To defy those who insist that love is only something to be exploited and abused for profit. The film’s only true moment of grace feels like a reward for Rahim who, despite her own troubles and struggles, finds the space to be kind to Zain in a way that almost no-one else in the film even tries to be.

Anna and the Apocalypse

I’m not sure what category this film should be put under. It doesn’t really fit under any of the film festival categories – for that matter, it’s a complete genre mash-up. It’s very definitely not a Hollywood movie though; it’s fundamentally a very Scottish movie – less about the accents than the news anchor of choice being Jackie Bird. I picked it because it was one of the young film programmer’s choices, and they gave us one of the gems of last year’s festival Cloud Boy and they did not let me down. This film was a delight.

It’s not a great work of cinema but it is genuine pleasure to watch. I knew it was a comedy horror going in, but not that it was also a musical and that could have gone horribly wrong. However, the second musical number makes it very clear that the film knows full well it’s ridiculous and isn’t remotely embarrassed about it. It’s the perfect balance between silliness and sincerity that allows them to pull it off. Though it probably also helps that the horror elements work really well, the gore effects are excellent, there are real moments of tension and some good jump scares to sit alongside the physical comedy that goes along with fighting zombies.

Birds of Passage

This is a film about the drugs trade in Columbia like no other. For a start it’s about marijuana rather than cocaine – and frankly in the day-to-day lives of the protagonists, it’s alcohol that causes the most damage. Additionally it’s set among the Wayuu people of northern Columbia – the largest indigenous ethnic group in the country – so not only is about 80% of the dialogue in an indigenous language, people both adhering to and ignoring cultural traditions affect everything that happens. In fact, everything that happens later is a product of our central character Rapayet’s quest to get the dowry for his chosen bride. As such the film ends up being not only about greed and corruption but also the battle to keep cultural traditions alive in the modern world. It’s sort of a gangster film in the family saga tradition, but it’s also something much more interesting and much stranger.

IFF18 @EdenCourt – Silent Move Special

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There’s always a danger, when you’re at a film festival that’s late in the year, that the programme will be a little derivative, a greatest hits of that year’s festival circuit rather than entity of it’s own.

What you do tend to be guaranteed at the Inverness Film Festival that you don’t tend to get at other film festivals I’ve attended, is a highlight from the Bo’ness Silent Film Festival. Some year’s it’ll be a restored print, others it’ll be a newly commission score, almost always it’ll involve live musical accompaniment. I do appreciate that we not only get silent movies here on a reasonably regular basis, but also that when they do show up, you’re pretty much guaranteed a live accompaniment, as for me, that’s one of the primary reasons to see a silent film projected.

This year’s special feature was the 1920 US version of Last of the Mohicans – there have been enough film adaptations of this film it requires a fair amount of disambiguation – with a new score composed and performed by David Allison.

It’s very much a film of it’s time, and as such has all the obvious problems – there’s not an actual American Indian in the piece. However, this is not a film in which white people come out remotely well. Neither the French or English forces cover themselves in glory – the film even openly acknowledging their shameful role in the massacre – and a great deal of the harm that unfolds in the film is the result of white guys being cowardly. Magua is a piece of work throughout, but he’s essentially a spy in a time of war, his ‘betrayal’ is essentially him doing his job.

Strangely, a major theme of the film seems to be men falling in love with Cora and doing horrible things rather than accept that she doesn’t like them back! (The film indulges in a refreshing lack of blaming her on that front, her sister might be described as capricious but Cora’s just got a ‘girlish crush’ on Uncas.) Cora and Uncas instead get a surprisingly sweet courtly, if doomed, romance – I kept hoping in vain that she’d run off with Uncas and leave her useless drip of a sister behind. Sadly, between the plot of the book and the racial conventions of the time, that would never be, but nonetheless, they get all the big romantic moments.

IFF18 @EdenCourt – Documentaries

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There are far less documentaries showing at the Inverness Film Festival this year, which on one hand is disappointing – because I love documentaries – but on the other hand is a bit of a relief – I can actually see them all this year! All of this year’s documentaries are political, if only with a small p, because they all feature people trying, in very different ways to build a better, kinder world for the future.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is the only documentary I knew anything about before going in. It’s a documentary about Fred Rogers, or as he was known simply to a couple of generations of children in the US, Mr Rogers. I know enough Americans who grew up watching his programmes to have an awareness of him as a cultural landmark, though unlike that other PBS stalwart of US children’s programming Sesame Street I’d never actually seen an episode myself.

It’s utterly fascinating watching him interact with children and the surprising amount of sincerity that seems to have permeated everything he did. (And interestingly, how that sincerity allowed him to communicate really effectively with children, yet that didn’t really work with adults.) That sense that the whole team working on the show appreciated the responsibility that they had to their young viewers. Also in the face of the criticism that I’ve been hearing all my life about children’s television, they seem to have had this radical notion that you needed to teach children the difference between fantasy and reality, rather than expecting them to understand it unaided.

It’s a warm and affectionate portrait of a man and his work.

RBG

Speaking of warm and affectionate portraits, RBG is an informative and enlightening documentary about both US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and about the legal history of woman’s rights in the United States. It’s partly an explanation of how Ginsberg has become an unlikely hero/idol for young Americans, but it’s as much a history of how and why she – and the wider political landscape – got to where she is now. (One of the interesting contrasts with the above documentary is that the Saturday Night Live sketches of Ginsberg are notably funnier and more affectionate than those about Rogers.) It certainly helps that Ginsberg is a living presence in the film, more compelling than charismatic, but always with the sense of great passions carefully constrained.

More than all of that, this felt like a quietly important, timely and necessary documentary. In these troubled and divided times in the states, it feels important to remember how recent and hard won so many things we take for granted in society actually are. How much has changed in the lifetime of one woman and how fragile that progress is in truth. Perhaps there is no metaphor more apt for the position of civil rights in today’s America than the image of one tiny, elderly Jewish woman, still standing firm against those who would turn back the clock on progress.

Sidney and Friends

At the opposite end of the scale, this is a documentary about an all but invisible community; that of transgender and intersex people in Kenya. Shot in beautiful black and white that gives the images a clarity and a starkness that fits the subject matter perfectly. Sidney in particular is a luminous presence, despite the grief and horror of their life-story, their resilience and strength of character, along with their continuing determination to build a life of their own and help others like themselves makes them a particularly compelling presence.

One of the issues raised within the film that I would have liked to have seen more about, was the issue of language. One of the interviewees made reference to the difficulty in helping people in their community arriving in Nairobi who don’t speak either English or Swahili. The extra layer of difficulty faced by those people trying to figure out who they are when they literally don’t have words for those things. Nonetheless it’s a beautiful and thought-provoking film, ultimately hopeful about this group of people as they build their lives and community together.

IFF18 @Eden Court: A Tale of Two Margarets

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One of my favourite parts of attending a film festival is getting to see the more obscure offerings and taking risks on things I might not otherwise see. This year’s Inverness Film Festival saw special screenings of work by two female art film makers: Margaret Tait and Margaret Salman. Other than their shared forenames and being heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism their work has very little in common, but it was interesting to see an overview of both their work and to get a wider context for the changing nature of art film making in Scotland over time.

Blue Black Permanent

I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from Margaret Tait’s only feature film, but this wasn’t it. This was something very different and very special. It’s a dreamy film, about loss and art and grief, an art film in all the best ways. Time and sorrow flows through the film and it’s narrative like waves, ebbing and flowing with Barbara’s remembered grief. Gerda and Barbara’s narrations provide just enough narrative structure to hold the film together, to hold your hand through the dreamlike visuals.

It’s got that peculiar bittersweet and lovely quality of a particular type of Scottish film made in the 1980s and early 90s – for some reason I keep thinking of the opening scenes of Comfort and Joy (Forsyth, 1984) – combined with unashamed art film sensitivities and visuals. Something strange and wonderful.

It also left me with a strange feeling of resentment, that when I was in my early twenties making short films, I never knew she existed. I spent a great deal of time tracking down to watch and reading about the films of John Grierson and the rest of the documentary movement, looking for something and never quite finding it. I suspect it was Margaret Tait I was looking for all along.

Margaret Tait: Film Poems

I wasn’t originally intending to attend this screening, but having been so moved by the previous evening’s screening of her only feature film I squeezed it into my schedule. I’m glad I did though, because they were, almost an object lesson on how to make short art films. I’ve sat through some truly terrible art films in my time and I now see what many of them were striving for and failing to achieve. Film poems is a particularly fitting description for what these are, there’s both a sparseness and a focus on details that feels very poetic. (I’ve been wrestling with Sorley MacLean’s Eimhir recently so it felt oddly fitting to find it referenced here, but it was the little urban details of Edwin Morgan’s poetry that I was reminded of watching these.) There’s an elegiac quality to these films, a deep sense of place and the inevitable, unstoppable passage of time.

I had, in fact, seen one of them before – Portrait of Ga – as part of a screening of shorts by Scottish female film-makers at the festival a couple of years ago. Which is clearly what prompted something in my brain to chime when I saw her name in the programme. I didn’t like all of the films, but the ones that worked – I particularly enjoyed Colour Poems of 1974 – are perfect little capsules of moments in time and the feelings and emotions that go with them.

Cladach and Others

I should say first of all that I did actually like Cladach. It worked effectively as a portrait of Ullapool placing it within its historical, geographical, environmental and cultural context, with a remarkable deftness in the showing not telling department. There was just enough narrative through the ‘found’ sound components to hold the film together and carry the viewer along with it.

However, I struggled somewhat, to greater and lesser extents with the other films in the collection. The films all seemed to start with a clever, or aesthetically pleasing idea and then drag it out that bit too far. Stretching the concept beyond the comfortable endurance of the viewer – presumably intentionally – such that I could feel myself riding the emotional wave from bafflement to enjoyment to impatience into relief at the end. Even Cladach suffers from this a little, as the underwater segment – featuring my new friend the hydrophone – was gorgeous and almost ethereal, but just went on too long. The tonal shift from the rest of the film was too abrupt to sustain itself.

I wanted to like these films more than I did, but it felt like the films were almost actively working against that.

I Heart Hydrophones

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Ever since I first had access to the internet, one of the great pleasures that it’s had to offer me, is the ability to accidentally stumble upon utterly fascinating discoveries that you never knew you were interested in. Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of the algorithms that seek to give us ever more ‘accurate’ search results, it remains possible make these strange discoveries and fallen fascinating tangents. Like most things in life, sometimes you want to keep to the beaten track and other times you want to grab a map, a head-torch, and go spelunking.

When I was a student wiki-walking was a known phenomenon (XKCD have an illustrative strip on this) and a colleague of mine will often start watching a technology demo on youtube and fall down a rabbit hole that could end up with him watching the latest discoveries from NASA’s probes or learning how to make ASMR videos. Another friend of mine calls it falling down a hole in the internet. (And now we’re back to spelunking.) Personally, I tend to find myself listening to oral histories recorded in the middle of the Navajo dessert in the 1960s or reading up on how to build my own hydrophone. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve fallen asleep listening to location recordings from Sri Lanka or had to give myself a stern talking to about how much I don’t need an Otamatone.

Some discoveries prove to be only passing distractions, but others I come back to over and over again. Hydrophones, are definitely one of the latter.

My real interest in hydrophones, started in a somewhat unexpected location. It was a bright, brisk September day in which I was attempting to finally fulfil and completely different notion. Several years previously I’d read an interesting article on repurposed lighthouses and developed a hankering to go to the top of one. The quest seemingly growing in significance and importance – as these things tend to – the more I was thwarted in my attempts to carry it out. On the day in question, I’d spotted a chance to finally succeed – Cromarty Lighthouse was included in that year’s Doors Open Day events. Cromarty Lighthouse, is actually a retired lighthouse – and is now properly known as the Lighthouse Field Station, a part of Aberdeen University’s School of Biology.

The lighthouse itself is of the short squat kind that mark harbours rather the tall sentinel variety that mark lonely outcrops, which in practical terms means that only a limited number of people can climb its tower at any one time, so they had an exhibition in the base of the tower for those of us waiting. As part of their research, floating in the Moray Firth are a small number of hydrophones, recording the sounds – both natural and industrial – of the Firth for the purpose of passive acoustics analysis. (Some of the research station’s specialisms include the impact of marine noise pollution – from oil drilling, to marine renewables to ferries – on marine wildlife.) They had a variety of recordings and a kid-friendly game set up where you matched the recordings to their sources.

It turns out that there’s a world of difference between knowing, logically, that sound travels differently through water, so the underwater soundscape will inevitably be completely different, and putting on the giant headphones and immersing yourself in that other world while standing on dry land. Even better, they’d not long since had an artist in residence in working with some of the recordings which in turn lead down it’s own strange and wonderful rabbit hole.

I suspect I love hydrophones for the same reason that I love contact microphones, because they open up a whole other dimension in sound. Listening to the world through either of these type of microphones makes it explicit and undeniable how rich and complex the soundscape of our world truly is, and how much of it we ignore in day to day life.