Screenplay: A Film Festival Homemade in Shetland

So its just over a month since I got back from the Shetland Film Festival, which – by my reckoning – makes it high time I wrote up my reviews of the films I saw there. I’ve written before about my unfortunate habit of missing film festivals and the Shetland film festival has been a case in point for the last few years – being that one of its curators is film critic Mark Kermode, usually I find out its on when I hit play on that week’s Five Live film podcast to discover he’s doing his reviews down the line from Shetland. However, not so this year, thanks to a certain Mr Issacs doing the rounds promoting Skeletons I knew about it in enough time to actually go.

Screenplay isn’t really a festival aimed at being part of the international film festival junket. It’s about bringing films to the local population, with screenings taking place in village halls and schools across the islands, in odd places (last year a screening took place in a bus shelter on Unst…the most northerly bus stop in the British Isles incidentally) and on unexpected themes…where else would they hire the cattle market and put on a screening of a short film about a sheep dog; for an audience of dogs. Most of the screenings during the main part of the festival take place in the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick (a fabulous, old fashioned theatre – the sort of place that would have screened silent films in cinema’s early days – with plenty of atmosphere and not enough leg room) as the Shetland Isles do not have an actual cinema: though that is about to change.

Lerwick may not seem like the most glamorous setting for a film festival, but sitting in the late summer sun on the ruins of an iron age fort, eating chips and looking out on the sea in one direction and the town of Lerwick stretching up the hill in the other, its hard to imagine a better one.

Home Made In Shetland

First up, on the evening of my arrival on the islands, was a screening of a hugely eclectic selection of short films made by the islands residents. Most of the films came from the various members of youth film project Maddrim Media, with a few contributions from older local film-makers and the graduation film of a former resident who’d returned to make this film. Films ranged from the silly to the sad to the utterly sublime. Interestingly the mood of the films was most easily discerned at the start by the weather on screen, apparently the weather impacts heavily not just on where films are made there, but also what genre of film gets made.

White Oak

Friday night’s grand effort, White Oak is a silent Western, showing at the festival with live accompaniment from…a skiffle band. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a skiffle band perform before so I had no idea what to expect, but the two elements worked together perfectly. I’ve seen a few silent films with live musical accompaniment previously but there’s a world of difference between a piano accompaniment and a whole band (more sound effects for a start). It was almost as though I’d entered a film time machine.

Requiem For Detroit?

There were two documentaries by Julien Temple showing at the festival. This one was definitely my favourite. I’ve seen it described as portraying Detroit as a slow-motion apocalypse, which is sort of true (never was urban decay and dystoia shot so beautifully) but doesn’t really capture anything of the hope in the film. There’s a question mark at the end of the title for a reason. This is to a certain extent a story about how the city was built on the motorcar industry and then destroyed by it in turn. However, as the film covers the rise of Motown, race riots, union disputes and community art and gardening projects it becomes more about a decades long and ongoing process of the people of Detroit trying to take back their city. Arguably while this film could just have been about demonstrating how the American Dream became a nightmare, but it has greater ambition than that, much like the city it chronicles. Detroit may well be the future of the US, but if the people in this film have their way that might well be a good thing.

Oil City Confidential

I saw this film on behalf of my dad, who has very fond memories of seeing Dr Feelgood in London in the mid-seventies. I must say that watching this film is, something of a guilty experience, when your favourite Dr Feelgood song is Milk and Alcohol. The second of two Julien Temple films showing at the festival, this is far more what you would expect from the man who made The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and The Future is Unwritten. Temple’s films always seem to be built around one larger than life character – in Requiem for Detroit? It was fabulous veteran activist Grace Lee Boggs who formed the heart of the film in spades, in this film it is Wilko Johnson. He’s essentially the quintessential English eccentric and the audience forgives him a multitude of sins for being unapologetically odd, obviously damaged and having an absolutely huge heart on his sleeve. This is his film and it seems to have served him well.

Red Kite Animations

Sunday started early with a screening of animated shorts at 11am. Quite a bit of Red Kite’s work is available online so I’d seen a few of the films before but it was nice to see them projected up on a big screen instead of in a little window on the computer screen. One of them has strangely familiar yet not, but turned out to have been made for BBC Alba so presumably last time I saw it was with gaelic dialogue and that’s what threw me. The whole point of the screening was to accompany the children’s animation workshops that ran earlier in the festival so the films were picked more to demonstrate a range of animation styles than to form an overarching theme. However, several of the films shared a mythical theme, being based on folkstories, mostly from Scotland but also from other parts of the world (Skeleton Woman was particularly good for both these reasons).


Speaking of Skeletons, the film that was to blame for my ending up at the festival in the first place showed on Sunday evening.

The cover article in Sight and Sound magazine recently was on films of ‘old weird Britain’ and that is very much the tradition that this film falls into. It’s definitely a gothic film, not to be confused with a gothic horror, though there are moments of supernatural weirdness and a few points where I genuinely feared for the characters. It’s sort of magical realism but perhaps closer to magical reality, as this is a film where the characters (or at least some of them) are well grounded in the myths and realities of the ground they walk over. This is a world that feels like it could be just around the corner on the outskirts of any little English village. It’s a world I’ve seen before in Roald Dahl (I don’t know any Welsh villages but perhaps they feel like that too) and Neil Gaiman short stories and some days when I lived in Dorset, I got the uncanny feeling I might stray into that world by accident.

The film utterly fails the Bechdel Test (unsurprisingly as one of the main female characters hasn’t spoken to anyone, let alone the other main character – her mother – in two years), but I loved it unreservedly all the same. The dialogue is fabulous, managing to balance pathos, humour, sarcasm and affection.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

This is not your average biopic. Its not your average film to be honest. It plays with the audience’s expectations and preconceptions constantly, every time you think you’ve got a grip on the characters, who you like, who you don’t, where the story’s going, it pulls the rug out from under your feet. The film is sort of told in flashbacks, with occasional carnivalesque narration/commentary provided by its subject. As can be expected by this point, Andy Serkis utterly inhabits the role of Dury through the full gammet of emotions, leaving most of the rest of the cast in the shade. That’s not to say the rest of the cast aren’t any good, they are, just that when he’s on screen he is utterly the centre of attention – though its very easy to imagine that Dury himself was rather like that in real life. Credit should be levelled at this point at the child actors in this, Bill Milner (Son of Rambow) is excellent as Baxter and Wesley Nelson (Where the Heart Is) manages surly stubborn and heart-breaking all at once.

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